Season five would normally signify the beginning of the end for any number of successful shows. Most sitcoms, regardless of quality or level of fandom, cannot help but begin to lose steam after a number of solid years in. However, Maude was never any ordinary sitcom, mainly because Norman Lear was never any ordinary producer. The legendary master of the topical and the hilarious proved he wasn’t done with his famous outspoken liberal character as he took Maude (Beatrice Arthur) through many of the socially relevant issues which most other shows dared not touch.
The centerpiece of the season happens fairly early on with “Walter’s Crisis,” a three-parter in which Maude’s husband Walter (Bill Macy) finds out the bank has rejected his loan application, leaving him bankrupt. The episodes show him battling depression and a nervous breakdown before eventually attempting suicide. Not only does “Walter’s Crisis” boldly use a suicide attempt as a plot turn, but it also questions the idea of masculinity being tied to success and how the older generation was suddenly finding themselves questioning the lives they thought represented them. As other men in Walter’s position would undoubtedly question: Who were they without their success?
Maude’s fifth season also tended to focus on the ever-changing sexual politics of the day more than in any other year of the show’s run. In “Bert Moves In,” the idea of couples living together is placed front and center when Maude’s maid Mrs. Naugatuck (Hermione Baddeley) becomes engaged to her security guard boyfriend Bert (J. Pat O’Malley). In an effort to economize, Mrs. Naugatuck suggests they move in together before getting married, but is put off when the traditional Bert won’t engage in pre-marital sex. Meanwhile, Maude sees her own liberal ideals tested when she discovers her daughter Carol (Adrienne Barbeau) is dating a much younger man in “The Election.” Things get deeper after Maude and Walter befriend another couple they later discover to be swingers intent on swapping partners in “Maude’s New Friends,” while a fear of sexuality permeates throughout “Arthur’s Worry” after it is revealed that Walter had a dream in which he kissed his best friend Arthur (Conrad Bain).
The beauty of ANY Lear sitcom was that the producer never forgot to give people a reason to laugh, and as it so happens, Maude’s fifth season was chock full of some of the series’ some funniest moments. The laughs start with the season opener, “Vivian’s First Funeral,” in which Maude’s best friend Vivian (Rue McClanahan) refuses to attend the funeral of one of their friends unless Maude returns a brooch Vivian lent her. After Maude is unable to remember who she lent the brooch to, Vivian insists she still cannot go because she has never seen a dead body before. After some coaxing Maude is able to guide Vivian to the funeral. “She looks so peaceful and contented. She’s almost smiling,” says a surprised Vivian upon seeing their friend in the casket. “She should be. She’s wearing your brooch,” replies a smiling Maude before spending the rest of the episode trying to find a way to steal the piece of jewelry off the corpse.
Meanwhile, in “Maude’s Aunt,” the main character’s universally-hated Aunt Tinkie is coming for a visit much to everyone’s dismay. When news comes that her plane has crashed, hilarity ensues as Walter and Carol bicker over the macabre task of who gets to inform whom about Tinkie’s demise, Maude and Walter book a trip to Rome as a pilgrimage/vacation, and everyone tries to mask their glee and delight in an episode which features one side-splitting twist after another. When Arthur hears reports of a lone survivor being spotted among the wreckage, Maude exclaims, “Of course it’s her! Who else would do this just to ruin our pilgrimage?!”
Other issues are humorously, yet thoughtfully explored in the season, such as gun control in “The Rip-Off” which sees Arthur start a vigilante group after Maude is left tied up and robbed after a home invasion and women’s rights when Mrs. Naugatuck refuses to take Bert’s last name in “Mrs. Naugatuck’s Wedding.” For a series that didn’t even run nationally in Britain during its initial run due to its controversial content, Maude’s fifth season more than proved the show still had plenty of laughs and social commentary to spare.
Maude Season 5 is now available on DVD from Shout Factory.