Retro Watch: Maude – “Maude’s Dilemma”

Controversy, strife, and ugliness are all around us – it’s in the news we read, the conversations we engage in, and the way people behave.

I originally had another Retro Tech article planned for this week, following up on last week’s topic of VHS gaming consoles. However, given the current state of things in the post-election day events, I will be putting that one to the side until next week.

Anyway…

Love Is all Around, and So Is The Controversy, Unrest, and Ugliness

The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song wanted us to believe that “love is all around,” – heck, it sounded so good, it was the title of the show’s pilot episode – but sometimes, it is hard to find. Case in point, the world of current is…kinda ugly and hard to deal with. It’s loud, it’s angry, and it wants nothing more than for its voice to be heard above so many other voices. I find it amazing how an election can bring out so much ugliness – how expressing ones opinion or sharing something nice can cause the world to spin off its axis, or go flying off the rails. In twenty years of being a registered voter, I have never seen more ugliness than I have in the last four years, where the opinion you express, the very thing you share, can have such a negative impact.

Controversy has been a thing since the beginning of time, and it isn’t going away. But what does amaze me is what passes for controversy over time. In 2020, it is masks, fighting deadly illness, and Presidents Elect. But in 1972, abortion was the hot topic of controversy. There was a case before the Supreme Court, and had been since 1971, about the legality of abortion and the role religious and moral views play in the decision to terminate a pregnancy. In 1972, the case was re-argued before the Supreme Court, and finally, on January 22, 1973, the United States Supreme Court ruled that “the Constitution of the United States protects a pregnant woman’s liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction.” Controversy never went away in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade, but it certainly sparked debate.

I find this so hard to believe, but this was almost 50 years ago. It is a lifetime ago, and not even my lifetime. The right to choose, and the debate around it, both in the public eye and the private home, has always been a heavy topic. But it wasn’t until the 1970s, when one television show, part of a collective of shows from the same decade that were good at pushing the buttons of controversy, focused its eyes on the topic of abortion and a woman’s right to choose.

That’s the topic of this Retro Watch. For me, this isn’t so much a rewatch – while I’ve seen episodes of this show, I’ve never seen this specific story arc until last week. I thought about it in the aftermath of the election, and how there was a time where something other than vote counts drew sparks of controversy. But if you were old enough in 1972 (or watched reruns in syndication), you probably did see this character be put through her paces of having to make a heavy decision.

Who is this character, you ask?

…And Then there’s Maude!

Maude was a sitcom, airing from September 12, 1972 until 22, 1978, for six seasons and 141 episodes. The focus of the sitcom was Maude Findlay an outspoken, hard-edged supporter of Women’s Lib. Maude is middle-aged, three times divorced (and on her fourth marriage!), and take no prisoners. Her brash attitude does get the better of her in a few instances, but she was definitely a woman of progress.

Maude made her first television appearance on two episodes of another sitcom that liked controversial topics, All in the Family, as the cousin of Edith Bunker. There was also a British equivalent (also named Maud, without the “e”) on Till Death Do Us Part, which was the British version of All in the Family. Maude was the kind of woman who could put Archie Bunker in his place…and did. Married to her fourth husband, Walter, the couple lived in Tuckahoe, Westchester County, New York. Maude’s divorced daughter, Carol Traynor, and Carol’s son Phillip live with the couple.

And it had a catchy theme song, that in the very least, you may be familiar with!

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Beatrice “Bea” Arthur (over a decade before her turn as the equally brash Dorothy Petrillo Zbornak – later Hollingsworth – on The Golden Girls) portrayed this progressive woman. By the 1970s, women were more than just housewives and mothers, and the ones on television followed that lead. And if they were housewives and mothers, they weren’t fair flowers. Maude definitely wasn’t.

The incredible thing about the topic of a woman’s right to choose is how early in the series it was covered. The two-parter, “Maude’s Dilemma” aired on November 14th and 21st in 1972, during the show’s first season as the ninth and tenth episodes. Surely this could have been a negative turning point for the series – a hot button issue that was a bit heavy for television. Heck, it was a bit heavy for real life, but television is escapism, meant to take us away from the hot topics of the day. These episodes worked the opposite way – to make sure we saw it, and how it plays out in life, behind closed doors.

“Just promise me you won’t get jealous and hate the BABY!”

Maude returns home from the doctor with a dilemma (as implied by the title) – she’s pregnant. Now, normally this wouldn’t be a huge issue, except for the fact that she’s 47 years old, and husband Walter is 49.

Pregnancy is the last thing on Maude’s mind, and yet, it is her current reality. Walter is on his way home from the airport, and discusses with daughter Carol, friend Vivian, and housekeeper Florida (yes, Florida from Good Times) the impact of a pregnancy at her age, a time of life where pregnancy and raising a baby is the furthest thing from her mind.

Yes, this is Rue McClanahan. This exchange actually reminded me of the “lesbian” conversation on The Golden Girls (and no, Danny Thomas was not one).

She debates how to go about handling this news – does she carry the baby, or end her pregnancy? Carol informs her mother that abortion is legal in New York State, but Vivian tells her she should talk to Walter about his feelings in the matter.

Over a tense game of Bridge, the topic of birth control and vasectomies comes up. Maude informs Arthur, Vivian’s husband, that Walter has talked about getting a vasectomy for two years, a conversation that comes to a head as Walter walks in the front door.

After tiptoeing around the topic, Maude just comes clean and informs Walter that she’s pregnant after he asks her a series of questions, one being if she’s pregnant, causing him to choke on a fried chicken bone. After helping him to stop choking (Arthur gives him a piece of bread, which seems strange to me), Maude talks to Water about it, and finds him in denial. Once he comes around, he’s not ok with the pregnancy. After Vivian and Arthur leave, and Carol goes to check on her sick (unseen) son, Maude and Walter discuss the pros and cons of having a baby.

Carol returns, and informs her mother that she doesn’t have to go through the pregnancy at her age, and that women have the right to decide what they do with their bodies. Abortion, she informs her mother, is a simple operation, and not what it was when it was illegal – sinister and dangerous.

Maude hesitates because of what she knows about the procedure and its history. She feels guilty, but Walter assures her that whatever she decides to do, he will support her…and have the vasectomy.

After all, it’s like going to the dentist, right?

As part one of the episode ends, Maude talks about a dream she had…ending with being forty-seven and pregnant.

As part two begins (after the obligatory “previously” clips), Carol and Florida discuss Maude’s pregnancy, as Maude comes down the room after a particularly rough sleep, where she dreamt she gave birth to a beautiful baby…with an eight-foot stainless steel umbilical cord that couldn’t be cut.

Carol insists that her mother still doesn’t have to go through with the pregnancy. Maude believes Walter’s tossing and turning the night before means he wants the baby, and Maude believes she should go through with the pregnancy to please him.

How old-fashioned of a progressive woman!

Maude doesn’t seem to want to make a decision, constantly going back to Walter’s happiness and what she thinks he wants. She recounts her pregnancy with Carol and being poor and having to go to the laundromat, and her water breaking in the laundromat.

Oh, and she was wearing her then-husband’s underwear for some strange reason.

Right on, Maude?

Carol’s friend Lorraine arrives with the carpool to pick Phillip up for school, and talks to Maude about her happiness over her fifth pregnancy…after Maude has to briefly supervise Lorraine’s four children. The whole few minutes leaves her shaking, which shows she is no way prepared to have a baby at her age.

Walter again tells Maude that he trusts her to know what he wants, but that he is going to have a vasectomy that afternoon after golf. His answer is vague for Maude, who assumes he wants to have the baby.

And yes, that is Philip Drummond from Diff’rent Strokes.

After their golf game, Walter and Arthur talk about the pregnancy. Walter believes Maude’s restlessness the night before means she wants to have the baby, and also that Maude wants to have an abortion on moral grounds. Whatever she chooses, he does not want to interfere with her decision. Arthur explains the process of a vasectomy, and reassures Walter that getting it done wouldn’t affect his virility. He even brings in another patron at the golf course (how embarrassing!) who had one, and says it takes the “worry out of being close.” And even this is too much for Walter, who cancels his vasectomy.

I also love how Walter is pre-op and drinking alcohol (the 1970s!). I couldn’t even take multivitamins before either of my surgeries, though my sister-in-law jokingly said we were going to “get drunk and remove my belly button ring” two days before my gallbladder surgery. (Spoiler Alert: we couldn’t get it done, we stayed sober, and a male nurse removed it the day of the surgery. Better believe I mentioned that in my patient satisfaction survey.)

Later that night, at home, Walter tries to tell Maude that he didn’t go through with the vasectomy, but she constantly interrupts him and tries to ask him about the procedure. It is finally over a game of Gin Rummy (they seem to like card games on this show), that Maude confesses she plans to have the baby, and Walter confesses that he is happy to become a father because Maude wants to have the baby, not because he really ever wanted to be a father.

And then the truth comes out, which was alluded to in the bar with Arthur.

Walter confesses that he always felt selfish because he didn’t want children of his own, but loves kids if they aren’t his. He hates that he confesses that to Maude, but she loves him, and loves their life. Walter wants Maude to what it is she wants, but believes it is wrong to have a child at their age. Maude is so happy with this decision, as she feels this is the right one.

Oh, and Walter confesses to Maude (FINALLY!) that he didn’t have the vasectomy. He also tells Maude that in the privacy of their home, she is doing the right thing by having the abortion.

Maude tells Walter she loves him, her decision is made and justified, and the episode ends.

So some time between this episode and the next, Maude does what she believes was the right decision…getting an abortion.

Wonder if Walter was ever “psychologically ready” to have a vasectomy.

As the closing credits take us out of the Findlays’ neighborhood, and we get a final chant of “Right on, Maude!”, we know that Maude is resolute in her decision. It wasn’t easy, and this episode shows that their decision is the right one for their situation, and that it was made between husband and wife.

So yeah, that. In the days before the Very Special Episode, we had the Hot Button Topic Episode.

Will She Or Won’t She?

As I said, “Maude’s Dilemma” came very early on in the series. While this could have been the kiss of death for the then-very new show, it stuck around for six more years, and only ended because Bea Arthur was ready to move on. There were other episodes that would tackle heavy subjects in the coming seasons (alcoholism, domestic violence, marijuana), but for its time, this episode was pretty controversial.

The plot came to be because of the group Zero Population Growth (a non-profit that still exists, under the name Population Connection) announcing they were giving a $10,000 prize for comedieswith a plot that discusses population control.  According to Producer Rod Parker, everyone came in with ideas for vasectomies, hence Maude encouraging Walter to get a vasectomy.

However, Producer Norman Lear decided against false pregnancy and miscarriage, as the latter topic was already part of an episode of All in the Family, involving Gloria Bunker, and the former was considered by Lear to be a “copout.”  Abortion was settled upon because given Maude’s age, it would have been the most realistic approach for how Maude would have handled an unplanned pregnancy. 

While CBS approved of the episode’s subject matter, it asked for an opposing viewpoint, hence the addition of Lorraine, who was pregnant with her fifth child and very happy.  Abortion was a hot-button topic, but the procedure was legal in New York State (the show takes place in Tuckahoe, Westchester County), with Supreme Court deciding on Roe v. Wade just two months later, on January 22, 1973.

When I watched this episode last week, I didn’t know that Florida Evans was the Findlays’ housekeeper.  Even though my only exposure to Good Times was the occasional reruns, I’ve only known Florida as J.J.’s mom. Whenever I’ve seen syndicated reruns of Maude, Mrs. Naugatuck was the housekeeper.  From what I read about this show in preparation to write this article, Florida (played by Esther Rolle) was so well-liked, Good Times was made for her.  She was written out of Maude as being able to quit her job to be a full-time housewife after her husband, Henry (not James), gets a promotion at work. 

When “Maude’s Dilemma” originally aired, all but two CBS stations (affiliated stations in Peoria and Champaign, both in Illinois) aired “Maude’s Dilemma.”  This was the first time any CBS station, be it affiliated (not owned by the parent company, but under license to the network) or owned-and-operated, had refused to run an episode of a continuing series, with twenty-five stations refusing to air the summer rerun of “Maude’s Dilemma” on August 14, 1973. 

Topical sitcoms were popular at this point in the 1970s, and Maude found an audience the way shows like All in the Family, Three’s Company, Good Times, and The Jeffersons (all Norman Lear-produced sitcoms) did.

My Reaction

Good writing can make the difference in how a heavy topic is handled. The characters don’t tip toe around the harsh realities of a world where abortion was illegal, while discussing that if having one for the right reasons, it isn’t earth-shattering. Abortion was (and is!) a heavy topic, and even given the sitcom treatment, it was handled in a very dignified matter. I don’t expect any less from a Norman Lear-produced sitcom.

While this has never been something I’ve needed to decide on, I can only imagine the turmoil some go through when trying to make “the right decision.” Abortion is never something that should be taken lightly, and while some humor was interspersed throughout, it didn’t make light of the decision or make it seem like a bad one.

At first, Maude seems accepting of her current situation – it takes two to tango, and both her and Walter weren’t careful. She even thought about how great it would be to have a baby, but the idea of doing so at her age – and beyond – always stayed in the foreground of her thoughts. Walter’s confession is not at all selfish – he doesn’t hate the idea of a family or other people’s children, just that he never wanted to have his own. None of this was handled lightly, or in poor taste. I can appreciate that approach.

My husband and I, before we started our relationship, discussed the idea of children and if our relationship would go down that road.

At the time, I was 33 years old, and he was 32. Certainly young enough to have children if we wanted them, but I had decided some years earlier (after a different relationship ended) that I didn’t want children. He had also felt the same way. Like Maude and Walter Findlay, we love the children in our lives – between us, we have two nephews and four nieces (one who is biologically mine, five that are biologically his). Our nieces were all in our wedding. We love the kids, and they love seeing us.

Photo by Mark Hills

When we visit California, our nieces and older nephew (the younger one is only two months old) are always happy to see us, and my own niece doesn’t know life without Aunt Allison and “Uncle Jamesies.” Before we went into our relationship, James and I said this: if one of us ever decided we wanted to have kids, we would talk about it. We’ve even said that if we came to a decision at a slightly older age, we would never rule out adoption.

I’m 38 years old, and I’m not going to lie, the idea of pregnancy now, even though I’m not over 40, scares me. I also just don’t want children, and that’s not a bad thing. It doesn’t make me selfish, and it certainly doesn’t make me a monster. I’ve been told I would “change my mind” once I got married, but that didn’t happen until I was 36 years old. I only found the love of my life in my 30s, and we want to make the most of the time we have together.

However, I do love my life as a dog mom – these two girls are the best!

Photo by Marissa Weatherby, Weatherby Photography

And my “Walter Findlay” ain’t so bad either!

ABC did a few Live In Front Of A Studio Audience performances of notable Norman Lear sitcoms, starting with All in the Family and The Jeffersons in May 2019, and another episode of All in the Family and Good Times in December 2019. Given the current state of production during the pandemic, I’m assuming any future installments for last season were probably put on hold. I would love to see a Maude episode done in this fashion, raw and with the original script redone by contemporary actors, whether it was this hot topic episode, or another one of the controversial episodes.

I like this episode, for its tasteful handling of a difficult subject, and I’m definitely going to make more of an effort see more than I have already.

Right on, Maude!

And Now, You!

Have you seen “Maude’s Dilemma,” or any of the other hot button topical episodes, or any of the other series in this same fold? I’d love to hear your take on how the issue of a woman’s right to choose, and the idea of abortion, were handled by this show.

I understand this isn’t a topic everyone likes to talk about, but the fact that it was talked about is the effort of making progress. Talking about what we agree with, as well as what we disagree with, and remembering the common bonds of friendship, and the blood bond of family, are how we make progress. It has been a trying week since the elections, but we don’t have to suck as people. A society works when we can move forward together and understand each other. Let’s give it a try.

Right on, Allison!

Have a great week!

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