Like The Jeffersons, Maude was actually the first spin-off of All In The Family, having two years of development by the time The Jeffersons first aired. Featuring Bea Arthur (The Golden Girls) as Democrat Maude Finlay, and Rue McClanahan (The Golden Girls, Mama’s Family) as Vivian Harmon, the sweet and scatterbrained second wife of next-door neighbor, Republican Dr. Arthur Harmon.
According to The A.V. Club article, “10 episodes that show how Maude debated American culture in the ’70s“:
In the long history of TV theme songs that explain the premise, the best will always be Gilligan’s Island, followed closely by The Brady Bunch and Mystery Science Theater 3000. And then there’s Maude. In an era when the opening themes tended to set a tone rather than tell a story, Maude’s song theme put Norman Lear’s All In The Family spinoff into a larger context, comparing the title character to Betsy Ross, Joan Of Arc, Lady Godiva (“a Freedom Rider”), and Isadora Duncan (“the first bra-burner”). The message was clear: There was nothing new about the arguments raging in American living rooms about feminism and equality in the ’70s. Tuckahoe, New York housewife Maude Findlay was part of a long tradition of brassy, strong-willed women.
The existence of Maude the TV show owes a lot to the actress who played Maude the character. According to Lear, when Bea Arthur appeared as Maude in the All In The Family episode “Cousin Maude’s Visit” in December 1971, before the closing credits rolled CBS executive Fred Silverman was on the phone, saying that the character needed her own show. By fall 1972, Maude was on the schedule, and would run for six seasons, garnering five Emmy nominations (and one win) for Arthur. The show wouldn’t have worked without its lead: an imposing, deep-voiced presence with impeccable comic timing, and the ability to modulate from frantic to deadpan. Adrienne Barbeau, who played Maude’s daughter Carol, put it best: “No one could hold a take longer than Bea and make it pay off.”
The original hook for Maude was that it was a politics-flipped All In The Family, with a loud-mouthed Democrat in the lead instead of a loud-mouthed Republican. Lear was a left-winger who made All In The Family’s Archie Bunker into a lovable lunkhead with a weak grasp of the issues; but while he was more simpatico with Maude Findlay, he and Arthur used the character to satirize what Lear called “horse’s ass” liberals, who try so hard to prove their bonafides that they end up exposing their own prejudices. A lot of leftists loved Maude anyway (just like a lot of conservatives loved Archie), because she was so fiery, and so sincere. But the opposite was true, too. In an interview included on Shout! Factory’s new Maude: The Complete Series box set, Arthur admits, “A lot of people hated me, hated the character.”
Very quickly, Maude became a weekly forum for issues that weren’t strictly “political.” The show dealt with alcoholism, abuse, sexuality, and social embarrassment, and did so in a way that—again, like All In The Family—resembled one-act plays more than a sitcom. Episodes often had titles about so-and-so’s “problem,” “dilemma,” or “crisis,” which would play out in something close to real time, in long scenes often featuring only two or three characters. Yet Maude also had a homey quality, as fans became familiar with the Findlay living room—with its circular bar in the corner, where a lot of the conversations took place—and with Maude’s succession of flowing long-sleeved pantsuits. More importantly, Lear’s team never forgot to make Maude funny, even when its subject matter was grave. It was very much a ’70s sitcom—not just because of its social consciousness but because it had its own catch-phrase: “God’ll get you for that, Walter.”
“Walter” was Maude’s fourth husband, an appliance-store owner played by Bill Macy. In addition to Barbeau as Carol, the show also regularly featured Conrad Bain as Walter’s best friend Dr. Arthur Harmon, a reactionary hypocrite who enjoys a lot of the new freedoms of the era while spouting off regularly about how the world’s going to hell. Rue McClanahan played Maude’s college chum Vivian, who married Arthur in the second season. Maude also had a succession of maids, including Esther Rolle as Florida Evans (an African-American who resisted her boss’ efforts to pretend that they were friends) and Hermione Baddeley as Mrs. Naugatuck (an unreliable, tall-tale-telling Brit). Barbeau aside, these actors weren’t young or sexy. Maude was about people who’d already lived full lives, having dealt with death and divorce while building careers and raising kids. Like a lot of “over the hill” Americans, they were still slugging away, trying to adapt to a world rapidly changing all around them.
In a video that Lear made to pitch Maude’s syndicated package, he talked about its biggest fan: first lady Betty Ford. He also mentioned that Maude had finished in the Top 10 in the Nielsen ratings in each of its first four seasons—which was true. But in seasons five and six, between 1976 and 1978, the show dropped dramatically in the ratings. The quality hadn’t declined, even though the writers had started to repeat themselves a little, returning to hot-button issues they’d already covered. But more likely, by the end of the ’70s the television audience didn’t need something as challenging as Maude on a weekly basis. Even Silverman, the man who insisted on green-lighting the series, had moved to ABC by 1975, where he gained a reputation for championing escapist “jiggle shows” like Charlie’s Angels, Three’s Company, and Battle Of The Network Stars.
For a good long while, though, Maude gave its parent show All In The Family a run for its money, in terms of the writing, the performances, the direction, and the willingness to introduce to television the kind of conversations that viewers were already having in their own homes.
“Maude Meets Florida” (season one, episode three): In the first episode that showed just how savvy Maude could be about its heroine’s version of political correctness, Maude hires Florida to be the Findlays’ new housekeeper, and then makes it her mission to get her employee to think of her as a peer. As Maude fawns over Florida’s stories about her life (“The things that come out of your culture,” she coos) and tries to get the maid to stop thinking like “a pre-liberation Southern black,” the Findlay home gets dirtier and dirtier, and the lady of the house almost ends up driving her help away. Carol chastises her mother for falling into old habits—“A black maid says hello, you say, ‘I’m sorry.’”—while Maude learns that in her need to prove that she’s not racist, she has been primarily trying to relate to Florida based on the color of her skin.
“Maude’s Dilemma” (season one, episodes nine and 10): Easily Maude’s most famous episode—and frequently included on lists of the best TV of all time—the two-parter “Maude’s Dilemma” was inspired by Lear and his writers imagining a funny scene of Maude telling Vivian that she’s pregnant. They decided to explore the ramifications of that, as the Findlays’ family and friends debate whether the 47-year-old Maude should get an abortion, which had just become legal in New York state. (These episodes aired two months before Roe V. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court.) Credited writer Susan Harris—who’d later create Soap and The Golden Girls—peels back the rhetoric surrounding the procedure and makes “Maude’s Dilemma” all about the conflicted emotions of the main character, who fervently supports reproductive rights but has a hard time getting over the shameful, “sinister” stigma of abortion that she’d known when she was younger. This is peak Maude: a sitcom that always acknowledged that actions have consequences, and that nothing is as cut-and-dried as the sloganeers would like to believe.
“Walter’s Problem (a.k.a. Life Of The Party)” (season two, episodes one and two): The age of Maude’s protagonists, coupled with their progressive values, allowed the show’s writers to explore the generation gap in different ways than All In The Family, where the lead reflexively opposed most social change. Throughout the run of the series, Walter struggled to cope with Maude’s unwillingness to be an old-fashioned cook-and-clean wife. In “Walter’s Problem,” Maude wrestled with how to get her husband to realize that after spending his whole adult life chain-guzzling cocktails, he’d become an alcoholic. As always with Maude, this two-parter avoids histrionics or lectures, instead showing Walter working through his embarrassment and Maude swearing that there’s no problem so big that they can’t handle it together. The crisis comes to a head when an angry Walter smacks Maude, a moment that provokes audible gasps from the studio audience. In an interview included on Shout! Factory’s Complete Series set, Bill Macy still cries when he recalls that scene, decades later.
“Maude’s Musical” (season two, episode 10): The culture wars rage in Tuckahoe when Maude commandeers the local high school’s auditorium to stage a benefit show. School board member Arthur takes exception to her “salute to burlesque” theme, demanding that she ditch the smut and replace it with patriotic numbers. In addition to giving the theater-trained Bea Arthur a chance to show off her powerful pipes—and graceful dance moves—“Maude’s Musical” doubles as a meta-commentary on the controversies surrounding Maude itself. As Arthur decries the proliferation of promiscuity and perversion in mainstream entertainment, Maude sets out to prove that bawdiness is as American as war-mongering.
“Maude’s New Friend” (season three, episode 12): In “Maude’s Musical,” Arthur complains about an episode of Marcus Welby, M.D. that features a homosexual character. In “Maude’s New Friend,” Maude gets in on the act, introducing a gay local novelist, Barry (played by Soap’s Robert Mandan), whom our heroine adores but Walter finds insufferable. Once again, the show delves into the complications of bigotry, asking whether Walter can’t admit his homophobia, or if Maude only likes having Barry around because his sexual orientation makes her feel hip.
“The Election” (season four, episode five): The first five episodes of Maude’s fourth season tell one story, as Maude enters the Democratic primary for state senate, and Walter responds petulantly, moving out of the house and falling off the wagon. The arc ends on election day, with Walter back in the picture and Maude in trouble with the electorate over a TV interview where she advocates for premarital sex. Nothing goes as planned, but there’s still a sweetness to “The Election,” as Maude gets to see another side of a democratic process that she believes in devoutly—but as the one on the ballot rather then the one doing the voting.
“The Analyst (a.k.a. Maude Bares Her Soul)” (season four, episode nine): Throughout the run of Maude, the show often aired episodes that mostly consisted of the Findlays alone, having one long conversation/argument. “The Analyst” cuts the cast down to one, as Maude spends the entire half-hour talking to an unseen shrink, who only says “uh-huh.” Throughout the monologue, she goes from running through a list of pet peeves about Walter to wondering if all the passion has gone out of her life—and if so, why. The episode shifts subtly throughout, with Maude looking into the mirror early on and describing herself as having “the innocent glow of Donna Reed and the crisp features of George C. Scott,” and later breaking down crying as she relates a vivid memory of her father. Regular Maude director Hal Cooper places the camera overhead for Bea Arthur’s big moment, pushing in slowly to her face as Maude sobs.
“The Case Of The Broken Punchbowl” (season four, episode 15): It’s Rashomon à la Maude when the Findlays return home from their second honeymoon to find a shattered family heirloom and three different stories about how it got broken. As with a lot of sitcom episodes that use the “multiple perspectives on the same event” conceit, a lot of the fun of “The Case Of The Broken Punchbowl” comes from watching the actors give multiple interpretations of the same material, playing the lines as “drunk” or “jealous” or “horny” depending on how the other characters see them. But it’s also a glimpse at an alternate version of Maude, where the Findlays are guest stars and the Harmons are center stage.
“Feminine Fulfillment” (season five, episode 19): Bea Arthur’s ability to milk a take reaches a new high in “Feminine Fulfillment,” when Maude and Walter drop by Vivian’s house unannounced and she answers the door in the nude, prompting nearly 30 seconds of complete stillness and silence, while the studio audience roars. It turns out that Viv’s bought into a new anti-feminist movement, which encourages women to cater to their husband’s every whim. Maude has a hard time making sense of how happy her friend seems to be with the new arrangement—or how jealous Walter is of the Harmons. Even late into its fifth season, Maude was finding new ways to show how Maude herself could be small-minded. But “Feminine Fulfillment” also throws in a good twist, when Vivian admits that she’s only playing along with this system because she likes the sex part; she’s actually not that fond of the cooking and pampering. This is one of Maude’s smartest takes on how opinionated idealists can make relationships work, through compromises and pretense—all without ever admitting what they really want.
“Maude’s Big Move” (season six, episodes 22-24): At the end of Maude’s sixth season, Lear considered rebooting the show, but Arthur ultimately nixed the plan. The series’ concluding three-parter laid the groundwork for what the new Maude would’ve been, with the Findlays saying goodbye to their friends and family and moving to Washington, D.C., where Maude had been appointed as the new congressperson from her district. The first two episodes serve as a kind of farewell to the Maude of old, and then the third is a fascinating what-if, introducing the new characters who might’ve become regulars in season seven. In between the still-trenchant commentary on stupefying Washington protocol, “Maude’s Big Move” shows that this series could well have survived the changes. So long as Bea Arthur was still doing her thing at the center of the show, Maude would’ve been Maude.
And if you liked those, try these: “The Perfect Marriage” (season one, episode 21); “Maude’s Facelift” (season two, episodes four and five); “Vivian’s Problem” (season two, episode nine); “The Tax Audit” (season two, episode 21); “Maude Meets The Duke” (season three, episode one); “A Night To Remember” (season three, episode eight); “The Telethon” (season three, episode 16); “Maude And Chester” (season five, episode two); “Walter’s Crisis” (season five, episodes four-six); “The Obscene Phone Call” (season six, episode 13)
Additionally, according to the Chicago Tribune article, “Maude’s Abortion Fades Into History“:
She was a 47-year-old grandmother with a dilemma: an unexpected pregnancy. It was 1972, the year before Roe vs. Wade made abortion the law of the land.
Even though she lived in New York State, where the procedure was legal, the decision on whether to carry the baby to term wasn’t easy. She thought her husband wanted the child; he thought she did. Then they realized that, at their ages, they didn’t want to raise a second family.
Twenty years ago this month, Maude Findlay, the lead character on one of TV’s most popular shows, chose to get an abortion.
Today, Maude’s decision stands as a watershed in TV history, an event that brought the battle over choice into the prime-time arena.
In the current political and economic climate, with the networks besieged by pressure groups and afraid to lose even more of their viewers to home video and cable TV, Maude, like Murphy Brown, would probably have the baby. But
“Maude’s Dilemma,” the two-parter that presented the abortion question, took a more controversial tack-although, ironically, the program wasn’t conceived with abortion in mind.
“The funny thing is that initially we weren’t even thinking abortion,” Rod Parker, producer of “Maude,” said in an interview. “The group Zero Population Growth announced they were giving a $10,000 prize for comedies that had something to do with controlling population, so everyone came in with ideas for vasectomies.”
“Maude,” starring Bea Arthur, was in its first season. It was the latest entry from producer Norman Lear, who had already changed TV with the ground-breaking “All in the Family.”
With its large, loud protagonist and her messy family life, “Maude” was presented as a realistic contrast to the perfection of such TV mothers as Donna Reed and Harriet Nelson. It was also a perfect vehicle to explore the burgeoning feminism of the era.
Population planning seemed to fit perfectly into this scheme. At first, the show was about the pregnancy of Maude`s neighbor Vivian (played by Rue McClanahan), leading into a discussion of contraception and whether Walter, Maude`s husband (played by Bill Macy), would get a vasectomy.
But after reviewing the first draft of the script, Lear said in an interview, he thought “the wrong woman is funny” – Maude herself would become pregnant. Lear also decided a false pregnancy would be a copout and a miscarriage was out of the question because Gloria Bunker (Sally Struthers)
already had lost a baby that way on “All in the Family.”
“The more interesting story seemed to be, what would this 47-year-old woman really do in her life,” Lear said. “And the conclusion we reached was that her family would be thoroughly involved in the deepest concern about all this.”
Additionally, according to The Los Angeles Times article, “Classic Hollywood: Bea Arthur took ‘Maude’ out of ‘Family’s’ shadow“:
“Cousin Maude’s Visit,” the Dec. 11, 1971, episode of the groundbreaking CBS comedy series “All in the Family,” introduced TV audiences to the unforgettable Maude Findlay, the outspoken, liberal and feminist cousin of Edith (Jean Stapleton) who took no guff from conservative Archie (Carroll O’Connor) even when he called her a “big-mouth buttinski.”
Producer Norman Lear recalled that the episode was airing on the East Coast when he got a call from the network’s programming head, Fred Silverman.
Silverman told Lear that Maude, brought vividly to life by Bea Arthur, deserved a series of her own.
And Lear couldn’t have agreed more.
Lear, whose autobiography, “Even This I Get to Experience,” was recently published, had seen Arthur in a 1955 off-Broadway show, “The Shoestring Revue.”
“She sang a Sheldon Harnick song called ‘Garbage,” ‘ said the multi-award-winning writer-producer-political activist. “She was standing under a streetlight at night singing about a guy who treated her like garbage. I used to do ‘The George Gobel Show,’ and I used to bring her out to guest star.”
Lear knew the tall, husky-voiced actress would be perfect as Maude, who never met a grudge she couldn’t hold. “What I learned from my own family life was that there was nothing like a relative with an ancient grudge,” Lear said. “They picked it up off the floor and across 20 years.”
Maude made one more appearance on “All in the Family” in spring 1972 with Marcia Rodd as her daughter, Carol, before CBS premiered “Maude” that fall. The first spinoff of “All in the Family” became an instant hit with audiences.
Besides Arthur, the series starred Bill Macy as her fourth husband, Walter Findlay, the owner of Findlay’s Friendly Appliances in Tuckahoe, N.Y.; Adrienne Barbeau replaced Rodd as her divorced daughter and young mother, Carol, who lived with them; Esther Rolle as the bright, no-nonsense maid, Florida, who would get in her own spinoff, “Good Times,” in 1974; Conrad Bain as Walter’s conservative friend Arthur and later Rue McClanahan as his wife, Vivian.
On Tuesday, Shout Factory is releasing the six seasons of the sitcom on DVD complete with such extras as “Cousin Maude’s Visit,” two unaired episodes of “Maude” and a new featurette with Barbeau and Macy.
Though the series premiered 43 years ago, “Maude” is surprisingly fresh and relevant. The comedy tackled such taboo sitcom subjects as mental illness — Maude was diagnosed as bipolar — alcoholism and racism. And though Maude was much closer to Lear’s own liberal political bent, he wasn’t shy in sending up liberals.
“These are human problems that we don’t seem to beat,” said Lear.
“Maude” had been on only two months when the series aired the controversial two-part “Maude’s Dilemma” episodes. The 47-year-old had learned she was pregnant and eventually made the agonizing decision that she would have an abortion. When the episodes, written by Susan Harris, aired, abortion had recently been made legal in New York but the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion was two months away.
“We had to do two episodes,” recalled Lear. “We couldn’t get it done in one. This is where program practices was helpful. If I remember correctly, there was a great guy in New York who ran program practices at the time. As a result of a conversation with me, we invented a friend of Maude’s — she was only in one show — who had four children and was pregnant with her fifth.
“She couldn’t afford the four she had, but there was no way in the world she would have an abortion. That was the strongest way we could present the other side.”
The reason Lear could discuss such hot-button topics, said Barbeau, was “that he was doing it with humor. They were funny. He was never knocking the audience over the head with some socially significant issue he wanted to advance. He was entertaining them, making them laugh and hopefully making them think a little bit.”
“Maude” was Barbeau’s first TV series. She had been playing Rizzo in the musical “Grease” on Broadway when she was cast in the sitcom.
“One of the reasons I was hired was because they saw something in me that complemented Bea’s delivery,” said Barbeau, who remained close to the actress until Arthur’s death in 2009. “Almost everything I know about comedy came from Bea. I loved her dearly. Bea set the tone. She was first the first one in the rehearsal hall in the morning and the last to leave.”
Like Arthur and Barbeau, Macy also came from the New York theater. Lear had seen him in 1966 in an off-Broadway comedy “American Hurrah” and was taken with a comedic scene in which Macy’s character was choking on a chicken bone.
“The audience was screaming,” said Macy. “It was a very funny moment.”
After doing a short guest spot on “All in the Family” as a cop, he was cast as long-suffering Walter, who during the course of the series is forced to come to grips with his drinking problem and even falls into a depression when he loses his job.
“Bill Macy and Bea together were just priceless,” said Lear.
Macy recalled one evening shortly after the series began when he and Arthur were sharing a slow elevator at CBS Studios on Beverly Boulevard.
“We were strangers at the beginning,” said Macy, who would bring the actress pastrami sandwiches every Friday. “One night Bea and I were on the elevator going down and it took forever. In the middle of the silence she looked at me and said, ‘Bill, you are a rock. Despite your lack of humor, you’re a rock.’ I never forgot that.”
Additionally, according to the Pop Matters article, “‘Maude’ Remains Funny and Groundbreaking 40 Years On“:
Lady Godiva was a freedom rider
She didn’t care if the whole world looked.
Joan of Arc with the Lord to guide her
She was a sister who really cooked.
Isadora was the first bra burner
And you’re glad she showed up—(Oh yeah)
And when the country was falling apart
Betsy Ross got it all sewed up.
And then there’s Maude.
And then there’s Maude.
And then there’s Maude.
And then there’s Maude.
And then there’s Maude.
And then there’s Maude.
And then there’s
That uncompromisin’, enterprisin’, anything but tranquilizing,
Right on Maude.
—“And Then There’s Maude”, the theme song to Maude
A spinoff of All In the Family, Maude ran for six seasons from 1972 to 1978 and, in the tradition of other Norman Lear productions, was as unapologetically progressive and confrontational as its titular heroine. The theme song lyrics above place her in storied company, and Maude lives up to the comparisons in her feminist ideals, establishing a groundbreaking character brought to life by one of Bea Arthur’s best performances.
From the very beginning, Maude is a unique character. Tall, opinionated, and an immediately imposing presence, she’s married to Walter Findlay (Bill Macy), her fourth husband, the perfect straight man for her often overblown moments. In addition to Walter, the Maude cast is rounded out by neighbor, and Arthur’s best friend Dr. Arthur Harmon (Conrad Bain), her best friend and Arthur’s eventual wife, Vivian (Rue McClanahan), her daughter Carol (Adrienne Barbeau), and grandson Philip (Brian Morrison and later, Kraig Metzinger). When Florida leaves the series in the second season, the Findlay’s hire Mrs. Naugatuck (Hermione Baddeley), an eccentric British housekeeper who adds a different dynamic to the series.
Maude’s liberal views are frequently at odds with Arthur’s much more conservative opinions, and in turn he serves as the perfect foil for her many crusades. His traditional viewpoints on relationships and the role of women in particular are of particular offense to Maude and their arguments are often very funny. These disputes are also a glimpse into the time period.
Maude is very much a show of its time. At its outset, it was dealing with the repercussions from the civil rights movement, as well as a great deal of political upheaval from the Watergate scandal and the ongoing Vietnam War. The show’s angle on race relations is equal parts thoughtful and willing to poke fun at itself. Maude’s white liberal guilt is regularly on display, and though certainly coming from a place of real empathy, she often comes off as desperate for approval and congratulations on her progressive views. Her preoccupation with hiring a black housekeeper as a way to prove her equal views is as ridiculous as it sounds, and when she hires Florida Evans (Esther Rolle in the role she would go on to play in the Maude spinoff Good Times), Florida is completely unmoved by Maude’s attempts to show how liberal she is.
Whether at odds with Arthur, or fighting a traffic cop in court, Maude is never anyone but herself: she’s wholly authentic. Her understanding of her self extends to her interactions with those closest to her. Her relationship with Carol is filled with arguments and banter, but it is always rooted in love. Similarly, her marriage to Walter, despite their ups and downs throughout the series, is a perfect match. His humor and long-suffering attitude makes him the best partner for Maude, and perhaps no other arc showcases that dynamic better than the famous abortion story.
Maude’s unexpected pregnancy leads her to consider abortion and Walter’s support is integral to the story. When she decides to have the abortion, she asks Walter how he really feels and his response is indicative of the ways in which Maude approached controversial issues. “For you, Maude, for me, in the privacy of our own home, you’re doing the right thing.” It’s ultimately dealt with in personal terms, making the issue less about the big picture and more about how it affects these characters. In doing so, the series makes more headway than if it were solely making intellectual arguments, and in turn, humanizes the controversial.
Maude is undoubtedly one of the groundbreaking shows of the ‘70s, if only for its interest in addressing issues like race relations, abortion, suicide, and adultery, among others. The program presents a fearlessness that not only is mark of Lear’s work, but also a perfect match for Arthur, whose performance cannot be overstated. She brings to life a character that could easily be a one-note shrill know-it-all, but instead Maude is human. For all of her good intentions, she’s flawed, often insecure, and quick to anger. Arthur always understands the line she walks and never steps over in a way that undermines or invalidates her character.
A series with an agenda, in the best sense of the word, as well as compelling characters that show growth over the show’s run, Maude may be comfortably rooted in its time period, but it also resonates today. Arthur, along with Macy, Bain, and McClanahan, played off of one another wonderfully. In fact, the chemistry between cast members is one of the series’ highlights. Maude certainly paved the way for other strong-willed, independent, feminist characters, but perhaps none will be remembered for her wit and unwavering beliefs more than Maude.
The DVD set includes several featurettes, two unaired episodes, as well as two episodes of All In the Family in which Maude appeared. In addition, there are cast interviews. Unfortunately, there are no episode commentaries, which would have been an especially instructive bonus feature.
Additionally, according to the Complex article, “The 15 Most Controversial TV Show Episodes of All Time” with Maude’s Dilemma Parts 1 and 2 ranking at #2:
If you think abortion is a touchy subject in pop culture now, imagine a TV show dedicating a two-part episode to it before the Roe v. Wade decision even came down. That’s exactly what the series Maude did in 1972 when it tackled abortion head-on in an episode where Maude discovers that at the age of 47, she’s pregnant. Throwing typical sitcom gags and quips out the window, this episode deals with the problem in a real world way, explaining the pros and cons of the decision, and letting us as viewers see how something like this can affect a person’s life.
In the end, Maude gets the abortion, but the subject is never treated as an easy decision for laughs. This is a serious matter, and the show did its best to highlight a woman’s right for a national audience. Despite its good intentions, the episode sparked a firestorm of controversy, especially within religious circles. Seeing the importance of such an episode, CBS regularly showed “Maude’s Dilemma” in reruns during summer hiatuses.
Finally, according to the Talking Points Memo article, “More Than 40 Years After Maude, Abortion Remains Taboo On TV“:
Last Thursday, the long-running medical drama Grey’s Anatomy aired its last episode that featured Dr. Cristina Yang, a surgeon who had been on the show from the very first episode. Played by Sandra Oh, Dr. Yang was arrogant, ambitious, caring, and brilliant—and a staunch supporter of reproductive rights who chose to have an abortion. And in this, Dr. Yang joins a very, very small list of lead female characters on a television show to not just talk about having an abortion, but also to realistically depict some of the reasons a woman might make that choice and what its wider effects can be.
The very first abortion depicted on television occurred in 1964, on the soap opera Another World; but perhaps the most famous abortion storyline played out on the sitcom Maude. In an iconic two-part episode that aired on CBS in 1972, the title character decides—after much consideration, including conversations with her husband and adult daughter—to terminate her unexpected pregnancy (the show was set in New York, which legalized abortion in 1970). Two affiliates initially refused to air the episodes; others were pressured not to rerun them the following summer; and sponsors pulled ads from the reruns following pressure from anti-choice groups. If this pressure was meant to dissuade viewers from watching the episodes, that attempt backfired spectacularly—65 million people watched the episodes when they ran for a second time.
Unplanned pregnancy has been a plot staple pretty much as long as television has existed. Generally, these storylines are resolved in one of three ways: the woman continues the pregnancy; decides to have an abortion but miscarries instead; or decides to continue the pregnancy after she considers having an abortion, then carries to term and has the child. Shows as disparate as Beverly Hills, 90210, Desperate Housewives, Felicity, Roseanne, Dawson’s Creek, The O.C., E.R., Melrose Place, Mad Men, Army Wives, and Sex in the City all presented their own takes on this third storyline. In every case, valid concerns were raised about having a child: economic worries, the lack of a supportive partner or family, the woman’s educational or career goals, her age, and her own mixed feelings about either becoming a mother for the first time or adding to the family that she already had. Yet in every case the woman decides to continue her pregnancy.
There is nothing wrong with depicting unplanned parenthood as a valid choice. Indeed, many of the shows mentioned above could have benefited from even a cursory exploration into the woman’s reasons for choosing to continue her pregnancy. But by consistently making abortion the option that dare not speak its name, no matter how rational a choice it might be, its validity and acceptability is diminished. The choice becomes so foreign that it cannot even be addressed, at least not by characters that have to remain sympathetic and relatable to viewers. The popular media’s lack of diversity when it comes to pregnancy options is a reflection of, and more fodder for, the stigma surrounding abortion. And it stands in stark contrast to real life, where 51% of all pregnancies in the United States (about 3.4 million) are unintended and 40% of those pregnancies end in abortion. If these plotlines were more realistic and featured discussions of the circumstances, feelings, and beliefs that a woman actually experiences when making such decisions, media could help destigmatize this common choice.
All of which makes Cristina Yang’s decision more remarkable. She actually experienced two unplanned pregnancies, and decided to have an abortion both times. But show creator (and Planned Parenthood, Los Angeles board member) Shonda Rhimes explained why the first pregnancy, which occurred in 2005, was resolved by being ectopic: “[T]he network freaked out a little bit … No one told me I couldn’t do it, but they could not point to an instance in which anyone had. And I sort of panicked a little bit in that moment and thought maybe this isn’t the right time for the character, we barely know her… I didn’t want it to become like what the show was about. … And it bugged me. It bugged me for years.”
When Cristina became pregnant a second time in 2011, she was happily married but resolute in her decision to not have children. The conversations with her husband about what to do, as well as how his desire to have children contributed to their divorce, fulfilled what Rhimes said in an interview at the time that the show was hoping to achieve: “I think for me the point is, it’s a painful choice that a lot of women have made in their lives and we just wanted to portray it honestly and with a really good conversation . . . [a]nd see what happens after.” (Rhimes has also noted that there was no network interference regarding the 2011 plotline.)
Depicting controversial topics on television shows is often challenging; there’s the risk of trivializing a subject, relying on lazy stereotypes, or falling into the dreaded “very special episode” trap. Achieving the balance of simply telling a story, neither lecturing nor trivializing, is tricky. Grey’s Anatomy is far from a perfect show, but when it came to Cristina Yang and reproductive rights, it achieved a perfect balance.