Norman Lear, who died this week at 101, left behind a legacy of groundbreaking television. But there was perhaps no hour of TV on his lengthy résumé more controversial than a two-part episode of the CBS sitcom “Maude,” from the show’s first season.
Titled “Maude’s Dilemma,” it aired on consecutive weeks in November 1972 and follows the 47-year-old Maude, a grandmother played by Bea Arthur, as she learns she is pregnant and decides ultimately to get an abortion. In the aftermath, advertisers dropped the show and network affiliates refused to air reruns.
“Maude’s Dilemma” originally aired two months before the Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal nationwide — it was then already legal in New York, where the series was set. More than five decades later, the episode still seems radical, particularly in an era after the Supreme Court overturned Roe, in 2022.
“It’s completely relevant to everything we’re going through now,” said Tracey Scott Wilson, a TV writer and professor in the radio, television and film department of Northwestern University. “What is actually most surprising about it is that there was actually an ability to have a conversation about it. And I think that’s what makes Norman Lear and his shows so relevant today.”
Abortion stories on network television are still few and far between. More recently there have been plots involving the subject on shows like “Everwood,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Scandal,” “Jane the Virgin,” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”
But comparatively, “Maude” had a bigger audience. It was the fourth highest rated show in America for the 1972-1973 season according to Nielsen; CBS estimated that as many as 65 million people watched at least one part of “Maude’s Dilemma,” either during its first broadcast or in rerun the following summer, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Part 1 begins with Maude returning home having just learned that she is pregnant. She isn’t happy about it, especially given her age, saying that “at age 62, I’ll be the mother of an Eagle Scout.” Her daughter, Carol (Adrienne Barbeau), encourages her to get an abortion, but Maude is initially resistant to the idea.
“Mother, I don’t understand your hesitancy,” Carol tells her. “When they made it a law you were for it.”
Maude replies: “I wasn’t pregnant then.”
Maude at first decides to have the baby because she thinks it is what her husband, Walter (Bill Macy), desires. When he finally tells her he wanted her to go through with the pregnancy only because he thought that’s what she wanted, they hug and she resolves to have the abortion.
“It didn’t feel like an after-school special,” Wilson said.
Initially, Lear had proposed that the abortion story line be for Maude’s neighbor Vivian (Rue McClanahan). Susan Harris, who wrote the episode — she and the writers Austin and Irma Kalish shared credit for the story — told Entertainment Weekly in 2018: “I thought it was a wonderful idea. I thought it was something that absolutely should be addressed, and I liked tackling issues as well as entertaining.” But after she gave Lear the initial script, she added, Lear thought it was “too good for Vivian,” and they decided to hand it off to Maude.
“Maude” often tackled hot button issues throughout its six season run. Speaking just ahead of the show’s final episode, in 1978, Arthur told The New York Times, “The first year it seemed to me that every single week we were doing some controversial subject — abortion, alcoholism, pot.”
According to a 1992 report from the Los Angeles Times, CBS nearly balked, however, before the taping of “Maude’s Dilemma.” Lear held his ground.
As Barbeau recalled in an email, “We filmed the first episode in the summer before ‘Maude’ premiered, and we were told if the show wasn’t a success in the ratings, they wouldn’t air the first episode and we wouldn’t film the second.”
Initially, only two CBS affiliates refused to air the show, but when the rerun was scheduled to air in August 1973, there were more widespread objections. After the first episode re-aired, The New York Times reported that 39 of CBS’s 159 affiliates had refused to carry it. Pepsi, General Mills, the J.B. Williams Company and others had pulled their ads, and the episode ran without sponsorship.
“This proves there’s a certain degree of cowardice in the American business community,” Lear told The New York Times in 1973, about the sponsor withdrawals. “A few letters from pressure groups can make advertisers panic.”
A spokesman for the Catholic Communications Foundation said that CBS’s choice to re-air “Maude’s Dilemma” was “a willful insult to the American televiewer.” But Arthur said the mail she had received about the situation was more nuanced.
“I can’t call it ‘hate mail,’ although there were a few that said ‘Die, die,’ but most were intelligent people who were deeply offended and very emotional about it,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “I think the problem was I had become some sort of Joan of Arc for the middle-aged woman. People were saying it was so refreshing, a woman who came along who was a real woman, not like Donna Reed.”
“I think when I came out with this,” Arthur added, it was viewed by those fans as “almost treasonous, a personal attack.”
Watching the episode now, Maude’s advanced maternal age still stands out. The decision to get an abortion is not framed as one for the inexperienced. “Now I appreciate it so much more that she can be a very grown woman; she can be a middle-aged woman approaching menopause and also dealing with this,” said Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, a TV critic and author of “When Women Invented Television.” “She’s been married for a long time, she’s talking with her partner about it and they’re making a really clear decision. Which is bold — it’s still upsetting to people.”
Lear said last year in a TV special honoring his 100th birthday that there was dissent about Maude’s decision even within his own family. “I have a glorious daughter who disagrees with every bit of that,” he said. “This is a glorious young woman in thousands of ways, but she will disagree about that loud and clear.”
But the ability to leave space for disagreement while firmly taking a stance was one of Lear’s specialties. Wilson said the humanity of the conversation is what has been lacking in discussions of abortion, particularly regarding the reversal of Roe v. Wade.
“Even though we knew it was coming, none of the conversations were as human as what we saw in that ‘Maude’ episode,” Wilson said.
“Maude wasn’t making a choice as a left-wing woman,” she added. “She was making a choice as a woman, and it was very universal that this is something that is going to happen whether you’re Republican or whether you’re Democrat or whether you’re conservative, whatever. This is a choice that women have to make and women should be allowed to make.”
The post Remembering Norman Lear’s Most Controversial Episode appeared first on New York Times.