One of the most groundbreaking of Very Special Episodes in the history of the phenomena and the most widely discussed and controversial would be “Maude’s Dilemma” from the Norman Lear produced series Maude (1972–1978) – a sitcom about a feisty, strong minded, highly opinionated liberal as played by the force of nature that is Bea Arthur. This episode would find its genesis in the foundation of a competition of sorts – health care activist group Zero Population Growth had announced a prize sum of ten thousand dollars for comedy series and variety shows to come up with comedic takes on how to combat over population and the issues that come with that. Writers on the show came up with the issue of vasectomy, but Lear opted for abortion – something that was seldom brought up in conversation and most certainly never discussed in depth on a television series. There had been illegal abortions occur on soap operas prior to this double episode of Maude, however to have the central character in a comedic arena openly discussing a woman’s right to choose was a brave and solid decision from Lear, his team and the legendary cast who would speak the highly political, but more importantly very human and very honest, words that would generate and spark debate across America.

The episode opens with an open feminist conversation as the focal point with single mother Carol (Adrienne Barbeau) and housekeeper Florida (Esther Rolle) dissecting the question of the title of “Ms.”, something that liberated women of the second wave feminist movement would adopt as a way to establish an inroad with men in regards to marital status. Of course, the feminist periodical “Ms. Magazine” heralded by leading voice of the movement Gloria Steinem was making a profound impact on the culture of the seventies and a series like Maude was a terrific extension of all of this. The episode then explodes with vibrant agitation and anger only ever done splendidly by the super talented Bea Arthur who storms into the scene mighty pissed off. She storms in hitting herself as if in a state of self-punishment, which is comical of course but in retrospect there is something pretty dark going on there when you consider horrific methods women had to resort to in order to abort pregnancies prior to the medical practice becoming rightfully legal.

Maude finally confides in her best friend Vivian (Rue McClanahan) and their friendship is referred to as a “sisterhood”, therefore more feminist tropes paint the picture of this brilliantly crafted and constructed double episode. The writing and performances and the way in which the first episode and especially the opening moments ring out hilarity and full throttle comic excellence is a testament to the VSE at its best being a construct that begins with the familiar (comic) and then evolving into something else (dramatic). When Maude tells Vivian of her pregnancy, actress Rue McClanahan gets to play off the response with a cheekiness and masterful command, and it matches the audience’s response, however, as much as the episode begins with all the comical aspects of Maude being pregnant in her more “senior” years, later it will drive in seriousness at the helm of Carol and her concern for her mother’s health and her advice on how abortion is now a safe and legal and healthy option. Florida’s response to the news is also incredibly admirable: “If you’re sorry, I’m sorry” – emphasising pure empathy. The show will then tackle the truth of the matter, that abortion is now an option for women legally, and that women are in charge of their own bodies, regardless of what state or church says or judges, and that conservatives need to keep out of the way of a woman and her body and what she chooses to do with it.

The legality of abortion and having to tell husband Walter (Bill Macy) are the two components that bring the first part of this two part VSE home and while neighbour Arthur (Conrad Bain) is more excited to see Walter’s expression when he hears the news, while Carol voices her anger at how women are treated when the issue of the pill is brought up and she even poses the question of when men will take responsibility of birth control. Carol’s point about overpopulation is made clear and when Walter finally enters, he is initially ignored but then comes to understand that there is news to be shared. Maude has something to tell him and his first response is anxiety about his car. This enrages Maude (“Not Maude are you sick? Maude are you unhappy?”) as concern about the car is more important than her well-being (another aside to the feminist argument, that women are neglected and seen even secondary to automobiles), but Walter comes through and asks what it is that is upsetting Maude, when she tells him, he chokes on a chicken bone, and Macy’s handle at physical comedy takes the floor.

But it is Carol’s incredible speech and advice for Maude that truly is the star of this first part of this super important VSE. Carol sees that her mother’s “late in life” pregnancy is clearly distressing her, and so she offers support that is both warm and compassionate but also a war cry for women celebrating that finally abortion laws have come into play and they can choose what they want to do with their bodies without guilt. She reminds her mother that the procedure is not what it was like back when she was growing up and Carol’s loving insight even has Walter being impressed and leads him to an honourable decision to consider having a vasectomy (men’s response to birth control). By the end of the first part, Walter expresses his love for Maude by telling her “Whatever you decide”, symbolising a man ready to stand by his woman in her decision.

But of course the complexities of the piece and the treatment of the issue at hand are not so cut and dry. The beginning of the second episode has Carol convince Maude not to have the baby and to not feel guilty nor be afraid of making that decision. It is also made clear that Maude is a character who strongly supports the right to choose agenda, however, being pregnant changes her clear principles there – she is confused by the notion seeing that she is now in this predicament. This is a great choice by the writer Susan Harris (who would of course later create legendary shows such as Soap [1977–1981] and The Golden Girls [1985–1992]) who powers the script with the complex multi-dimensions it needs in order to both paint up Maude’s politics as not so black and white when the matters at hand are so personal and close to home. Shockingly, Maude explains that she will have the baby, and while Carol worries that it is risky at her age, Maude believes that Walter wants the baby because he never had the chance to be a father. Much protest from Carol sends Maude into a retelling of her impoverished backstory where she explains that her poor background, raising Carol, was what gave her trepidation in having another child now later in life, but now with some money behind her with Walter, the possibility of a baby isn’t so nerve wracking.

Another addition to this story is the introduction of the neighbourhood friend Lorraine (Elisabeth Fraser) who has a bunch of kids and in her late thirties, approaching forty, she is pregnant again and very happy to have the child (“What’s another baby?”). This character was a prerequisite from CBS for Susan Harris to write in, as a somewhat “opposing view”, presenting a woman not in her twenties who was happy to have a baby “later in life”. The character’s messy existence does not at all suit Maude, who is independent from the rearing of children and quite happy about that, even though she makes a terrific and passionate grandmother to Carol’s son Phillip (Brian Morrison).

The episode finally positions Maude and Walter in a pit stop that has them both not truly knowing what each other want, and its treatment of the male perspective is hilarious because it comes from a place of fear, anxiety and reluctance to help. Walter and Arthur’s discussion at the bar is centred around talk on vasectomies and a friend Harry (Robert Mandan) makes a brief appearance as someone who has had the procedure and is enjoying a very healthy active sex life with his wife, ensuring Walter that “nothing changes” when you have the operation. Incidentally, actor Mandan would appear in a future episode of Maude entitled “Maude’s New Friend” about Maude’s newfound friendship with a gay author who is obnoxious and cruel to Walter causing the cast of characters to look into their own personal hang ups (notably Maude who comes to understand her overbearing liberalism can actually be as offensive as outward bigotry). But Mandan’s character here is “what could be” in the case of Walter actually following through with a vasectomy which would ensure no more worry about unwanted pregnancy in their “autumn years” – seeing that the pill does not agree with Maude (as stated early on in the first episode).

The last sequence in Maude and Walter’s bedroom is the climactic moment that speaks volumes and touches a nerve. Walter never wanted to be a father; here is a confession he makes where he refers to fatherhood as an “ambition”, something that he never had the drive for (“I do love kids, but they don’t have to be mine”), and once again, he makes an excellent step-grandfather to young Phillip. He also admits “I think it would be wrong to have a child at our age”, to which Maude tearfully agrees. When he then confesses to not having a vasectomy, Maude doesn’t mind, the object of conversation here is the concern of having the baby or not and committing to an abortion. Maude has made up her mind, she wishes to take Carol’s advice and take control of this unwanted pregnancy and terminate it – a powerful statement made by a television character which would spark conversation across the United States and also generate a lot of hatred from conservative groups who would send in letters, death threats and organise pickets. Feminists of the period championed the episode and its stance – most notably for the conversation had between wife and husband in their bedroom sitting on their bed talking about such private and personal matters, and that the decision was all coming from the wife. Maude tearfully asks “Tell me I’m doing the right thing” – a question that humanises the freedom of choice amendment, making the political personal. Walter’s reply is one of tenderness and understanding, also furthering his newfound understanding of a woman’s right to choose, he says “From the privacy of our own lives, you’re doing the right thing.” This reinforces the stance of good men who will stand by the women they love in whatever decision said women make. The episode ends with Maude declaring an undying love for her husband: “I love you Walter Findlay.”

Initially, Norman Lear opted out of the idea of Maude having a false alarm or a “phantom pregnancy” as he felt that would lend itself to great jokes, yes, but also be an easy out, and something that would not possibly hit as hard with the same impact. Also, miscarriage was another issue that he strayed from seeing that his series All in the Family (1971–1979) dealt with that in the tearjerker Very Special Episode “Gloria Has A Belly Full”, where Gloria (Sally Struthers) falls pregnant but loses the baby – an episode that will end with her crotchety father Archie (Carroll O’Connor) finally showing us that he is in fact sensitive and human, mournfully tending to his daughter who painfully suggests that she “didn’t do a good job, did I daddy?” In that episode, we feel the sense of loss of miscarriage and it carries through from the emotionally aware characters like Gloria right through to the hard as nails tough guys like her old pops Archie, and here in “Maude’s Dilemma”, the struggles of a character as equally fiery as him, here in the guise of Maude Findlay, the concept of having an unwanted baby is an inversion of the matter: that older people are not equipped to handle the long years of responsibility of child rearing. Maude is also a dedicated careerist, and as the series progresses she would involve herself in the world of politics, with the series ending with her entering the professional arena of this world, and even meeting a younger variant of herself which would solidify an interesting point that the series makes: that there are women out there, young and old, who think and act like Maude.

Lee Gambin spoke with Maude actress Adrienne Barbeau and asked her for her thoughts on this Very Special Episode.

ADRIENNE BARBEAU: We started working on the [abortion episode] in July of ’72, and it didn’t premiere until September of ’72. We shot the first episode of the abortion segment somewhere between July and September, but the network refused to allow us to shoot the second one until they saw the numbers for the show. And had the show not been a success we would have never aired the first one. Then, of course, when it did air hundreds of stations refused to air it! It did not air in the South or wherever. So that comes back to the fact that we were successful not because we were dealing with these issues, we were dealing with these issues with humor that allowed audiences to want to keep watching. I’ve talked about this in my memoir. Prior to 1972 – it would have been back in 1966, let’s say. I helped a girlfriend get an abortion because they weren’t legal in those days. I was working for someone who had contacts. But I sat with this friend as she went through – not the procedure – but immediately after when she miscarried, and it was a horrendous experience! If I had never thought about abortion prior to that, seeing what this woman went through certainly set me on a path of fighting for a woman’s right to choose! And then when I did come to L.A., I started working in this little-cost health clinic providing counselling and helping the doctors, and they were doing, what was then, finally, a legal procedure. Roe v. Wade was already the law of the land. I may not have been working at the clinic when we shot this, but those words came from a deep place in me, I’m sure that I didn’t have any trouble finding the reality for myself. [My character] Carol was sort of the straight man. I was there to give the information and to counter Maude. I think they hired me because they realized Bea (Arthur) and I did not have the same approach to humor. We didn’t have the same delivery, but I could stand up to her and still be funny and likeable, I hope. I was an actress, and I was just coming off of Broadway, and I got this television show, and I had never done television. So when I arrived, I was really sort of finding my way in a new medium, and just trying to figure out how this was all done. What Carol gave me though – the media started turning to me as a spokesperson for the issues that we were dealing with. It was the height of the Equal Rights Amendment movement. Roe v. Wade had just been passed, and so first-trimester abortion was legal in the land. Up until that point I had been an actor trying to get my career going, just dealing with life on a much more limited basis I guess. And all of a sudden it was like, ‘wait a minute. Okay. We’re dealing with some life-changing issues here!’ And I had to figure out how I felt about all of them. Fortunately, I was right in step with Norman. I ended up spending my hiatus working at a women’s low-cost health care clinic providing first-trimester pregnancy terminations. I became a radical! Maybe as a result of doing Maude.

Lee Gambin’s book TONIGHT, ON A VERY SPECIAL EPISODE: When TV Sitcoms Sometimes Got Serious is available from Amazon, Goodreads and other book suppliers. Published by BearManor Press.