When thinking back to the most fondly remembered sitcoms of the 1980s, Mama’s Family is surely one that comes to mind, viewed with warm nostalgia, even if it isn’t the pinnacle of television comedy. Cranky old Thelma “Mama” Harper, played hilariously by Vicki Lawrence, ran for six seasons, the first two on NBC, and then four much more popular years on CBS. Mama, herself, however, is a timeless character, who had a much longer lifespan on television than this series. Now, The Complete First Season and The Complete Second Season of this show are available on DVD.
Mama’s Family came at the end of an era of sitcoms. Having more in common than those which aired before it than what came after it, the series painted a portrait of an ungrateful family who Mama slaved away for, which justified her less-than-sunny disposition. She is the put-upon, caring matriarch viewers root for, giving a healthy dose of love and sound advice, whether her kids and relations want to listen to her or not. She is a parent, grandmother, and friend to any who need it.
That’s where the authenticity of the show came through. There was truth in her lamentations, and audiences could relate to both sides of the argument. Thelma was the familiar Mama, at least in that particular era for our society, and her issues were our issues. Sort of.
It’s a good thing there is much that is relatable and funny in the story, since the production is quite crude. Mama’s Family often feels like a play, with garish sets and costumes and harsh lighting. This helped reduce the cost of producing the show, and kept it on the air long enough to gain viewers, at least the second time around, but also makes it a little hard to get through until one adjusts to the style, or lack thereof. It is worth it to stick with it, the players being quite enjoyable.
Among the colorful characters in Mama’s life are: Mama’s sister and roommate Fran (Rue McClanahan, The Golden Girls), an uptight writer; Mama’s son, the youngest of three children, foolish Vinton (Ken Berry, Mayberry R.F.D.), who is evicted from his house and dumped by his wife, prompting him to move back in with Mama; Vinton’s love interest, trampy neighbor Naomi Oates (Dorothy Lyman, The Departed); Vinton’s stubborn, obedient son, Vinton Jr., otherwise known as Buzz (Eric Brown, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman); and Vinton’s annoying, complaining teenage daughter, Sonja (Karin Argoud, The Stonecutter). This makes for a very full house indeed.
Which does not mean there isn’t room for others to drop by. Mama’s two daughters, Eunice (Carol Burnett, The Carol Burnett Show) and Ellen (Betty White, Golden Girls), put in appearances. And among the familiar faces making guest appearances in these two sets are Harvey Korman (Blazing Saddles), William Windom (To Kill a Mockingbird), Richard Dawson (Hogan‘s Heroes), Imogene Coca (Your Show of Shows), Jack Gilford (Cocoon), singer Jerry Reed (Smokey and the Bandit), and Fred Willard (Anchorman). While not all of these names have stayed in the lexicon today, they were big enough in their own time.
I think what’s most curious to me is that Mama’s Family is a spin-off of a recurring sketch from The Carol Burnett Show, which first spawned a TV movie, and then this series. Looking at other sketch comedies, I can’t imagine a premise holding it’s own for six years. Saturday Night Live bits have been turned into films, but not to my knowledge have they ever been developed as a weekly series. Yet, Mama’s Family worked very well in this format. I guess this is a testament to the unique, layered, fun characters The Carol Burnett Show created.
Speaking of the roots of this series, the extras on The Complete First Season and The Complete Second Season provide a look back at such things. On the first set, fans get one of the classic segments of “The Family” from The Carol Burnett Show. The second contains the aforementioned TV movie, Eunice. Other extras include interviews of some of the stars involved, an outline of the branches of Mama’s family tree, and a featurette about the series.
The only real complaint I have about this set is that it features the episodes in broadcast order, rather than production order. NBC aired them haphazardly, with a wedding that happens early in the run not having occurred yet in later episodes. This DVD set preserves that mistake, though it seems like it could have been an easy fix. Of course, anyone with access to Google can decide on their own how the installments should be watched, assuming they are aware of the issue ahead of time.
Bottom line, despite its flaws, or maybe a little bit because of them, as they seem true to form, Mama’s Family is a welcome addition to the DVD field, and it sure feels good to relive this series. Mama’s Family: The Complete First Season and Mama’s Family: The Complete Second Season are available now.