Classic TV royalty Time Life creates a made-in-Heaven marriage regarding granting Wal-Mart the exclusive right to sell the October 17, 2017 "Mama's Family: The Complete Collection" DVD set.
This 130-episode six-season series, which is a spin-off of the fan-favorite "The Family" sketches in the "Carol Burnett Show," revolves around feisty small-town Southern middle-class matriarch Thelma Harper and her dysfunctional family. The best way to think of this is to imagine Aunt Bee of "Andy Griffith" as more irascible.
It is equally cool that youthful Vicki Lawrence rivals Estelle Getty in her talent for playing a character who is significantly older than her. The age disparity between Vicki and Thelma warrants an aside that is highly relevant to this review. Vicki stated in an interview at the time of a 1988 S4 three-episode story arc in which the Harpers go to Hawaii that requiring that she be in character on exiting the airplane in our 50th state was moderately distressing.
"Mama" further can be considered a PG version of the more adult Del Shores "Sordid Lives" franchise, which revolves the eccentric middle-class residents of Winters, Texas. "Sordid" elements that are absent from "Mama" include a cross-dressing senior citizen, a gay white man married to a black man, and a philandering redneck who literally pays a leg (but not an arm) for his adultery with a significantly older woman. That is not to say that "Mama" may not include some or all of those elements if Lawrence et al film a reunion movie.
The "complete" set, which offers the original broadcast versions of the episodes, does Lawrence and and her co-stars particularly proud by including the copious extras that the end of this review describes.
The following YouTube clip of the Time Life promo. for this set provides a small overview of this perfect gift for yourself, for your mama, or for anyone with a sense of humor. Thelma would express this sentiment as good Lord, just go out and buy the damn DVDs already; what the Hell are you waiting for?
"Mama," which is the brainchild of "Burnett" and "Fact of Life" veterans Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon, begins life as a 1983 mid-season replacement on NBC. This initial concept is that widowed housewife Thelma lives with slightly more sophisticated sister Fran (the late Rue McClanahan of both "The Golden Girls" and "Sordid") and dim-witted adult son Vint (Ken Berry of "F Troop.") Buzz and Sonja, who are the teen offspring of Vint, round out the original household.
Moderately sexed-up neighbor/supermarket cashier Naomi (Dorothy Lyman of "All My Children") quickly moves in after marrying Vint in a "very-special" two-parter early in the first season.
Burnett occasionally drops by the Harper household in her role as neurotic daughter Eunice. We more regularly see Golden Girl Betty White as snobbish daughter Ellen.
Like the four (highly popular) retooled syndicated seasons that follow, the two NBC seasons reflect the highly successful principle of not fixing what is not broken. Virtually every episode is pure '80s sitcom down to an outing in which the Harpers compete on the Richard Dawson version of the game show "Family Feud."
Another early episode has Eunice and Thelma working out their differences while sharing a jail cell; we further see the ex-husband of Naomi threaten her current marriage.
"Rashomama" is a classic episode in two senses in that it is one of the most funny "Mama" episodes and is a standard sitcom take on the Japanese film "Rashomon" that centers around conflicting versions of an incident. This one has Naomi, Ellen, and Eunice offer differing accounts of an kitchen accident in which Thelma gets knocked out.
The genuinely triumphant return of "Mama" to the airways in 1986 reflects the related increased demand for programming that newly widespread cable creates and independent stations and basic-cable networks giving cancelled broadcast series a second bite at the apple. "Mama" finding tremendous love the second time around is spectacular.
The third season opens in the wake (no pun intended) of the death of Fran; Thelma is keeping mum regarding the presumably embarrassing (and hilarious) circumstances of that demise, Vint and Naomi are almost literally drooling over the prospect of moving from their basement dwelling into the vacated room of Fran, and we meet middle-aged spinster neighbor Iola (Beverly Archer of "Major Dad.") Further, Ellen refuses to forgo a previously scheduled appointment to attend the funeral.
The related developments in this jam-packed outing are that Eunice and husband Ed now live in Florida and delinquent teen son Bubba (mentioned but believed never seen in "Burnett") is very recently out on parole from an unfortunate incarceration. Thelma et al return from the funeral to discover hilarious damage from Hurricane Bubba.
The excitable boy facing the decision that Thelma describes as "the old lady or jail" leads to the hi-jinks that comprise the final four seasons of this series.
An S3 episode offers a two-fer in that lonely Iola becoming an unduly frequent visitor to Chez Harper leads to the family using the '80s-era matchmaking technique of a personal ad in the newspaper to find her a beau. The two-fer enters in the form of Iola getting mad at Thelma when the gentleman caller transfers his affections to the widow Harper without any encouragement from this mother of all mothers.
An especially memorable S3 episode has even more hilarity ensuing after Iola freeze dries her cat after that feline uses up all nine of his lives; "Weekend at Bernie's" has nothing on "Mama" in this regard.
We further get two memorable instances of Thelma engaged in the sitcom staple of cross-dressing as a disguise. Her change of heart regarding sabotaging the effort of Vint to join a lodge has her don the garb of that organization to infiltrate a meeting; she further dresses as Santa and gets in the Christmas spirit after an upsetting incident destroys her holiday spirit. Of course, the episode ends with a miracle.
Another beloved sitcom could not provide better context for the timeless appeal of "Mama." One of the best moments of "Friends," which spawns the unmarried single urbanites hanging out sub-genre of sitcoms, has sarcastic Chandler comment on seeing an episode of "Three's Company" that that outing is the one with the wacky misunderstanding.
"Mama," "Friends," "Company," and other TV Land faves all have the common elements of good writers who can make familiar fare adequately fresh to keep it entertaining and the right actors playing entertaining characters who can make us at least smile on watching a variation of something that we have seen many times before. Good perspective regarding this comes from the late Garry Shandling, who was the master of making sitcom cliches hilarious.
Shandling states in his his late-night talk show character in the finale episode of "The Larry Sanders Show" that sometimes you get something special and sometimes you get "Company" failed spin-off "The Ropers."
The aforementioned plethora of extras is far too extensive to address here; one highlight is the surprisingly dark and dramatic TV-movie "Eunice," which airs in the period between "Burnett" and "Mama." This one is more Tennessee Williams than Sherwood Schwartz.
Bubba-centric extras include a hilarious "Burnett" sketch in which guest-star Maggie Smith is his teacher holding a conference with parents Eunice and Ed regarding the misconduct of their young son. We further get an interview with still energetic Allan Kaysar (who is a Columbine High graduate), discussing how he comes to play Bubba after moving to Los Angeles from Colorado to pursue an acting career.
Time Life also awesomely gets the band back together to sit around the Harper kitchen table to reminisce. Their topics include the break between the network and the syndication runs and actress/series writer Dorothy Van playing hilariously elderly aunt Effie,
It sincerely is hoped that devoting so much time and thought to writing this post on "Mama" triggers adequately fond memories by current fans and inspires enough interest in future fans to go to your neighborhood Wal-Mart to get a set. It almost is certain that you will not be disappointed. Two additional endorsements are that your not-so-humble-reviewer bought a set and "Mama" is one of the relatively few shows that has universal appeal in the Nelson household.
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