The ‘Maude’ Abortion Episode Wouldn’t Air Today — Norman Lear Tried, and ‘It Wasn’t Green Lit’

Norman Lear was not a man to shy away from controversy. If anything, he sprinted toward it, knowing that doing so would help open people’s minds to pervasive American issues related to discrimination, human rights, and more. Through his landmark sitcoms like “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Sanford and Son,” “One Day at a Time” (twice!), and “Good Times” (also twice!), Lear helped American families address thorny political and social topics by bringing those circumstances into their living rooms every week.

But one episode has long stood out as his most controversial: “Maude’s Dilemma,” a two-part episode airing in the first season, wherein the lead character (played by Bea Arthur) decides to get an abortion. At the time, abortions were legal in the state of New York (where Maude and her family lived), but the Roe v. Wade verdict was still two months away. CBS was wary about the subject matter to begin with, but in the end, “Maude’s Dilemma” made it to air.

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Today, that wouldn’t happen. How can we be so sure? Because Lear and his producing team pitched it as part of their “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” series — and they were shut down.

“We did these specials on ABC, these live shows with Jimmy Kimmel, and we were wanting to show the relevance of [Lear’s] shows then and now,” Lear’s former producing partner, Brent Miller, said during a panel discussion at the ATX TV Festival Saturday night. “To your question of, ‘Could ‘Maude’ be done today?’ We tried to do this episode on one of those live specials, and unfortunately it wasn’t green lit. So it kind of answers your question right there: Maybe it’s not able to be on TV today, for whatever reason, but it is something we pursued.”

The panel conversation to honor the late, great TV legend was held at the end of a two-hour celebration of Lear titled, “Norman Lear’s TV for the People.” With musical guests and video tributes, the closing night event revolved around two staged readings of Lear’s projects: the Season 2 episode of “Good Times,” titled “The I.Q. Test,” and the two-part special episode of “Maude,” “Maude’s Dilemma.” The former featured Dulé Hill and Haneefah Wood as part of the live ensemble, while the night’s presentation of “Maude” starred Pamela Adlon as Maude, Phil Rosenthal as her husband, Walter, Abigail Spencer as their daughter, Carol, and Constance Zimmer as Maude’s best friend, Vivian.

Once the performances were complete, Adlon and Rosenthal joined Miller and Ranada Shepard, the creator of Netflix’s animated “Good Times” revival, for a conversation about Lear’s legacy moderated by Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall.

“When it premiered, it was just an episode — it played like any other episode,” Rosenthal said about “Maude’s Dilemma.” “But when it was going to be rerun, the right-wing in America seized on it and saw it as a point they could rally behind. That’s when they got all the flack and all the trouble. It wasn’t on the first run of it, it was on the rerun.”

Abigail Spencer, Phil Rosenthal, and Pamela Adlon sit for a staged reading of the 'Maude' abortion episode at the ATX TV Festival
Abigail Spencer, Phil Rosenthal, and Pamela Adlon perform ‘Maude’s Dilemma’Courtesy of Ursula Rogers / ATX TV Festival 2024

Per The New York Times, just two CBS affiliates refused to air “Maude’s Dilemma” when it first premiered, but that number grew to 39 of the 159 total affiliates the following year when the network was set to re-air the two-parter. When Pepsi, General Mills, the J.B. Williams Company, and more sponsors pulled their ads, CBS aired “Maude” without sponsorship.

“They won’t do this kind of shit anymore,” Adlon said. “Not now. So it was electrifying [to see then.] The corporations coming together and knocking everything out of everybody, it’s so scary. […] Telling a real story, that is the most important thing you can do. You gotta write down everything as if it’s just for you, and not be afraid, and that’s what Norman was.”

“As I’m sitting here, watching these episodes as a table read, so much has changed and so much has stayed the same,” Shepard said.

The reading took place two days after the Texas Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit, brought by the Center of Reproductive Rights, that aimed to expand the exceptions for medical emergencies under the state’s strict abortion ban. It was the first lawsuit on behalf of women denied abortions after the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade two years ago.

Among the many stories shared about Lear, who passed away in December 2023 at the age of 101, many emphasized his unflagging sense of humor and commitment to his colleagues. He put people first, both onscreen and off.

“Norman was never someone to talk about it in a way that [emphasized] it was difficult for him to do it,” Miller said about how Lear tackled so many controversial subjects. “Of course it was difficult. [But] he talked about it in a way that it just had to be done. There was no reason these stories couldn’t be told. They were just a slice of life.”

“It’s only hard if you’re not afraid of it,” Adlon said. “If you have fear, it’s going to be diluted and half-assed, and that’s the way I find people are approaching things [today.] We take fire [as TV writers], and we can’t be afraid to do that. […] Norman Lear lived to 100-and-what? And he was never toothless.”

The panel and table readings were supported by Hollywood, Health & Society at the Norman Lear Center. In addition, the Norman Lear Center held panels at the festival to facilitate important conversations on how mental health, abortion, cancer, and trust in medicine are represented in television.

The 'Good Times' cast at ATX TV Festival does a live reading of an episode on stage, sitting in chairs and sofas
The ‘Good Times’ cast at ATX TV FestivalCourtesy of Ursula Rogers / ATX TV Festival 2024

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