• July 19, 2024

The Five Best MAMA’S FAMILY Episodes of Season One

01) Episode 1: “Vint And The Kids Move In” (Aired: 01/22/83)

Vint and his two kids move into Mama’s house — without Fran’s knowledge.

Written by Jenna McMahon & Dick Clair

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The fourth episode shot for the series, this was designed to serve as the official premiere (following the creative redevelopment discussed above). The story’s inciting incident finds the recently divorced Vinton moving into Mama’s house with his two kids. The conflict, aside from the general inconvenience to all involved, is that Fran will have to give up her workspace — something which she is not prepared to lose. Aside from all the perfunctory exposition, McMahon and Clair’s script makes time for a lot of big laughs, including slapstick moments for Berry and some of the best scenes of the series between Lawrence and the generally underserved McClanahan. One of the highlights of the offering, however, is the re-meeting of Vinton and Naomi, who share an immediate chemistry — to Mama’s evident displeasure.

02) Episode 2: “For Better Or Worse” (Aired: 01/29/83)

Vint and Naomi spend a night together and then make plans to marry.

Written by Liz Sage & Rick Hawkins

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Following the reunion between Vinton and Naomi in the series premiere, this episode takes things to the logical next step, as the former classmates wind up in the basement bed together. Berry and Lyman get some of their longest uninterrupted scenes of the series in this offering, and because both the performers and characters are already so strong, this amount of exposure helps to ingratiate them with the audience, establishing them as the show’s best characters — second only to Mama. Lawrence, not surprisingly, gets the episode’s best moment with her reaction to seeing Naomi sneak out from the basement to the backdoor. (She’s clearly learned a lot at the Burnett-Korman school of comedy.) Also, credit must be given to the writers for the final scene’s manipulative, but not distractingly obvious, set-up for next week’s wedding.

03) Episode 4: “The Wedding (II)” (Aired: 02/12/83)

On the day of Vint and Naomi’s wedding, Eunice has a meltdown.

Written by Dorothy Van & Jim Evering

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As usual with two-part installments, one half is comedically sharper than the other. (However, choosing only one half of an episode that’s designed to be paired with another basically gives me the opportunity to highlight two episodes for the “price” of one, because naturally, if you watch Part II, you’ll want to watch Part I first.) This is a fan favorite, but it’s also a BIG EVENT episode. That is, the show has a function that overrides the comedy: getting Vint and Naomi married. Also, this is the second appearance of Burnett as Eunice, and she runs roughshod over the entire 24 minutes. For fans of the sketches, this is a benefit. But in terms of the series’ own new identity, well . . . let’s just say the episode is saved by its ability to comedically deliver and by the interactions among the entire ensemble (with Burnett and Korman in support of them).

04) Episode 6: “Cellmates” (Aired: 02/26/83)

Mama and Eunice are arrested after getting into a barroom brawl.

Written by Jenna McMahon & Dick Clair

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My choice for the best episode of the year, this installment is the exception to the “new identity” rule mentioned above. This offering makes absolutely no attempt to use the storytelling of the sitcom and its new cast, opting instead to play with the characters and relationships that were introduced way back in the variety series. (In fact, the long running gag of Duke Reeves is brought up again as a major part of the story.) It would seem that this wouldn’t be a good fit for a show that desperately needs to lock in a separate mode of operation. However, this is clearly the best script of the season, helmed by the duo that first introduced Mama in 1974, meaning that there’s a welcome sense of authenticity in her presentation. Meanwhile, this script also sees a brilliant resolution to the antagonistic relationship shared by Mama and Eunice, as the pair has a genuine heart-to-heart on the porch swing (following a bar fight that lands them in prison alongside a hooker, played by Yvonne Wilder, whom we’ve seen here before on Archie Bunker’s Place), that not only mines big humor and works for the story, but also serves as an ideal end for the Eunice character. (Perhaps unfortunately, Burnett appears twice more — unnecessarily.) So because of its value to the characters that we first met almost a decade before and its importance to Mama’s evolution in particular (she needs this episode to be able to move forward), the episode’s atypicality is justified, making this absolutely the season’s most valuable. A must watch for Burnett fans, “Family” fans, and comedy fans in general. (If anyone has the original unedited network broadcast, please let me know; it’s edited on the DVD!)

05) Episode 7: “Mama Gets A Job” (Aired: 03/05/83)

Mama takes a job at the Raytown Travel Agency.

Written by Don Emerson King

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This episode makes today’s list for the expert clowning of Vicki Lawrence as Mama, whose comedic turn manning the reception desk of Raytown’s Travel Agency is Lucy-esque in its loony allowance for a seldom employed (by this character) physicality, especially in the NBC era. In fact, unlike some of the other offerings highlighted in today’s post, which are included for the way the other characters are introduced and positioned in relation to Mama, this one is all about her, and that’s a first for the character, who’s always been defined by the way she interacts with others. As a result, this installment gives us pleasures that the other offerings from the year don’t: a straight look at Lawrence’s performance and the ability to recognize, fully, her growing genius as this character. She is ultimately why this show exists — and why it’s worthwhile.

Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “The Wedding (I),” in which Mama, Ellen, Naomi, and Fran get drunk while preparing for Vint and Naomi’s wedding (naturally worthwhile to those seeking out the second part of this installment), and “Family Feud,” a fan favorite offering in which the clan goes on Family Feud and screws things up in a predictable but perhaps illogical manner (although a funny, albeit gimmicky episode, the above installments simply employ better motivated comedy). Nevertheless, they were both serious contenders for the above list. Meanwhile, “Positive Thinking,” while not close to making the list due to the inappropriate focus thrown to Eunice instead of Mama and the other characters, is still worth mentioning for fans of the sketches and/or her character.

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*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Mama’s Family goes to…..

“Cellmates”

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Come back next Tuesday for the best from the second season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!

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