Little Known Fact: Judge Patrick Naugle's middle name is Eunice.
Thelma Harper: Tellin' it like it is since the late 1970s.
Mama's Family begin its life on The Carol Burnett Show in a skit titled "The Family." It featured Vicki Lawrence as family matriarch Thelma "Mama" Harper, a tough-tongued, temper prone old grandmother who was quick to anger and even quicker at slinging verbal zingers. The character was so popular she was spun off into her own show, the appropriately titled Mama's Family. When NBC cancelled the sitcom after only two seasons, Mama's Family was picked up for first-run syndication, slightly retooled (old characters were dropped and new ones added, with only three leads remaining), and ran for four more seasons until finishing up in February 1990.
For this reviewer, nostalgia sticks to Mama's Family like a cow pie to the bottom of a tractor tire. While visiting my grandparents in rural Indiana in the mid-1980s, they only had access to three televisions stations and I swear, at any given time, the only things playing were 1) college basketball, 2) newscasts, and 3) the TV sitcom Mama's Family. My grandmother loved the show, no doubt in part because it reminded her of her own life (although she was far sweeter than Mrs. Harper). We'd sit and eat cookies and candy and laugh at jokes that probably were as creaky back then as they are today.
Your enjoyment of Mama's Family also may depend on how fondly you recall the show. It's hard to image anyone walking into this for the first time and falling in love with it. The cast play their roles with theatrical exaggeration, never once coming off as actual three-dimensional characters. Vicki Lawrence's Mama is cranky, sarcastic, and dresses in some of the most God awful clothing ever allowed on the airwaves. Lawrence is clearly having a ball, and her Thelma Harper is probably one of the best things about the show. The supporting characters are either dim bulbs (Ken Berry as Mama's goober son Vinton, and Allan Kayser as Thelma's lunk-headed grandson Bubba), purring sex pots (Dorothy Lyman's frisky Naomi), or prudish spinsters (Beverly Archer as the Harper's uptight best friend and neighbor, Iola). The performances themselves are fine, though none are able to elevate the show beyond broadly drawn comedy.
None of Season Three's episodes deal with anything of real consequence. One shows Bubba trying to gather enough money for a motorcycle part, while Iola and Mama compete in a chili cook-off. In another, Naomi calls into a TV therapist (featuring a real life counselor Dr. Joyce Brothers) to discuss sexual issues, to everyone's embarrassment. Even when the show does deal with a serious topic—including killing off one of the previous incarnation's main characters (played by The Golden Girls Rue McClanahan)—it does so with a light-as-air attitude. Mama's Family is just plain down home silliness with (sometimes) amusing witticism and a lot of mediocre wackiness.
Each episode of Mama's Family: The Complete Third Season is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 full frame. The video transfers for each of these episodes are mediocre at best. If noting else they are certainly representative of the original broadcasts. All 25 episodes (spread across four DVDs) feature a Dolby 1.0 Mono sound mix in English. Except for the brassy theme song (co-written by Vicki Lawrence), these audio tracks are serviceable at best.
Bonus features include a classic sketch ("Family") from The Carol Burnett Show featuring the Harper family, a short featurette on the show ("Mama's Family Tree: The Sprouts"), a half hour cast reunion ("Mama Knows Best: A Mama's Family Cast Reunion") with the main leads, and an interview with actor Allan "Bubba" Kayser.
I find Mama's Family far more amusing than I probably should, and more amusing than many viewers will. The jokes are tired and not overtly clever, the performances are as broad as the day is long, and yet there's a homespun feel that's the TV equivalent of eating a Cracker Barrel restaurant. You'll be full once you're done, but there's not much of a health benefit.
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