MAMA’S FAMILY: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION – DVD review

For the first time, the entire run of “Mama’s Family”—the ‘80s sitcom starring Vicki Lawrence as a southern matriarch who always has a thing or two to say—is out on DVD. And for the time being, it’s only available online exclusively at MamasFamilyDVDs.com.

Box sets are for fans, but storage often poses a problem. Not so with “Mama’s Family: The Complete Collection.” It’s hefty enough to use as a doorstop—though every time you stride pass Vicki Lawrence as Mama you might wince a bit, expecting a sarcastic remark to accompany that disapproving look of hers about your posture or the outfit you’ve chosen to wear.

“The hell you say!”

Like “Green Acres” and any number of homespun sitcoms, “Mama’s Family” offers less commentary on life than it does an escape from it. There are more goofy or warm fuzzy moments than real insights, and the humor is more silly than clever.  If the series looks and feels a little like actors in costume on stage, any fan of “Mama’s Family” can tell you the reason why:  it was born out of a series of sketches on “The Carol Burnett Show” simply called “The Family,” which ran from 1974 to 1978. So it’s no surprise that the show still has that distinct look and feel of sketch comedy. You’re as conscious of the writing and the performances as you are of the laugh track that feels a little too prodding at times.

But to a generation of now thirtysomethings that grew up watching the series, it’s like electronic comfort food—a guilty pleasure that’s only “guilty” if someone other than your generation catches you watching it.

Like “Sanford and Son,” the series revolves less around family than on the main character, and what better way to make sure that character is in position to comment frequently on the others than by having family living under the same roof?

Thelma Harper, aka Mama, is a widow who lives with her never-married sister Fran (“Golden Girls” veteran Rue McClanahan), a “career gal” who writes for the local newspaper. But Mama’s son, Vinton (Ken Berry, “F-Troop,” “Mayberry R.F.D.”) guilts her into letting him and his two children, Sonja and Buzz, move in with her after his divorce. He has nowhere else to go, he says, and he’s not exactly a go-getter who’s capable of doing anything but fixing locks—certainly not realizing any of his far-fetched get-rich-quick schemes. How can she say no—especially when she can comment, now, about everything the three of them do? Mama loves to be in control and at the center of things, and it’s the perfect set-up for her . . . and the writers.

Later that first season Vinton remarries a woman Mama considers “trampy,” and Naomi (Dorothy Lyman) also moved in with the gang in that old two-story house in Raytown, southern U.S.A., making it all feel a little cramped. Then again, Vinton and his family wouldn’t be the first to move into his mother’s basement.

This massive home video release from StarVista Entertainment and Time Life constitutes a fourth incarnation of the series. Following the sketches on “The Carol Burnett Show,” in which Burnett played Mama’s daughter, Eunice, and Harvey Korman was Eunice’s husband, came the season-and-a-half run on NBC from 1983-1984, with Burnett appearing in six episodes and Korman three. The series ran another year in reruns after it was cancelled because it couldn’t keep pace with Tom Selleck and the popular “Magnum P.I.”

Then came its second series life—revived in 1986 for first-run syndication by Joe Hamilton Productions and Lorimar-Telepictures. Fran was cut because of McClanahan’s “Golden Girls” commitment, and the two nondescript kids were cut from the cast and replaced with Eunice’s son Bubba (Allan Kayser), a former Juvey bad boy who had to move in with Mama after his parents moved to Florida. That added some zip to the show, as did the introduction of new neighbor Iola (Beverly Archer) and continued occasional appearances by Betty White as the oldest (and snobbiest) of Mama’s children.

This box set measures 9-and-a-half inches tall by 7-and-a half-inches wide and 4-and-a-half inches deep. The full-color box has a magnetic flap and the front is cut out so that Mama’s face peers out on a full-color booklet. Inside are individually shrink-wrapped full season DVDs for all six seasons, plus another shrink-wrapped keep case housing bonus features. The booklet holds the DVDs in place; if removed, they’ll fall out.

Each DVD case gives a nice summary of the season, and when you open each keepcase there’s a full-color episode guide featuring annotated entries and original air dates for each. Though the list is incomplete, box covers also list “included” guest stars for the season, so it can help you quickly locate a favorite episode.

Speaking of guest stars, Season 1 includes Burnett, Korman, White, William Windom, and Richard Dawson; Season 2 includes Burnett, Korman, White, Imogene Coca, Jack Gilford, Jerry Reed, and Fred Willard; Season 3 includes White, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Brent Spiner, Jack Dodson, Bibi Osterwald, and Lewis Arquette; Season 4 features Alex Trebek, Joseph Campanella, and Barney Martin; Season 5 offers Marge Redmond, Anne Haney, and Alan Oppenheimer; and Season 6 features Haney, Liz Torres, Robert Mandan, and Stacey Q. And speaking of “Q,” Korman appears in a number of introductory segments as Alastair Quince!

Video:
The video quality is typical of TV series from this era. There’s considerable grain, but the eye adjusts. Colors at least seem to have held their hues, and we’re assured by StarVista Entertainment that all 130 episodes were transferred from original broadcast masters. The aspect ratio is 1.33:1.

Audio:
The audio is, as one would expect, a Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, which is plenty, considering that other than dialogue the main sonics are the laugh track.

Extras:
Fans ought to be pleased with the more than 10 hours of bonus features, which are spread across the six individual seasons and on that two-disc special bonus features DVD. There are too many to describe, in fact, so I’ll only list them.

Season 1: Family History: A Classic “Family” Sketch from “The Carol Burnett Show” and a featurette, “Mama’s Tree: The Branches.” They hit the family tree pretty hard with this set, with the full-color 23-page booklet also devoted to how the characters relate to each other.

Season 2: The original TV movie “Eunice,” featuring Carol Burnett, Vicki Lawrence, and others; a featurette, “Mama’s Family Tree: The Roots,” and interviews with Mama (interviewed by Lawrence), Lawrence and Carol Burnett, and Betty White.

Season 3: Family History: A Classic “Family” Sketch from “The Carol Burnett Show” and a featurette, “Mama’s Family: The Sprouts.” Also, “Mama Knows Best: A Mama’s Family Cast Reunion” and in interview with Allan Kayser, who played Bubba.

Season 4: Featurette, “Mama’s Family Tree: The Neighbors,” “Under One Roof: A Mama’s Family Cast Reunion,” and an interview with Beverly Archer (Iola).

Season 5:  Interviews with Lawrence, Dorothy Lyman (Naomi), Ken Berry (Vinton), and executive producer Rick Hawkins.

Season 6:  Interviews with Lawrence and fellow executive producer Hawkins, costume designers Bob Mackie and Ret Turner, and writers Jim Evering and Manny Basanese.

Two additional discs of bonus features are included:

Disc 1: Family History: The First Ever “Family” Sketch from “The Carol Burnett Show,” featuring Roddy McDowall; featurette, “Mama’s Family Tree: The Lovebirds (Vint and Naomi),” Family Business: A Mama’s Family Cast Reunion, and Family Scrapbook: Classic Bloopers; also interviews with Archer, Kayser, Lawrence, Lyman and Berry.

Disc 2: Mama’s Family Tree: The Seeds (from The Family to Mama’s Family), Family Style: Creating the World of Mama’s Family, Family Fun: Game Shows and Showdowns on Mama’s Family, Family Secrets: The True Stories behind Some Classic Mama’s Family Bloopers; Mama’s Family Tree: A Little More about Vint and Naomi, Mama’s Family Tree: The Hometown, and Family Folklore: The Gang Remembers Some Special Episodes. Also included are interviews with Tim Conway, Ret Turner, Rick Hawkins, Jim Evering, and Manny Basanese.

Bottom line:
Objectively, the series probably rates a 6, but this release is well done and fans of “The Carol Burnett Show” and “Mama’s Family” ought to appreciate this set and the bonus features that bring the show back to life again. For them, it will be a 7, at least, especially because until now, only the first two seasons have been available on DVD, and this set includes bonus features on every season plus a separate two-disc bonus features DVD.

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