Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the start of our series on the best episodes from The Golden Girls (1985-1992, NBC), one of my favorite comedies ever produced and perhaps my best known remedy for melancholia. Happily, for those who tire of seeing the series on any of the many cable channels on which it’s syndicated, the entire series has been released on DVD!
A divorcée and three widows share a house in Miami. The Golden Girls stars BEATRICE ARTHUR as Dorothy Zbornak, BETTY WHITE as Rose Nylund, RUE McCLANAHAN as Blanche Devereaux, and ESTELLE GETTY as Sophia Petrillo.
A show that I would put in my personal top ten, The Golden Girls is another property that this blog was actively created to discuss, so I’m thrilled that its time has finally arrived. In terms of comedy — consistent comedy — I can think of no other ’80s sitcom that offers real competition, for while Cheers (1982-1993, NBC), which we covered here earlier this year, remains my choice for the best written and character-driven piece of the decade (and my favorite show second only to I Love Lucy), The Golden Girls always exists in a place where high-octane humor is ever at the ready, something that can only be said of Cheers most of the time. In fact, The Golden Girls‘ unwavering ability to deliver laughs, even in the most dreadful of episodes, is one of the reasons it’s remained a staple in syndication, where it’s managed to captivate new viewers every year. Now, there’s really no good reason to compare Cheers and The Golden Girls, but I think highlighting their differences allows for a direct way to examine the latter and its personal charms, as the schism between the two shows is dependent on the relationship between the two primary — and disparate — styles of situation comedy that had developed in the early part of the ’70s: the MTM mode and the Lear mode.
Cheers is obviously a descendent of MTM (and for more on why this is so, click around this blog and check out our Cheers posts, because there’s been a whole lot written about this), while The Golden Girls, created by Susan Harris, who wrote for both All In The Family and Maude before channeling her progressive and boundary-pushing sense of humor into Soap (all of these shows have been covered here, by the way), belongs more in the Lear camp. What exactly does this mean? Well, when we think of Norman Lear, we probably first think of the topics he covered on shows like All In The Family and Maude, and the groundbreaking places he went with his storytelling, which were then totally new to television comedy. Sometimes we even refer to his style pejoratively when discussing the difference between shows that are issue-heavy, and therefore seem guided by stories instead of characters. However, one of the elements also inherent in the works either produced by or related to Lear and his lot (which includes the talented Ms. Harris) is the boldness that compels them to take risks — either in search of larger humor or larger pathos. As a result, the reactions these shows engender, both positive and negative, are often bigger and broader than those we find on MTM’s more modest fare.
These heightened responses are certainly the case within Soap, and the point is reinforced here with The Golden Girls. However, like Soap, this so-called “Lear influence” doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It mingles with Susan Harris’ own personal touch, which is simultaneously sharper and goofier (if such a pairing can exist), along with traces of MTM elements (fostered in part by Soap‘s Jay Sandrich, an MTM vet who went on to direct The Golden Girls pilot) to subtly force the scripts to reconcile these two oppositional modes of operation. Aside from Soap, we also saw this blending of styles on Taxi, although the balance was more in the MTM favor. So in a way, what Soap and Taxi are to each other — a show by Lear’s prodigy that embraces MTM elements and a show by MTM’s prodigies that embraces Lear elements — helps explain what Cheers is to The Golden Girls: the next big hits (not shows, but hits, mind you — sorry Benson, I’ve tried, and qualitatively, you’re no hit!), in which the prodigies take the intermingling of these ideas and either continue exploring the relationship or reject the new style in favor of a return to the team’s aesthetic origins. I would argue in this tortured comparison — bear with me, folks — that Cheers rejects Taxi‘s Lear-ian elements in favor of a work that’s more purely MTM, while The Golden Girls more readily embraces its MTM roots. But perhaps it had no other choice. After all, one of the show’s four leads was a former regular on Moore’s show.
Okay… I’m getting ahead of myself. The Golden Girls first came about after a bit performed by Selma Diamond (Night Court) and Doris Roberts (Remington Steele, and later, of course, Everybody Loves Raymond) at a network promotional event in August 1984, in which Selma confused Miami Vice for a new show about retirees called Miami Nice (see the clip above). The positive reception to this pairing convinced the brass at NBC to develop a series about older women living in Miami. When Witt-Thomas-Harris were attached to the project, Harris brought along her former Soap director Jay Sandrich — then on the titanic hit The Cosby Show (also covered here) — to do the pilot, and he helped make inroads to both Rue McClanahan and Betty White, both of whom had just come from the then-cancelled Mama’s Family (also covered here). Much has been written about the casting process and how McClanahan and White switched roles; the former had played the naive Vivian on the Lear hit Maude, while the latter had played man-hungry Sue Ann on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It was Sandrich who suggested they swap roles to go against type, and as we all know now, it was a brilliant move (and possibly saved the show).
Meanwhile, with no luck finding a Dorothy (and Elaine Stritch’s hilariously bad audition for the role is often recounted), the producers re-approached Arthur, who initially turned them down before she knew that McClanahan, with whom she had worked previously on Maude, had switched roles with White. This made all the difference to Arthur and she agreed to come play the role Harris had written with her in mind. The last to be cast was Sophia, Dorothy’s mother, played by Estelle Getty, a theatrical actress just coming off a long run in Torch Song Trilogy. Together this foursome brought a mix of many things, including experience with both Lear and MTM, which naturally established a slightly combative dynamic within the new show. But before we continue this thought, I must also mention Charles Levin, who played Coco, the ladies’ chef in the pilot. He was intended to be a regular but was dropped when it was decided that Getty’s role would be amplified and Levin’s character (whose somewhat hyperbolic homosexuality was in keeping with Harris’ brand) was nothing but a distraction from the chemistry that the four women naturally exuded. Frankly, one wishes now that he wasn’t even in the pilot, for it is a distraction from the show’s strengths, but at least we can be glad the right decision was made. (Sorry, Coco!)
Yet getting back to this notion of MTM vs. Lear, the theme that I’m trying to weave throughout this post, we see the battle for co-existence actualized in several ways during the beginning of this series. For starters, there were clashes behind the scenes regarding personnel — specifically the directors. Sandrich, who couldn’t do more than the pilot, was very obviously an MTM man, and Arthur, who was used to a much harder approach over on Maude, wasn’t fond of his soft touch. When the show officially began production in the summer of 1985, Lear regular Paul Bogart was brought aboard as a potential series director. But while he delighted Arthur, White was nonplussed, feeling that Bogart’s natural way of working was making it even harder for her to grasp ahold of her still-wobbly character (more on that below). She successfully got him replaced after a few weeks by Jim Drake; although his background was also Lear-ian, Drake’s style nevertheless represented a compromise. Finally, British director Terry Hughes, who was coming off the short-lived sitcom Empire (1984) — nothing to do with the current Fox serial — was the next to be given a try, eventually becoming the permanent leader, an outside force who managed to please all four women and govern over their different sensibilities.
Additionally and on a broader note, the writing always — from the beginning — seemed to represent a consciously aggressive, but ultimately amiable, coming together of MTM and Lear. While many of the writers during the early seasons were taken from Benson, which was also a Witt-Thomas-Harris production and a spin-off from Soap (therefore making it more Lear-like), that show’s positing away from a focus on narrative issue-driven constructs made The Golden Girls more receptive to the MTM character-driven sensibilities that had not only begun to influence Harris more and more, but also were coming down from network honchos like Brandon Tartikoff, who had studied under MTM’s Grant Tinker (then CEO of NBC), making this show especially ripe for a melding of these two forms. Yet, despite some of the new MTM-ish notions, the writing always retained Lear’s penchant for risk-taking, which meant big laughs, and per Harris’ lead, an occasional wont of heavier subject matter (the success of these moments must be adjudicated on a case-by-case basis, as we’ll see in weeks ahead). In general, however, the two styles blended surprisingly seamlessly, thus creating a brilliantly funny and character-rooted series — the delicious alchemy of which makes it so dynamically sublime.
The same can be said of the cast too… well, eventually. While Arthur’s Dorothy is there from the first minute of the pilot (because, let’s face it, Arthur’s on-screen persona is Dorothy) and her relationship with Sophia is established almost as quickly, the other two members of the ensemble take longer to blossom. In fact, the Rose-Blanche casting switch illustrates just how thin their characterizations were within the pilot, for the two roles are almost interchangeable. It isn’t until the second aired episode (but even in the second taped episode, it’s more pronounced) for delineations to become clear, and when they do, you’ll notice that Blanche’s vain promiscuity isn’t nearly as broad as it will soon become, although the basic personality traits are in place. Meanwhile, White has the hardest time settling into Rose, whose character is malleable until at least a third into the season, when her St. Olaf stories become a recurring joke and her hopeful naïveté can be juxtaposed against the others as a source of comedy. (The problems with Rose’s character do weigh down the beginning of this season.) But the irony, of course, is that once Rose’s personality is locked in place, she anchors some of the year’s best episodes, thus allowing White to become the first of the four women to earn an Emmy for her work on the series.
But that wasn’t the only Emmy this show, which debuted strong with critics and audiences and grew even stronger with both throughout the course of the season, netted for this first collection of episodes. Two of the show’s best writers (Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan) got an award for a truly fantastic script (“A Little Romance” — my MVE), and the series also got honored as the year’s Outstanding Comedy, an award that’s surely deserved, for not only is this the best show of the ’85-’86 season, but it’s the second best season of the series itself (behind only the second year, coming up next week — stay tuned for more), and filled with episodes that I would classify as being some of American situation comedy’s best. (Yes, I mean it!) Truly, this is outstanding television, and for once, my opinion is not in the minority. But will we agree now on what constitutes the year’s best? Let’s see…. As usual, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest installments. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 2: “Guess Who’s Coming To The Wedding?” (Aired: 09/21/85)
Dorothy must face her ex-husband when their daughter gets married.
Written by Winifred Hervey | Directed by Paul Bogart
After a pilot that was heavy on Dorothy, in which almost every line Arthur got prompted a laugh from the audience, the series decided to play to its strengths and follow up with another episode focused on its most multi-dimensional character. Produced fourth, this offering is most notable for introducing us to Stan (Herb Edelman), Dorothy’s ex-husband and a recurring presence on the series for the rest of its run. The weight of their conflict, particularly in this episode, in which Dorothy’s wounds are still raw, seem fitting for Bogart’s more emotionally charged direction. Also, I credit this outing for beginning to establish the source of Blanche’s comedy: her sexuality and the way that warps her perception of the world. So although this is a Dorothy episode, in which she has the best moments, there are some great Blanche bits too.
02) Episode 3: “Rose The Prude” (Aired: 09/28/85)
Rose has her first serious relationship since becoming a widow.
Written by Barry Fanaro & Mort Nathan | Directed by Jim Drake
Given what was noted above about the problems with Rose’s characterization, this offering, produced sixth, is still too early in the year for her presence to be fully established, although this outing, which attempts to give her an extended emotional depth, tries to make way for a more permanent characterization. Meanwhile, fans of the series delight in noting that Rose’s new beau is played by the future Miles Webber, Harold Gould (whom many of my readers will remember as Martin Morgenstern). But the primary story isn’t why this installment works; rather, it works because of everything else that surrounds the A-plot, as Fanaro and Nathan’s script is absolutely loaded with laughs, especially for the three other women. Also, this one boasts a classic kitchen scene, written by Harris herself, that sets a golden template that’s prime for re-creation.
03) Episode 7: “The Competition” (Aired: 11/02/85)
Blanche and Dorothy compete against Sophia and Rose in a bowling tournament.
Written by Barry Fanaro & Mort Nathan | Directed by Jim Drake
The tenth episode produced for the season, this outing thrives on the inter-dynamics among the four women, and one of the most interesting components within this script is the way Rose is used as a major source of comedy. But with her characterization still imprecise, the joke, necessitated on the “turnaround” of her usually amiable demeanor, really works better out of the context of this particular season. (In other words, you now have to know Rose as she’ll become to appreciate the way she’s depicted here.) Additionally, there are a lot of big laughs generated from Fanaro and Nathan’s script, and you’ll see that they, two writers from Benson, quickly prove themselves to be the most consistent deliverers of comedy on the whole staff. As with the above episode, it’s not the story, it’s the way they tell the story that clicks.
04) Episode 10: “The Heart Attack” (Aired: 11/23/85)
Sophia has severe chest pains in the midst of a storm.
Written by Susan Harris | Directed by Jim Drake
Full disclosure: I don’t love this episode. Simply, I think the premise is weighty and not supported by enough worthwhile comedy to really function as an ideal offering of this series. However, my predilection towards its theatrical one act structure forces me to appreciate the tightness of the construction and the fact that the four characters are each — finally — all well-defined and operating off of each other without any weak links. (This actually first became apparent in the episode broadcast prior to this one, which is featured as an honorable mention.) This outing has an interesting history, as NBC wanted to do a whole evening of live programming, and although too many of the shows backed out, this script, intended to be broadcast live, went unchanged. That theatrical kineticism remains, and all four women shine.
05) Episode 13: “A Little Romance” (Aired: 12/14/85)
Rose is embarrassed about the fact that her boyfriend is a little person.
Written by Barry Fanaro & Mort Nathan | Directed by Terry Hughes
My pick for the best episode of the first season, if not the entire series, this installment is centered on Betty White’s Rose, who, as expressed several times above, only just recently morphed into a character with dimensionality, making the success of this offering all the more spectacular. Furthermore, I consider this to be an atypical episode of the series, as there’s a surrealistic dream sequence that takes up part of the second act and is, despite being wildly amusing, not a gimmick with which the show engages very often. So were I to recommend that new viewers watch this episode first, I think they’d get a slightly different idea of the show and how it usually functions. But that’s not even a complaint, for its uniqueness within the series is both appreciated and legitimized by the sublime script (again, it’s a Fanaro and Nathan speciality). Of course, I must also mention the MTM connection, for the premise of this outing is conspicuously similar to an episode of Phyllis. Who does it better? That’s hard to say, but The Golden Girls is probably more courageous in its pursuit of both laughs and pathos, although I think this script owes a lot to its predecessor and the association shouldn’t be diminished, for it perfectly encapsulates the dynamic that indeed exists between The Golden Girls and the shows of MTM, which are perhaps just as vital to the formation of its identity as the Lear influences. Anyway, there’s room enough for both shows to do this kind of episode, especially because the premise is benefited, in both cases, by strong scripts. And in the case of The Golden Girls, I question if there’s anything on this series that’s comedically better. A classic.
06) Episode 15: “In A Bed Of Rose’s” (Aired: 01/11/86)
Rose’s date dies in her bedroom after a night of passion.
Written by Susan Harris | Directed by Terry Hughes
Another episode centered on Rose, the combination of this installment and the one above makes for the best case as to why Betty White won the Emmy this year instead of Bea Arthur, whose material was nevertheless more consistent, if not as potent or memorable as White’s here. (She actually won for this offering.) With Harris at the helm of the script, this outing does engage with darker themes, but true to its master’s form, these are counterbalanced by a biting sense of humor that exists not just in the premise (of Rose being so passionate that she kills all the men with whom she’s sexually intimate), which delights by engaging the figurative Grim Reaper, but also in the way that the premise can work for — and be worked by — the members of this fabulous ensemble. Also, note the great performance by guest star Priscilla Morrill.
07) Episode 18: “The Operation” (Aired: 02/08/86)
Dorothy frets about an upcoming surgery.
Written by Winifred Hervey | Directed by Terry Hughes
Being that this is a multi-camera show, for which regular readers know I have a particular fondness, whenever The Golden Girls plays to its theatrical design, it’s usually an inherent strength. In the case of this offering, that theatricality comes from the very premise of Blanche and Rose having to adapt their tap dancing trio to accommodate just the two of them (following Dorothy’s injury). The incorporation of musical numbers, which the series will do with visible regularity, can sometimes be a distraction from the laughs — if the sequences aren’t designed comedically — but they always, as in this episode, play to the talents of the performers and the aesthetics of the format. Thus, the musicality here is delightful, and with a script that affords plenty of hilarious moments to Arthur’s Dorothy, we have an easy first season favorite.
08) Episode 21: “The Flu” [a.k.a. “Flu Attack”] (Aired: 03/01/86)
Dorothy, Rose, and Blanche are up for the same award — and they’ve each got the flu.
Written by Jason Berg & Stan Zimmerman | Directed by Terry Hughes
It’s always a gamble when sitcoms take a premise from putting the regular characters at odds with one another, for although conflict is vital to any story, particularly comedy, there’s often a tendency in these cases to leap over hurdles of logic and character integrity without making sure the audience is ready for the jump, simply to get to the demands of the plot. I point this out here to illustrate why some other episodes, even this season, in which the women are at odds don’t work, and why this one, which motivates its antagonism, does. It ultimately boils down to both the competition angle — as we saw above in the bowling installment — and the wonderful decision to have the three women physically ill, which does tremendous things for this episode’s comedy quotient and elevates it to being a fan favorite and series classic.
09) Episode 24: “Big Daddy” (Aired: 05/03/86)
Blanche’s father comes to town with aims of becoming a country singer.
Written by Barry Fanaro & Mort Nathan | Directed by Terry Hughes
In illustration of just how far the character of Blanche has evolved from the pilot to the end of the first season, this installment introduces us to the oft-mentioned Big Daddy, played for the first, last, and only time by Murray Hamilton, who — in both the writing and playing — cements to the audience that the stories Blanche has been telling us… well, they seem to be true. And with this established, she’s only going to get broader. (Also look out for guest appearances by two familiar TV faces, Gordon Jump and Peggy Pope in a good Sophia subplot.) This is another script by the show’s most humorously rewarding duo and if you watch the show enough, you’ll soon be able to recognize their work from the rest — a natural uptick in the comedy that, for the most part, remains within the boundaries of character and reason.
10) Episode 25: “The Way We Met” (Aired: 05/10/86)
The women reminisce about how they came to live together.
Written by Kathy Speer, Terry Grossman, Winifred Hervey, Mort Nathan, and Barry Fanaro | Directed by Terry Hughes
While I do have a few issues with the pilot, featured below as an honorable mention, one thing I do appreciate is that it drops us right in the middle of the action, instead of contriving to show us how all of the women came to live together. In effect, this allowed us to see more of what a typical episode of the series would look like as opposed to a typical exposition-laden pilot. However, given how much we’ve grown to love these characters, exploring how they met and became roommates, via flashback, is something that’s worthwhile to the audience, and all this episode, credited to all five of the season’s core writers, simply has to do is illustrate this story satisfyingly. Obviously, this installment more than meets expectations and indeed manages to be one of the highlights of the year — a fitting conclusion with great moments for all.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “Second Motherhood,” a Christopher Lloyd script that was the closest to making the above list due to its Dorothy-Rose subplot. Of the more “honorable mention” variety, I’d like to notice “The Engagement” [a.k.a. “Pilot”], which features a strong Susan Harris script and illustrates exactly why this show was an easy pick-up (but suffers from the nebulous characterizations of both Rose and Blanche), “Break-In,” another Harris script that’s dynamite until two-thirds into the action when Rose fires the gun and all comedy derails, “Blanche And The Younger Man,” which features some sharp dialogue and is notable for being the first time that all four characters work, and “The Custody Battle,” the first episode directed by Terry Hughes, worthwhile for a great subplot with Blanche and Rose (and another close contender). Also, although this isn’t an honorable mention, I do want to highlight “Job Hunting,” a troubled offering that was the first produced after the pilot, but held for broadcast until March ’86. It’s problematic for a variety of reasons (including continuity), but it features the first real kitchen scene between Dorothy, Blanche, and Rose, and it’s divine.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of The Golden Girls goes to…..
“A Little Romance”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the second season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!