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!
Great post as usual. However, I am curious as to what your 10 favorite sitcoms are.
Hi, Charlie! Thanks for reading and commenting.
It’s not a set list, but my favorites are usually (in chronological order): I LOVE LUCY, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, HE & SHE, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, ALL IN THE FAMILY, CHEERS, THE GOLDEN GIRLS, SEINFELD, FRASIER, and EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND.
Jackson, It is no wonder that I consider your blog appointment reading each week. Six of my Top 10 all-time sitcoms overlap with your Top 10 list. Considering how eclectic such a list can be, I’d say that’s a very high percentage (even though, alas, GOLDEN GIRLS is not in my own Top 10).
Hi, Guy! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Great minds think alike – although I know you have more of a fondness for single-cams than I do. Nevertheless, one of our mutual favorites – SEINFELD – is visibly on the figurative horizon (late April), and I’m looking forward to it; stay tuned…
Forgive me if you’ve addressed this somewhere, but I’m curious as to why you skipped a look at BARNEY MILLER. I recently watched the series on DVD and savored its literate, subtle, often poignant scripts and performances like a good wine.
Also glad to hear you’re thinking of covering NEWHART, another ’80s fave of mine that was regularly enjoyable even as it wandered far afield of where it started.
Keep up the good work. It’s a treat for us TV geeks.
BARNEY MILLER is a series I’ve seen in full, having tried — unsuccessfully — on several occasions to spark enough of an appreciation that I could cover it here. It’s come up quite a bit in the comments of these posts, as several readers have expressed a desire to see full coverage, but if you check out the early NIGHT COURT entries, you’ll see some of my thoughts on BARNEY MILLER used as a means of analyzing Weege’s later work. Below are two excerpts from previous comments regarding the series.
Now, regarding BARNELY MILLER, that’s been brought up here quite a bit — mostly in the comments — as it’s a series for which I’ve struggled to cultivate an appreciation. In fact, one of the things I like about NIGHT COURT that I feel BARNEY MILLER lacks is the ability to elicit extreme responses. The bold commitment that makes so many NIGHT COURT misses, as you noted, “so *far* off the mark,” is also what makes the show’s hits just as triumphant. On the other hand, BARNEY MILLER, which does do a better job of formulating a consistent tone, never stirs in me the same alternative reactions of defeat and victory. I always come away thinking, “that was good… but not great.” Now, I know many of my readers feel differently, and are especially confused because BARNEY MILLER is a series that should align with my aesthetic sensibilities, particularly as they pertain to ’70s sitcoms (which are probably my favorite), but the inability to find a generous amount of gems seems insurmountable, no matter how many times I’ve tried.
As for BARNEY MILLER, the show was always shot as a multi-cam, but the live audience was officially dropped in ’77, effectively hampering (or at the very least, altering) the show’s rhythm and, in my opinion, removing the show’s ever-present reminder that it needed to make us laugh. That’s one of the main reasons I prefer having an audience — it should act as a game-elevator, forcing a series to deliver its best work. When the pressure’s not there, the work suffers. Now, I know we’ll never agree about BARNEY MILLER’s comedy, which I don’t think is as pronounced as the other shows where ill-handled drama has been an issue here (ALL IN THE FAMILY, THE JEFFERSONS, SOAP, WKRP IN CINCINNATI, etc.), and that’s okay. I just hope that I’ve effectively communicated how hard I’ve tried to cultivate an appreciation. (Maybe I’m trying too hard and it’ll come with time; it’s possible.)
With regard to NEWHART, that’s a show that I’ve been promising to cover since featuring THE BOB NEWHART SHOW (my favorite of the two, for those who are curious) in early 2015. I opted to skip over the series during the chronological period in which it would have ordinarily fit because I knew the complete series would eventually be released and more people would have access to all the episodes. With that day finally coming closer, I now just have to make a decision as to when I want to slot it into our rotation (which will otherwise be exclusively focused on the 1990s).
“Great minds think alike – although I know you have more of a fondness for single-cams than I do.”
Actually, nine of my rough-draft Top 10 sitcoms are actually multi-cams. The only single-cam sitcom I have among my 10 is GET SMART, a very guilty pleasure of mine. (I have Susan Harris’ other classic, SOAP, ranked higher than GOLDEN GIRLS).
Ah, I remember now how much a fan of SOAP you were! I, of course, love the series as well, but, as discussed last year, I think the serialization ultimately proved corrosive when paired with Harris’ ongoing tonal issues — another case of a tenuous relationship between drama and comedy.
Additionally, if only the quality of those early seasons was maintained throughout the course of the show’s life, then these problems would have been easier to forgive. (I find THE GOLDEN GIRLS much more laudable in this regard — for although the general quality of the writing inevitably goes into decline, there are other elements that manage to buoy the show up to a consistently managed level of quality for most of its run. More, as always, in the weeks ahead…)
Also, stay tuned for this week’s Wildcard post — coming up very soon — for something SOAP-related (which I think will also help explain why the show was initially poised for — and able to — deliver such greatness).
As for GET SMART, it’s possible I’ll be covering the show here (years from now, when we’re back in the ’60s) before this blog concludes…
Out of curiosity where do you rank Taxi, Soap, Maude and The Cosby Show. Just asking d
TAXI and SOAP would probably be in a Top 15 list (alongside, incidentally, THE HONEYMOONERS and THE BOB NEWHART SHOW), as they are often important points of reference for study. MAUDE would probably be in a Top 20. THE COSBY SHOW might be in the Top 20.
What a great list! I’ll be eager to read about RAYMOND when you discuss it, it’s a show I’ve always thought of as hateful with no true love between any of them.
Hi, bobster427! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Stay tuned — until (probably) 2019!
What other issues (aside from continuity) did you have with “Job Hunting”?
Hi, Rashad! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I think the characterizations are still imprecise, the comedic timing is hit-and-miss, and the script only comes alive in the kitchen scene (and the sequence of which it’s a part). Is that one of your favorites?
Not especially. “Job Hunting” has its moments (as do most episodes of TGG). Ultimately, though, I find the episode to be problematic for the same reasons you do.
Forgot to add:
Regardless of my opinion on “Job Hunting,” I always have a good chuckle over Dorothy’s reference to Mel’s Diner (from “Alice”) in the final scene — usually because, in the next episode in the rotation, Polly Holliday (aka “Flo”) guest stars as Rose’s blind sister.
That’s right! Another outing that misses the mark for me.
Regarding “Job Hunting,” in the GOLDEN GIRLS FOREVER book, Speer and Grossman seem to put most of the blame for the episode’s failings on Bogart’s direction, which I think is probably a fairly valid diagnosis.
Can’t wait to hear the rest of your GOLDEN GIRLS coverage. Even the weakest episodes never fail to have some kind of huge laugh in them.
Interesting to hear the story about Betty White having Paul Bogart replaced. I’ve watched his interview with the the Archive of American Television. He says how he loved three of the actresses but Betty White was never his “cup of tea”. It’s a pretty jarring statement considering White seems to be pretty universally loved by her co-workers.
Hi, Brandon! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I recommend checking out the recent GOLDEN GIRLS FOREVER book by Jim Colucci, as it provides some previously unshared behind-the-scenes tidbits with regard to specific episodic reminiscences. I have a more organic plug for the book, which doesn’t highlight every installment but covers over half of them, in a future entry, as I think it’s a valuable addition to a fan’s library.
Personally, I only wish there were more contributions from the late Arthur, primarily because the stories told about her are often one-sided and unflattering — for those who are interested, there’s also a bit of insight into her relationship with White that I think unintentionally paints the tension as not one-sided. Also, with regard to Bogart, there’s some talk about him as well — his direction is one of the explanations proposed for the “Job Hunting” issues — along with more of a history about the show’s early directorial struggles.
People say Betty People say Bea but I think Rue was the best actress on the show. Very Consistent throughout the show. The way Rue excels as an actreds hear is breathtaking. Also do you feel this comedy mines well with drama.
I’m interested to hear why Bea wanted to leave the fifth season though.
Hi, Track! Thanks for reading and commenting.
With regard to Arthur’s desire to leave the show, Terry Hughes bowed out at the end of the fifth season — the year that also saw a major overhaul in the writing staff — and the cast was understandably nervous about moving forward without him, especially because they felt the quality was already starting to slip. However, it wasn’t until Season Six that Arthur was making serious rumbles about an upcoming departure, and the show was indeed preparing for a Dorothy exit that, of course, got prolonged for another year. More on that next month…
As to McClanahan’s strength, I’ll just ask you to stay tuned, because the show went through several different phases of showcasing each of its women, and I think McClanahan’s best work occurs in the latter half of the run — for reasons that will be discussed at length in the weeks ahead (so stay tuned)! And regarding the show’s regular incorporation of drama, I noted in my above commentary that each example must be taken on an individual case-by-case basis; sometimes the show hit the mark, sometimes it didn’t. Again, stay tuned…
Fine analysis, as usual, especially of the MTM and Lear influences on the show. And yes, Nathan & Fanaro were very funny writers although I will argue that Kathy Speer & Terry Grossman, while never as funny, were stronger with story nuts and bolts. Of course, all four would leave GG together in ’89 to form their own company, perhaps recognizing how much they needed one another’s talents.
I agree that it took the writers several episodes to sharpen the characters. But even weaker episodes are a treat, especially this early in the show’s run. “Nice and Easy,” for example, also from the first year, offers up a stock sitcom A-story for Blanche and a silly B-story for Dorothy and Rose. Yet all four women are so good at handling the material, including some very funny jokes, that I always stop to watch.
Can’t wait for next week!
Hi, Red Herring! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I think you’re absolutely right about the complementary nature of the two duos, whose history, of course, went back to BENSON. However, I’ll alert you now that you probably won’t see Speer and Grossman’s names quite so often here in the weeks ahead, particularly with regard to episodes credited to the pair alone. This is because I think, in relation to your point, their scripts tend to be heavier on story and plot — so much so that the comedy is either given short shrift or inadvertently suffocated by the “nuts and bolts.”
So I don’t find their style particularly laudable on its own (when paired with Fanaro and Nathan, that’s another story — we’ll have quite a few classics to discuss by this core foursome), and that’s going to be reflected here for the duration of their tenure. Stay tuned…
Marvelous introduction, Jackson. Most sitcoms take a little while to settle into their best stuff, partly I think because the characterizations are the most important factor and it takes some time for the writers to “hear” the actors in the parts. The Golden Girls is particularly instructive in that way because Ms. Arthur’s comic voice is so identifiable that it’s no surprise, as you point out, that Dorothy is fully formed almost immediately.
Ms. Arthur was notoriously selective about directors. She was hard to please, but once she was happy, she hated to change. She was unhappy with the early directors on Maude and when Hal Cooper changed his schedule to direct an episode at the last minute, she loved him and insisted he cancel the rest of his year’s commitments to other shows. He stayed for the next five and a half years. Ms. McClanahan has some funny stories about her reactions to the potential new directors after Terry Hughes left.
I wonder if one reason Blanche’s character takes a while to coalesce is that the actress had some different ideas from the writers. Early interviews with Ms. McClanahan often include her doubts that Blanche has really done most of the things she says. That tension seems to exist early in the series, but someone seems to have convinced her otherwise at some point.
Looking forward to the rest of the series with you!
Hi, Lee! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Interestingly, I don’t think Blanche’s character took a while to develop. By the third produced script (“Break In”), Harris and company seem to have firmly decided the type of humor they want her character to bring, and the next episode produced (“Guess Who’s Coming To The Wedding”), the second aired, is for me the moment where Blanche first clicks. The only real changes the character will undergo in the years ahead involve the gradual (and, at times, not-so-gradual) broadening that no one from the foursome escaped. (The kind that would give any actor room for pause!)
On the other hand, I would say that Rose’s character DID take a while to develop in comparison to the others – a problem exacerbated by unsuerty on the page and White’s unease with Bogart. But stay tuned for more on Rose. She’s one of the show’s most inconsistent deliverers, with a unique trajectory worth discussing…
hi, i love Golden Girls, i also loved your summaries on Cheers, My thing is, in the next Golden Girls summery, can you mention how it changed Saturday nights…in a similar way that Cosby did to Thursdays. Saturdays was dead until Golden Girls came on. Then they put 227 and later Empty Nest on to make it a very popular night.
Hi, Sean! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I have no plans to discuss any of NBC’s other Saturday night hits of the time, but you’re absolutely right, the ’85-’86 season, with 227 and, particularly, THE GOLDEN GIRLS did give the network a winning line-up on a night that hadn’t been considered prime territory since the mid-‘70s. This won’t be a prevalent theme in the weeks ahead, but it may get a mention! Stay tuned…
thanks, I also loved that in the final Golden Girls season they had theme nights with Empty Nest and Nurses. They had hurricane and full moon.
Yes – to be discussed in weeks ahead; stay tuned!
I understand your not wanting to cover the other Saturday night shows. I’ll wager that no one’s dying to hear your thoughts on AMEN or NURSES. But a side trip (on a Wildcard Wednesday?) to EMPTY NEST could be fun. It hardly deserves seven weeks of coverage, of course, as the show enjoyed only three strong years (IMO) before new showrunners turned into a bland (and loud) pile of mediocrity. Still, many episodes from seasons 1-3 were warm and witty and much closer in tone to the MTM style than GG was. Not sure where you will find complete episodes, though.
I have a complete series set of EMPTY NEST and considered covering the series early next year following MARRIED… WITH CHILDREN. I ultimately decided to skip over EMPTY NEST now, as I find it decidedly and consistently B-level (or C-level) in quality and therefore a distraction from material that is both more enjoyable and more interesting. But I still think it could be fodder for discussion at a later date. (And if I feature the series here, it would be on Tuesdays. I’m not going to watch seven years of a mediocre show for a single post!)
I guess a lot of networks agree with you. i haven’t seen Empty Nest in years and no DVDs yet. I LOVE the Golden Girls forever book. The author put out a similar book out many years ago under “The Queer Guide” series so i knew this book would be great. every fan should buy it or let someone get it for them for Christmas.
You can check out full unedited episodes of EMPTY NEST on the new cable channel LAFF!
The Golden Girls is a true classic. I have always loved Betty White since her Sue Ann days. I have to admit that I liked Bea much better in GG than Maude. Maude was to political for me. Rue was perfect as Blanche. I agree with the above post that even the weakest episodes have huge laughs. Not a lot of comedies can say that.
Your list of favorite comedies is so similar to mine. I would add Newhart and Wings. My favorite is Seinfeld and can’t wait for the review. Thank you and look forward to the next few weeks of Golden Girls.
Hi, Smitty! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Stay tuned for two of your favorites, SEINFELD and WINGS, coming up here next year! (And NEWHART, which looks to be completely released by next spring, might not be too far away either…)
I know you probably plan your posts pretty far in advance, but I think it would be interesting if at some point you did a Wildcard Wednesday comparison of The Golden Girls and Designing Women as two shows with similar framework but, in my opinion, drastic differences in quality. I know you’ve mentioned you won’t cover DW on the blog, and I don’t blame you. While it’s fascinating and informative to see what made Golden Girls work so well, it could be equally rewarding to analyze why it’s “counterpart” comes off as so wimpy in comparison.
Hi, George! Thanks for reading and commenting.
While I’m humbly flattered that you’re interested in my point-of-view, I have no plans to discuss DESIGNING WOMEN here in any capacity. My inability to derive significant enjoyment from the show has nothing to do with its structural similarities to THE GOLDEN GIRLS, so I wouldn’t have a case to make with regard to the comparison angle.
But we had an interesting discussion about my thoughts on DESIGNING WOMEN in the comments of a Wildcard Wednesday post on FILTHY RICH a few months ago, which you can check out here. I’m reprinting a summation of my thoughts below.
Bloodworth-Thomason’s work is often really problematic for me. Her style is the main issue, but it’s not in itself alienating; the root of the problem is actually that I think she uses her style to supplant — and distract from — substance. In other words, a comedic tone can often be used IN PLACE of comedic material, instead of merely offering support. This is anathema to my creative sensibilities, but there are some who find style just as imperative as substance, if not more, and I think that’s probably the case with Bloodworth-Thomason. (For what it’s worth, I also find many of the current single-cams from the past few decades to be more stylistically comedic than substantially comedic, but their tones are rarely as overbearing as Bloodworth-Thomason’s, which is also an issue I would take with her work.)
Much has been said on the similarities between Arthur’s Maude and Dorothy, how do you perceive they are different in terms of personalities and individual quirks?
Hi, Chris! Thanks for reading and commenting.
That’s a good question. I think Arthur played Maude Findlay as somewhat of an equivalent to Archie Bunker, in that she was so stringent in her beliefs that most of the time she couldn’t be taken with complete seriousness. The fact that the scripts often supported Maude’s point-of-views — as they certainly didn’t with Archie’s — made it difficult for the writing to fully make use of this connection, but, in her portrayal, I think Arthur brought in that healthy dose of satire. Concurrently, she matched this with an ever-present desire to keep the character palpably human (again, in the same way that O’Connor balanced Archie), which made the comedy much more potent than it would have read on the page, because now there was a strong emotional foundation in support.
In Dorothy Zbornak, I think Arthur saw a much more earnest character. The persona was still hard-edged on the surface (as that’s simply the way Arthur came across to most audiences) with a biting tongue and sharp wit, but there was always a more intentional and naturally occurring vulnerability in the character that didn’t have to be supplied solely by the actress. In other words, she didn’t have to do as much to humanize Dorothy as she had to do with Maude, and as a result, she could focus much of her attention on the comedy and the way she could amplify (and, when it was needed, further develop) what was already on the page.
In this regard, I actually consider Arthur’s turn as Maude more praiseworthy than her turn as Dorothy, because the actress had better material on THE GOLDEN GIRLS than on MAUDE, but managed to be just as funny in both. As Maude, Arthur was always having to magnify the comedy and create the humanity. As Dorothy, she just had to find and present them both.
All true. I recall early reviews of the show praising Rue McClanahan and Betty White for playing against their established types (especially White’s Rose vs. Sue Ann), then adding that Bea Arthur was essentially playing Maude again. I saw Maude and Dorothy as quite different, even if both were strong women.
I also think Arthur and McClanahan benefited from a looser directing style on GOLDEN GIRLS. The Lear shows are quite rigid (formulaic?) in their styles, holding on lots of close single/iso shots and too often going only for what was clearly indicated on the page. Vivian says something dumb, then cut to Maude’s reaction, then back to Viv. The MTM and Witt/Thomas/Harris shows used more two-shots and wide shots and cut quickly (usually live, from the booth) from actor to actor to get multiple reactions. These women were funny even when they weren’t delivering the crackling dialogue, and GG’s style, post-Bogart, allowed us to see more than MAUDE ever did.
I agree with you. I think that’s precisely why these early Bogart episodes tend not to work within the context of the show’s aesthetic.
I don’t know if I answered your question. I wrote more about the actress than her two characters. Frankly, I think there are more similarities than dissimilarities, because, let’s face it, Dorothy was written for Arthur’s voice, which Harris knew from MAUDE. If Maude Findlay hadn’t existed, Dorothy Zbornak (as we know her) wouldn’t have either.
With regard to any delineations between the two, I think the simple fact that the shows had different aims therefore meant the characters had different aims. Maude and her show were idea-driven (although, I think the writers successfully managed to mostly steer the series into more of a character piece at the start of the third year), and THE GOLDEN GIRLS was always character-focused and relationship-driven. The two portrayals reflected these disparate modes of operation. (For instance, Maude was more pedagogical, while Dorothy was more vulnerable, etc.)
Arthur undeniably brought the same onscreen persona into both portrayals, but she used her natural strengths to adapt and cater to each show’s individual needs. Therefore, any differences that existed between Maude and Dorothy were more circumstantially suggested than broadly implemented, while Arthur focused on keeping her material-elevating work comedic and believable in the frameworks of these two very different shows.
Do you have any opinions, one way or the other, about sitcoms that stick to a single story in each episode as opposed to sitcoms that almost always have an A and a B story running concurrently?
I’ve noticed that the single story approach seems to have been the more traditional one in sitcoms, while the concurrent A/B story appears to have become the more popular one in recent years.
Hi, Brent! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Yes, I’ve mused on this with regularity. Ever resourceful (and never wasteful when it comes to work), I’m reprinting some of those thoughts below.
Storytelling has changed as well; most sitcoms feature multiple plots per episode (another trend made popular with SEINFELD), necessitating short scenes, quick jokes, and no time for anything unrelated to the story/ies. This is acceptable, and appreciated, in a single-camera show, which is aesthetically like a motion picture and can pull off the frenetic multi-narrative action. But a show shot in front of an audience, like a play, cannot handle this type of storytelling because it’s jarring to watch (and doesn’t take advantage of the theatricality that should engender this type of set-up — but that’s another story).
Also, with the ratio of content to adverts continually shrinking, there’s less and less time for each plot. ALL IN THE FAMILY had 25 minutes to tell one story. THE BIG BANG THEORY has 21 minutes to tell three — that’s 7 minutes each. You have to be exceptional to pull that off satisfyingly on a regular basis. And because producers of multi-cam shows are trying to win in a game overpopulated by single-cams, they feel like they have to adapt to rules that shouldn’t apply to them. It’s a sad irony.
As for my preference…
I am generally a proponent of single-premise offerings, for I’d rather a script’s comedy come from breathable character moments than rushed plot points. While there are positives and negatives associated with the multi-story design, the ideas have to be connected — either narratively or thematically — to feel compatible and make the format work.
These notions of how a show can make otherwise unrelated stories fit into a single episode have permeated some of our discussions on ’80s sitcoms (even just recently with THE COSBY SHOW), and we’ll see this much more frequently as this blog moves into the ’90s and feels the effects of SEINFELD, FRIENDS, and all the copy-cats. Ultimately, if there are no narrative links to be made between two (or three, or four) disparate ideas, one must turn to theme. And if that’s not a factor, exceptions can sometimes be made if the plots are linked by location (as in, two CHEERS stories both taking place in the bar) — for the unity of time and space justifies them appearing in the same dramatic thought. Unfortunately, this isn’t easy to do, so most shows seldom try.
Thanks for taking the time to reprint those comments. I’m fairly new to the blog and am still working my way back through older posts. It was always my assumption that the preference for the A-B story structure on THE GOLDEN GIRLS was to ensure that each of the four ladies had something pretty substantial to do in every episode. I’ve noticed that they also tended to use the B story to achieve a tonal contrast with the A story. That is, those episodes with a heavier A story will usually have a lightweight B story.
Regarding “The Way We Met,” Rue McClanahan once commented that the reason they did that one was that they were flooded with letters from people who apparently expected the show’s first episode to have been about how the ladies met and came to live together, and who thought they’d missed it. McClanahan said these people kept writing the network, asking them to repeat THAT “first episode.” At the end of the season, they decided to do “The Way We Met” to meet audience demand. Personally, I, like you, prefer that the pilot is set up more like a typical episode of the series instead of spending its time establishing the show’s premise.
You’re absolutely right about some subplots being used to carry the comedic weight for an A-story that doesn’t put humor as its primary objective; we’ll see this in weeks ahead. Sometimes these secondary plots can indeed save an episode comedically, but this in itself isn’t a justification to the audience for their mutual co-existence. (In fact, every sitcom story should be comedic in some capacity, so there’s no good excuse for one not delivering a base level of humor just because there’s another plot picking up the slack.) Unless there are links to be made, a multi-narrative episode’s lack of a strong structure often forces us to recognize the disparity between the stories’ entertainment values, which is counterintuitive to the wholistic approach they attempted to take by incorporating a comedically overcompensatory subplot in the first place. This unevenness is a notion with which we’ll be dealing soon; stay tuned…
This may be a very silly question, but I’ll ask anyway. One of the criticisms I’ve heard made about GOLDEN GIRLS is that the show could be very sloppy in regards to continuity and the life histories of the four ladies. Being a fan of the show I have to admit there’s something to that. I sometimes get the impression that nobody ever bothered to go back and fact check anything they’d written about these characters. Or that if the latest script was contradictory about a character’s past compared to what had already been established, they just went in the new direction and didn’t worry about it. My question is, do continuity lapses in a TV series bother you or throw you, or do you just roll with them and not give them much thought?
Hi, Sherry! Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m grateful for any question — and, don’t worry, yours is a good one!
Adjudicating continuity problems is an individual judgment call that must be made on a case-by-case basis. Broadly, I tend to view continuity as something for which a series should be credited when done well, but not reprimanded for doing poorly. In other words, great continuity is deserving of praise, but lapses in continuity, assuming they’re only occasional and not so egregious as to be ridiculous (and again, this is the judgment call aspect), don’t necessarily make a series deserving of criticism. I’d rather critique a series based on failures in its creative execution, as opposed to small details that don’t have a bearing on episodic success.
That last point is important, for shoddy continuity is really only subject for concern when it gets in the way of an episode’s comedic or narrative viability. For instance, the lack of follow through and necessary context for Rose’s firing in “Job Hunting” hurts our ability to invest in the situation, and undermines the entire installment’s integrity. But a single line about Blanche’s middle name being Elizabeth (so the show can make use of the BED joke) contradicting what has already been established as her middle name (Marie) doesn’t really hamper the story. At most, we could call it a cheap joke that the writers chose to use in favor of adhering to “canon” (a pretentious word, I think), but if you find the joke itself funny – and again, this is a judgment call – then all complaints should be moot.
However, regular jokes (particularly, tiny throwaway bits) that break continuity in search of easy laughs belie greater problems in a show’s creative health, making the shortcomings with continuity symptomatic of larger failings in the writers’ room. In these cases, it’s not the continuity itself that’s the issue; the issue is the reasons for breaking it. With regard to THE GOLDEN GIRLS specifically, I find the show about average in its relationship with continuity, and I’m very rarely bothered by discrepancies – particularly because most of the errors come as a result of changes in the writing staff. I don’t expect new writers to know everything that the previous crew gave the characters to say, so occasional missteps are best overlooked, especially since I don’t believe these mistakes are due to creative deficiencies.
On a more general note, while narrative believability is something fundamental to my enjoyment of an episode, I also recognize that this is a television show – a work of fiction. In the same way that I can accept two actors playing Gloria Zbornak over the course of the run, I can accept different stories about how many kids Blanche has raised. THE GOLDEN GIRLS isn’t a slice of reality and it’s unfortunate that total realism has become, since SEINFELD, a standard for which all sitcoms are judged, for it only invites audiences to recognize inevitable lapses in continuity and determine them unacceptable, because the shows have thus taught us that “realism” is to be prized. Frankly, that’s never 100% possible, so the more forgiving one can be about issues that are ultimately unimportant (to our individually determined enjoyment), the better.
OK This one of my favorite shows ever! I’m so exited for the rest of the seasons. You never fail to impress me,Jackson. Both the post and your responses to these comments are really insightful. I think I’m going to go watch some S2 in advance of next week! It’s my favorite season probably.
Hi, Elaine! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I appreciate your kind words. (And Season Two is my favorite as well!)
I mostly agree with you here, although I would say The Flu is the best episode of Season 1 and, possibly, the whole series.
I was never a big fan of A Little Romance mainly because it felt too out there for me. And the lame “shrimp?” line with Blance running back into the kitchen is the kind of lazy comedy writing I hate.
Hi, Emma! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I like “The Flu” a lot as well. As for “A Little Romance,” I think the stratospheric nature of the laughs overcompensates for any easiness (or predictability) with regard to the source of the comedy. In fact, I’m not sure if there are any offerings that can boast humor of that high octane calibre.
Jackson!! I have been sitting tight these past couple of years in hot anticipation for September 2016…strictly because I knew your coverage of The Golden Girls was set to commence! The Golden Girls remains to this day, and I expect will always be, my favorite sitcom of all time. What a privilege to at long last be able to savor your exceptional insight and pore over your considerate analysis of a show so near & dear to me.
I think you pinpointed exactly why I never tire of the show: for me, too, it is “my best known remedy for melancholia”. Despite having seen every single episode countless times, to the point where I can recite virtually every punchline seconds before it’s even uttered on screen, The Golden Girls never fails to crack me up. You would think a sitcom I’ve memorized so by heart as I have The Golden Girls would, at some point, lose its luster..but “The Girls” are ever “Golden” in my life. Whenever I watch it I laugh so hard that everyone in the house knows “oh, he must be watching The Girls”. For me, The Golden Girls remains just as fresh as the first day I saw it in syndication as a young boy back in 1997 on Lifetime. Back then, I don’t believe the episodes were at all cut for time (I may be mistaken on this), which makes it harder for me, as a diehard, to watch it these days on Hallmark due to the awkward cuts that are apparently now necessary to shove in as much advertising as possible. Thankfully we have DVD sets! (I was a very happy 16-year-old when I got the first season set for Christmas the year it came out!)
In the past year I’ve done my own official rewatch (the first since 2009), as I was looking forward to being able to compare and contrast what I thought about each season with your own editorials here. I’m thrilled to see that you, too, hold the premiere season in such high regard. I can firmly say now that I’ve gone back and conducted an objective re-evaluation of my own that the first season glitters the most golden in my eyes. For the longest time, whenever I reflected back on these early shows, I thought the characters were a bit rough around the edges still, and the stories on the whole “too serious” at times. However, I came to realize in my recent re-watch that so many of my all-time faves came from this season. I used to tape the shows on blank VHS tapes back in the Lifetime syndication days of the late ’90s, and I remember I had a tape I labeled “Really Good Golden Girls” that included such gems as those highlighted in your Top Ten/Honorable Mentions here: “The Competition”, “A Little Romance”, “The Operation”, “Second Motherhood”, and “The Flu (Flu Attack)”. I giddily rediscovered just how excellent this first year really is.
Your well-informed analysis how The Golden Girls melds and employs both the MTM and Lear-ian styles has entirely shifted my paradigm in how I view the show. Though I’ve been a big fan for so many years, I’ve always had a hard time articulating exactly from where The Golden Girls took its influences. I noted the evident MTM heritage, but I knew there was something inherently bolder, fearless, dare I say more “outrageous”, about the type of humor that The Golden Girls pulls off oh so well. I can’t possibly fathom how it has escaped me all these years that Susan Harris was a writer for Lear — as Dorothy would say: “the final piece of the puzzle”. Thank you so much for this post, Jackson. The historical context you provide in the production of these classics is invaluable. Even after reading through Jim Colucci’s divine read “Golden Girls Forever” (and what a treat to be able to actually see the “Miami Nice” bit! Love it.), I hadn’t gained that perspective. I am embarrassed to admit that I haven’t ventured into much Lear territory (other than catching a few stray episodes of All in the Family, Maude, and One Day at a Time here and there over the years), but as you know I am a major MTM fan (I still have to make that Rhoda comment! Still on Season 5, as life has gotten in the way.), so now that I think about it I’m sure that’s why I had blinders on regarding the Lear-ian colors that define the The Golden Girls. It really is that unique balance struck between character-driven writing and issue-driven writing that forms the Golden Girls trademark wit.
I was also very happy to see how you touched upon the directorial variety of this season; frankly, it’s a big reason why this season is my personal favorite. Surely, Terry Hughes was the man destined to guide this show in the long-term, but I personally really dug Paul Bogart and Jim Drake’s work here. I know that it didn’t make your list, but “Transplant” stands out in my mind as a fine exaple of how distinct Paul Bogart’s style was in contrast to Terry Hughes’. The intensity of the close-ups, for example, at the dinner scene at the restaurant between Blanche and Virginia I find so appealing. A bit heavy for a side-splitting show like this? Probably. But I find as I grow older that I appreciate those more severe moments that really only the first season has more and more. Another example that comes to mind looking at your picks is the moment when Dorothy confronts Stan on the lanai in “Guess Who’s Coming to the Wedding” or Rose’s breakdown in “Break-In” or basically the entirety of “The Heart Attack”. Bogart and Drake both had a deft sensibility for capturing moments of true drama. Such moments of heartbreak and humanity in sitcoms always get to me, especially in a laugh-a-minute sitcom such as this. How remarkable that a single show could evoke such depth and reality across the wide spectrum of human emotion.
Of course, it all comes down to the writing, and Susan Harris penning three of those four scripts I just mentioned is no coincidence. I just wish she would have been able to continue contributing her considerable talents throughout the show’s run — if that had been the case, the remaining seasons possibly would have had a similar atmosphere, which I would have welcomed. Or maybe it was something to do with the lighting; I don’t know if it’s just me, but the age of this season really sets it apart from the others. It feels very mid-80s in its aesthetic, to the point where even a year later, season two feels much newer (I’m thinking of the contrast between the earliest and latest seasons of Newhart, as well..surely it was the advance in camera technology that caused the show to “feel” different, if that makes any sense, in the earliest year.) I also learned why, of course, that Paul Bogart was replaced early on by Jim Drake due to Betty’s unease, which I think everyone with a keen sense can see in Bogart’s episodes. Nevertheless, I certainly didn’t mourn the loss of the Lear directors when Hughes came on board, what with the streak of classics he helmed from the second half of the year up through season five.
Still, I do feel in hindsight that it’s the directorial imprints of Bogart and Drake, undoubtedly distinct from Hughes, that make this season the most fascinating, at least from a technical/stylistic standpoint. Between the directorial “tryouts”, if you will, and the once-in-a-lifetime cast still finding their footing in their characterizations in the earliest productions (and I agree with you — Rose is the shakiest, yet I completely understand why this was Betty’s year for Emmy considering the episodes you highlighted!) there are shades of The Golden Girls in this debut season that are (sadly, for me) never seen again. They’re certainly not to everyone’s liking, I imagine, but there was something about the not-quite-a-well-oiled-machine-yet nature of these early scripts that feel all the more timeless to me. I tend to prefer inaugural seasons on the whole, however – it may just be a personal quirk that I am so captivated by the rawness ingrained in first seasons. The Pilot for The Golden Girls didn’t make my list either, however; there’s something a little bit off about the proceedings, and I don’t know if it’s poor Coco or the fact that Blanche doesn’t have her Southern accent yet or what, but it’s never stuck with me as much as the best episodes of this year have.
Speaking of those very best episodes, I had no doubt you would choose “A Little Romance” as your MVE — so did I! I don’t want to say that there was no competition, because this is The Golden Girls we are talking about, after all, but even with the high standard set by this first season, “A Little Romance” stands tallest (Pun! I couldn’t help myself!). Watching the season straight through it became apparent to me pretty immediately that Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan are tops. Their contributions to the show — WOWZA! No words. If ever I had to pick a favorite episode of the entire series, it might just be “A Little Romance”, so we are on the same page.
Though “Big Daddy” didn’t make my personal Top Ten, I did note it as an honorable mention for Rue’s touching performance as a daughter. It’s not that any one of the ladies ever necessarily became an outlandish caricature of themselves later on (and, in spite of and perhaps BECAUSE of its sheer glee and broadness..touching lunacy at times, the final season is second only to this first season in my heart), but there seemed to be a real dimensionality to these ladies in the first season more than any other, before Rose was telling a St. Olaf story in seemingly every kitchen scene, before Sophia got just plain mean at times (she was more senile in the first year than anything, which was a hoot), and before there didn’t seem to be much to Blanche beyond the sexual yarns she spun. These early days when the writers, directors, and the ladies themselves were all at their greenest in this particular vehicle (thus, not at their most polished), when everyone had a little more bit more bite and spunk and spice, are a wonder to behold. Then again, maybe it’s Bea Arthur, who, for me, seems much harder in the first season than any other; the edges of her freshman outing as Dorothy are delicious. I don’t know if any of that made any sense, but these characters felt, I think, the most natural and real here, before their stock phrases/personalities were completely developed (and perhaps, later on, overdeveloped).
I know it has not made your list but one of my favorite scenes from the first season, and of the series as a whole, is the one in Blanche’s niece Lucy’s beau Ed’s Miami Vice apartment. (okay, that was a mouthful!) Rose petting the sheep, “I like your apartment..!”. Dorothy as she exits, “Good night Ed. We are going to go home now and I want you to know that we’ll all sleep a lot better knowing..you’re off duty tonight.” Although it was only a piece of that episode, it never fails to slay me. I also agree that while “Job Hunting” is a rough outing overall (showing that “rawness” I spoke of above), that magical kitchen table scene, paired with the Susan Harris one from “Rose the Prude”, set the gold standard and must be highlighted if for that alone!
As you can probably tell, I’ve been looking forward to seeing your MVEs and general impressions and the like for many months now, so I’ll be sure to check back in as you cover my favorite show! (With shorter comments, I promise! Thank you for reading this, and thanks in advance for your kind response as always!)
Hi, Izak! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Always a pleasure to connect with folks who love what I love — no need to worry about comment length. (As you know, I’m quite verbose myself!)
Although I don’t appreciate Bogart’s offerings as much as you do, I think if you enjoy his work here, then you owe it to yourself to catch some of those Lear shows, particularly ALL IN THE FAMILY, which Bogart directed for four years, and MAUDE, which Bogart didn’t direct, but is nevertheless aesthetically similar to AITF in many ways, including visual style. Also, if you prefer the harder characterization of Dorothy in these early years (which I too favor), you’ll delight in MAUDE.
Additionally, you seem to have a fondness for Harris’ writing; you MUST watch SOAP, if you haven’t already. It’s the series on which her personal touch is most felt, and I think you’ll appreciate it immensely, if for no reason than the connections you’ll make between that series and this one!
Okay — now it’s official! All in the Family, Maude, and Soap are next on my classic sitcom quest! I’ve seen just a few episodes of all three, and indeed really enjoyed what I saw then. Considering the creative team, it sounds like I owe it to myself to check them out – thanks for your seal of approval, Jackson! (Also will enjoy reading your coverage here, of course)
My pleasure — I think you’ll enjoy them!
I was surprised to see The Competition up there. Not one of my faves. I could name my favorite joke/one-liner from the other 9 episodes plus the honorable mentions. You described that episode as having big laughs. What are your favorite lines from that episode?
Hi, Cheri! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I think Fanaro and Nathan’s script for “The Competition” is strong — consistently in supply of a heightened level of humor that’s also character-driven. Those “big laughs” to which I referred are that pair’s modus operandi in these initial two seasons, and this sense of objective is evident within the episode; thus, it’s never just a single joke or moment that makes their offerings notably hilarious, but a maintained level of quality in which laughs (actual laughs) are delivered with frequency.
The bulk of this particular episode’s humor comes, as mentioned above, from the surprising depiction of the Rose character, whose persona is not yet locked into place but is growing closer to being fully established. Not surprisingly, if I had to pick a single funniest moment, the one that first pops into my head is the shimmy that she and Sophia do in their bowling outfits — it’s goofy and juvenile (both words that can be used to describe Rose), but the comedy is rooted in the “turnaround” of expectations regarding her behavior. Because this episode plays with expectations, enjoyment only intensifies with a foreknowledge of what’s to come for Rose, and yet the very fact that this offering uses said “turnaround” for comedy indicates that they’re starting to have an understanding of her character. It shows here.
Additionally, the teleplay does a wonderful job with the presentations of the other characters — not to mention the relationship between Dorothy and Sophia — while giving Dorothy and Blanche, in particular, some really stellar moments. The whole bit about how Blanche slept with a former rival’s brother is divinely comedic and character-rooted, and it’s then used to maximum effect when Blanche suggests they get even with Rose, leading Dorothy to declare (in another one of those continuity problems that bothers a lot of folks, but I tend to overlook because it’s minor and doesn’t hamper any episode from achieving its goals), “Blanche, I’m 55-years-old and Rose has six brothers!” That would probably be my favorite line.