Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the continuation of our series on the best of 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.
As teased last week, the second season of The Golden Girls is my choice for the series’ strongest. The usual reasons all apply. This season boasts a great number (if not the greatest number) of absolute classics — high praise indeed for a show of this comedic calibre — and the lowest number of misfires. The year also benefits from an elevated status quo; that is, the season’s base level of quality (the sensibilities typifying what we’d otherwise consider the “average” offerings) is better than it is in any other era, meaning that even the worst episodes of Season Two are not as bad as the worst episodes from other seasons. In fact, I’d go even further and note that every episode of this season, even the few relative duds (about which I’ll be quite outspoken if asked — including on the overrated “To Catch A Neighbor”), have something worthwhile and commendable within them — the only exception being the season finale, a backdoor pilot for Empty Nest, which was retooled and picked up a year later as an entirely different property, and understandably so. (As many of you might know, I considered discussing Empty Nest within the next couple of months, but I’ve decided to shelve that idea for now, leaving open the possibility of revisiting the series when we circle back to cover other shows I’ve skipped, such as this decade’s Newhart, which unlike Empty Nest, is already a guarantee.)
Furthermore, and more indicative of why this season remains my favorite, the scripts in general feature the perfect calibration between big laughs and moments of logical motivation – the kind necessary to support all the comedy. In other words, these episodes can make us laugh-out-loud — and with notable regularity — but they can also do so without jeopardizing either the integrity of the characters or the audience’s common sense. (This will become a minor-league problem for the series beginning even with the following season; stay tuned for more next week…) Additionally, everyone involved seems to know how good the series is, as the high praise (and awards) definitely gives the show a sense of confidence that makes the first part of the year, in particular, a stretch of repeated excellence with delectably fruitful results — the kind that are awe-inspiring. What’s more: so much of the year’s charm is character. In fact, all of those pesky issues we had at the beginning of last season are but a memory now, as each of the “Girls” is fully formed to the point of, one might even say, brilliance, with their individual relationships with one another each subtly nuanced and consistently interesting. It is precisely for the second season’s firm grasp of its characterizations that I prefer it — slightly, mind you — to the first, which got off to an undeniable rocky start (particularly with Rose).
During this year, every member of the ensemble is given Emmy-worthy material, including Betty White, who indeed won an award for her work last season, and Rue McClanahan, who would go on to win for her work this season. While the quality of Rose’s utilization here comes in fits and starts — and is particularly well-noted in the scripts written before the actress won her award — Blanche’s character continues to develop both comedically, a growth we see implemented in the season’s basic operations, and even dramatically, as McClanahan gets a couple of meaty shows into which she can sink her teeth later in the year. I, personally, believe Blanche becomes a more powerful presence in the years ahead (for reasons, of course, that we’ll discuss), but the continuing evolution of both character and actress is remarkable — and this season is a great exhibition. Actually, most of the episodes highlighted in today’s entry benefit explicitly from both Blanche’s character and McClanahan’s burgeoning portrayal, and it’s very easy to see why this was her year. Meanwhile and with regard to the other girls, Bea Arthur’s Dorothy remains the show’s ever hilarious anchor, for whom the writers seem most determined to secure a special statue (a tactic that will become even more forceful — and successful — next season), while Estelle Getty’s Sophia continues to develop closer bonds with each of her three roommates. (Sophia’s growth, and specifically the show’s self-awareness about how it uses her, will become a more prominent topic for discussion soon; stay tuned…)
Now, I wrote at length in my commentary on Season One about the way the show navigated a desirable balance of the comedic aesthetics traceable back to both the shows produced by Norman Lear and the shows produced by MTM. Here in Season Two, which features most of the same writers from the first season, that trend is continued, but done with even more ease — so much so, in fact, that there’s no longer any need to discuss the merged styles. Now it’s just one style: The Golden Girls style, a character-driven comedy performed by four dynamic actors who make great laugh-filled material come alive on a weekly basis. It’s exactly what a good situation comedy should be and this season is one for the sitcom hall-of-fame (hey, maybe one day I’ll create and operate this joint myself). It’s one of the best sitcom seasons of this decade and any decade, so I took the construction of this list very seriously. And, 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 — no, WILL — be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Two. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season, except that rotten backdoor pilot for Empty Nest, is directed by Terry Hughes.
01) Episode 26: “End Of The Curse” (Aired: 09/27/86)
Blanche worries that she’s pregnant, but the truth may be worse.
Written by Susan Harris
When a show like The Golden Girls has a smash first season, there’s even more pressure upon everyone involved to either capitalize and expand upon this success or, at the very least, find a way to maintain the level of quality. In the case of this series, that pressure is channeled into confidence, which propels them forward to humorous places heretofore unexplored. And this episode encapsulates this phenomenon perfectly, as the smart script, written by creator Susan Harris, not only gives us great, consistent laughs, but also manages to do so without skipping a beat. That is, the characters are as fresh as they were last season, but naturally, even better defined. As a result, even when a story is a bit contrived (like the mink breeding), the characters, aided by good writers, can make it work. And, as evidenced here, they do it expertly.
02) Episode 27: “Ladies Of The Evening” (Aired: 10/04/86)
The girls are arrested as hookers on their way to see Burt Reynolds.
Written by Barry Fanaro & Mort Nathan
Writers Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan already proved themselves last season to be the show’s funniest pair, but there’s no better showcase for their talents than the second year. You’ll notice that this list features all five of the season’s scripts credited solely to this twosome, and their elevated comedy quotient is generally the reason. In the case of this installment, which features a trite sitcom story (characters going to jail under false prostitution charges — how often does that happen to three 50-year-olds in real life?) and a gimmicky cameo by Burt Reynolds, it’s the laughs that truly excuse some of these storytelling shenanigans. The comedy here is fast and furious, and while episodes from later seasons with this design might not make the grade, the show is in such a period of excellence that the character moments indeed prevail. A hit.
03) Episode 29: “It’s A Miserable Life” (Aired: 11/01/86)
Rose feels responsible for the death of a crotchety old neighbor.
Written by Barry Fanaro & Mort Nathan
Although I mentioned in my seasonal commentary above that there was no longer any need to discuss the MTM (or Lear) influences within the series, I have to note that this is The Golden Girls‘ equivalent of “Chuckles Bites The Dust.” This show, given that it’s centered on Miami retirees, often deals with death as subject matter, but never is the humor as biting as it is here, as the premise involves sweet-natured Rose telling a nasty neighbor (played memorably by Nan Martin) to drop dead, just before she does exactly that. The gallows humor is delicious and even speaks to that ol’ Lear principle: heightened drama can yield heightened laughs. That’s certainly proven here in the second half of the show, which takes us to the funeral home for a sequence with Mr. “Puh-feiffer” that’s a ridiculous string of big, worthwhile laughs. Now, while it may shock many fans who, despite liking this episode, would nevertheless not pick it as the year’s best, this is the one I’m choosing as my MVE. Not only do I think it’s the funniest and best written, but it represents perfectly the ideal Golden Girls style: Lear laughs with MTM stories.
04) Episode 30: “Isn’t It Romantic?” (Aired: 11/08/86)
Dorothy’s friend, a lesbian, develops a crush on Rose.
Written by Jeffrey Duteil
If you’ve already read that I’ve chosen the above as my MVE, you’re probably wondering why I didn’t give that honor to this outing, which many fans agree is one of the series’ best. The simple answer is that, while I do think it’s a classic, I don’t think it’s as funny as its legend would have us believe. Yes, there are many indelible moments, particularly from the episode’s MVP, Blanche, who contributes most of its humor (her Lebanese bit is a hallmark), but these big-laughs are countered by freelancer Duteil’s cautious sense of progressivism and a nobility about the premise that’s at odds with this show’s usual brashness. As a result of the script’s trepidation and simultaneous self-importance, the humor takes a figurative backseat (especially in the Jean scenes). This doesn’t keep the episode from being memorable and ultimately excellent on its own terms, nor can I pretend that this isn’t a favorite (in fact, I did almost make this my MVE — a tough call), but the above simply represents the series better. This is a very close second.
05) Episode 34: “Joust Between Friends” (Aired: 12/06/86)
Blanche is jealous when Dorothy finds success working at her art museum.
Written by Scott Spencer Gordon
Last week I wrote about some of the difficulties that sitcoms, and even this series, have with putting its regulars in conflict, as the means for doing so often contrive situations into which the characters ordinarily wouldn’t enter of their own doing. This particular installment finds Dorothy and Blanche at odds, but the reason that I think it manages to avoid feeling like a writer-imposed-conflict is that the drama is really one-sided, as both Blanche’s jealousy over Dorothy’s proficiency and a natural misunderstanding about a secret project lead the southern belle to pick an argument with her best friend. It’s understandable, especially for Blanche’s character, and because Dorothy’s motivation is to avoid the same antagonism, the dynamic therefore feels authentic, thus allowing the heightened comedy to play unencumbered.
06) Episode 36: “‘Twas The Nightmare Before Christmas” (Aired: 12/20/86)
The ladies’ plans to spend Christmas with their families are thwarted.
Written by Barry Fanaro & Mort Nathan
Another well-liked installment by the fanbase, this is an offering that ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, this episode isn’t consistently enjoyable, but because of both the moments of supreme comedy and the sense of good-will the outing manages to engender, it ultimately remains a classic. Of course, the seminal scene from this entry is the gift-giving sequence, in which Blanche surprises her roommates with a racy calendar filled with pictures from “The Men of Blanche’s Boudoir.” It’s as hilarious in execution as it sounds on paper, and it manages to overcompensate for some of the foolish shenanigans that follow, specifically when the women are temporarily held hostage at the grief center. (I rolled my eyes after typing that sentence.) Fortunately, the episode ends on a welcome note of holiday cheer.
07) Episode 39: “The Actor” (Aired: 01/17/87)
Dorothy, Rose, and Blanche all fall for the lead in their community play.
Written by Barry Fanaro & Mort Nathan
Lloyd Bochner, whom we’ve been discussing lately in our Dynasty posts, guest stars in this episode as a famous actor who comes to town to star alongside the women in the community play. Of course, they all fall for him, and he decides to secretly see each one. It’s surprising how well this episode works, given that so much of the material is actually thrown to a guest star instead of the regulars, but once again we must look to the strength of this Fanaro and Nathan script, which seemingly justifies any moment of slight artificiality and also supplies the offering with enough big moments that mitigate all those that aren’t commensurate. The highlight of this outing, without a doubt, is Blanche’s audition, in which she amplifies herself with an inflated bosom that pops during her reading with Bochner. It’s a Lucy-esque gag that McClanahan sells.
08) Episode 44: “Long Day’s Journey Into Marinara” (Aired: 02/21/87)
Sophia’s sister moves to Miami while Rose cares for a piano-playing chicken.
Written by Barry Fanaro & Mort Nathan
The second and final episode to feature Nancy Walker, whose character would have been a great recurring presence on the series, this entry is probably even funnier than her first appearance (which almost made this list). Now that we’ve gotten the story-oriented conflict between them out of the way, we can explore their lingering rivalry through a more character-driven lens. Also, this story melds beautifully with a hilarious subplot involving Rose and a chicken, Count Bessie, who can play the piano. The scene where the girls believe that Angela has killed and cooked Bessie is a supreme moment — one of the best from the entire series — and illustrates a sense of mastery within the storytelling, something not always displayed in these two-story-per-episode scripts. A favorite and a mini-classic, there’s a lot of stuff to enjoy in this one.
09) Episode 45: “Whose Face Is This, Anyway?” [a.k.a. “Whose Face Is It, Anyway?”] (Aired: 02/28/87)
Blanche considers plastic surgery and Rose makes a home movie.
Written by Winifred Hervey
In the writing and researching of these posts, I’ve noticed that many of the scripts written by prolific staff member Winifred Hervey have often been good-but-not-great, just narrowly evading my lists in favor of other “must include” offerings. This is only the second episode for which she’s credited individually that I’m highlighting here and one of the reasons that this outing, in particular, felt worthy of inclusion — over the two most pressingly enjoyable honorable mentions featured below — is that it’s incredibly solid. From the beginning to the end, the level of humor is evenly distributed, and because each member of the ensemble is fairly well-utilized, this episode becomes almost an ideal example of the series. I’m not sure it could be called outstanding, but it’s great. Simply great, and emblematic of the show’s “golden era.”
10) Episode 50: “A Piece Of Cake” (Aired: 05/09/87)
The women reminisce about memorable birthdays.
Written by Kathy Speer, Terry Grossman, Mort Nathan, and Barry Fanaro
This is the second of what I like to call the series’ “anthology episodes,” in which a script takes a singular idea and crafts a couple of sketches that are thematically relevant and can be strung together with wraparound “remember when” segments. (It’s different from a flashback show, which is usually concerned with just one event from the past, or a clip show, which is comprised of stuff we’ve already seen.) It’s a gimmick, yes, but the elimination of exposition allows the show to focus on the “meat” of the episode: the comedic sequences. And this offering, unlike the first “anthology episode” (an honorable mention listed below) is more equitably enjoyable, although the sequence with Dorothy at Mr. Haha’s Hot Dog Hacienda is without a doubt the installment’s high point, and another candidate for the season’s funniest moment. Classic.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “The Sisters,” the first episode with Nancy Walker’s Angela, which has a solid script by Christopher Lloyd, and very nearly made the above list, and “Son-In-Law Dearest,” which features a heavy main plot that’s surprisingly well-handled alongside a great subplot that appeals to me, naturally, as an I Love Lucy fan. Both of these episodes are good enough to appear with the above entries and I wish I could choose 12 because this season is that good. Other installments of “honorable mention” quality include “Big Daddy’s Little Lady,” which features that classic “Miami, You’ve Got Style” song, and “Bedtime Story,” the first of the anthology episodes and the one that features an incredible scene with all four ladies in bed. (If only the rest of the outing was as good!)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of The Golden Girls goes to…..
“It’s A Miserable Life”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the third season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!