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.
No matter what kvetching may come in the weeks ahead, this season proved the most challenging of the entire series when it came time to comfortably establish hierarchical levels of quality. The main reason for this noted difficulty comes because Season Three is an evident descent from the two years prior, particularly with regard to the writing. The effects of this considerable contrast, which we’ll dissect below, manifest themselves in several obvious ways, the primary being that the year hosts some of the show’s best moments alongside some of its worst (no hyperbole) — often within the same episode. And although there will be years hereafter with a greater assortment of moments and episodes that flat-out fail, the third year is unrivaled in its accompanying disappointment, especially because we, as the audience, aren’t yet prepared for such a monumental shift. Much of this is due to the year’s proximity to the two earliest seasons, which are so superior themselves that replication is automatically a challenge; but I don’t want to easily excuse these scripts of their problems simply because of the high quality of those that came before. Also, because the core writing staff has remained unchanged (Fanaro & Nathan, Speer & Grossman, Hervey Stallworth, Lloyd), there’s really no good excuse for qualitative differentiation, especially when — SPOILER — this lull will prove temporary.
Let’s pinpoint exactly what ails Season Three. There are two interconnected elements that I believe are virulent: the stories and the storytelling. With regard to the former — which seems the most obvious on paper — I’m never able to shake the notion that the plots being concocted this year feel desperate. The show seems to be having trouble coming up with ideas that are both character-driven and comedic, for often times we’ll get an installment that grants us a premise that is fundamentally designed for one, but not the other. I think it “boils down” to the show’s unspoken competition with its brilliant past. After a year-and-a-half of knowing precisely who each of these four characters are, these veteran writers are now running all over themselves in their attempts to utilize the “girls” in ways that are not only unique to the series (and unlike the stuff that came before), but also in ways that can top the heights previously reached. And in this forceful quest to beat material that may be unbeatable, the show ends up not scaling mountains, but scraping the bottom of a figurative barrel. Voodoo housekeepers? TV superheroes? Rich pigs? (Please tell me what this has to do with our four core characters!) With too many episodes here predicating their worths upon ideas that are foundationally ridiculous or unrelated to character, it therefore becomes an uphill battle to reach the quality that, we can assume, these episodes were so feverishly attempting to meet. On the other end of the spectrum are ernest character dramas, like “Blanche’s Little Girl” and “Charlie’s Buddy,” which make more sense for the established personalities, but simultaneously find laughs inherently difficult to achieve. In effect, that wonderful Season Two balance — in tone, narrative, and comedy — is gone.
Meanwhile, the other issue, which I’ll call the “storytelling,” sure doesn’t make it any easier for these corrosively conceived entries to escape their entrapments, for Season Three sees the show’s focus changing (and this also helps to explain why the show is also having story problems). Simply put: the series’ core objective has shifted from character to comedy. Now, before I attempt to explain, let’s preface this idea by noting that the four core characters are so well-established and understood that we don’t have to worry about their depictions — even in faulty episodes. Thus, character integrity is not yet the occasional problem that it will become under the show’s second team of writers, in which the broadening of the series’ storytelling scope (the kind that happens in all long-running series) can occasionally have a detrimental effect on its players. Here, the issue is simply that the focus isn’t on the characters, as it was in the two years prior; now it’s on the comedy. Yet, you may be wondering why I’d consider this a flaw, particularly because, as regular readers know, I put a lot of emphasis on the way actual laughs, specifically, are vital in the construction of a successful sitcom. But laughs can’t exist without strong characterizations in support, and while I tend to give the edge to individual installments with high humor quotients (hence all the Nathan/Fanaro love these past two weeks), I’m only able to do this when a certain level of respect is shown to the characters. In the case of The Golden Girls‘ third season, I’m not saying the characters are being disrespected; rather, they’re simply regarded as solid enough to not need the care they once did. It shows.
But how does this translate into a flaw? Well, it comes down to the sheer force with which the show sets about going after its laughs. Once again, in an attempt to outrank all that came before, the season goes into overdrive attempting to deliver HILARITY (in all caps, yes). Could this be related to lingering Lear sensibilities? Probably, especially because the extremes between the in-your-face comedy and the overwrought melodramatics are as evident as ever. But we’ve never before had humor problems like these, for sometimes the result of these scripts’ comedic focus is overstimulation, and when too many of the utilized jokes feel unearned, gratuitous, or beneath the series and its fine characters, this then creates an unsatisfying experience. In other words, the show is now trying so hard to make us laugh that it’s resorting to hokum and tricks that have the opposite effect. Thus, instead of humor being rooted in character, we start to notice it coming more from the writers. (And the funnier the writers, the more counterintuitive their work this year! You’ll see that reflected in this list.) Because no major overhauls were made to the staff this year, I think this problem is related to the environment that reportedly existed within the writer’s room at this time, which I’ve read described as highly competitive and laugh-driven, as several teams would both be assigned the same script/scene and whichever one was deemed “better” would ultimately be used. This certainly fosters both that alienating feeling of oneupmanship — go for the laughs, logic and quality be darned — and the unevenness within individual teleplays. Some episodes stack classic Golden Girls scenes next to absolute tripe. How does one rank quality when schisms already exist within the majority of these offerings?
Inevitably, we find our positives elsewhere. As usual, the cast is superb, and with the show not being up to its usual levels, this year really allows us to appreciate just how much each woman brings to the show, regularly elevating somewhat substandard fare into material that at least appears solid. This is particularly true of Arthur, whose ever-present talents seem to converge this season with a desire to finally win that Emmy (which had already gone to both White and McClanahan). Arthur’s deliveries, reactions, and choices are at a place of excellence that we rarely see with consistency on television, and it’s no surprise that the work she put into this season did indeed earn her another long-deserved statue. In spite of overarching textual deficiencies, she is clearly the year’s anchor. This is very much Dorothy’s season, and this focus on the series’ structural center does help boost the year’s overall appeal. Also, the show’s gradual “beefing up” of the Sophia character, particularly in regards to her relationship with Dorothy, helped Getty win a Supporting Actress Emmy for her work this season — making the entire ensemble Emmy recipients; the first cast to have that honor since All In The Family. Meanwhile, as Arthur and Getty’s awards are both justified by their efforts in Season Three, White and McClanahan remain as laudable as ever, each so attuned to their roles that they can make the ridiculous seem appropriate for the characters — most of the time, that is.
Remember that I’m harsh on this year because the series has told me that it’s capable of better. A “razz” on this season that shares the same intensity as one I’ve given to the worst of The Cosby Show, for instance, is not commensurate when it comes to quality, because, the shows aren’t necessarily commensurate in quality. They’re only comparable when each independently viewed within their individual series’ context. Also, in spite of all this critical rigmarole, there’s still a lot to enjoy here — after all, we’re still dealing with The Golden Girls. We’ve got four talented women playing excellently crafted characters with writing that, even when flawed, is better and funnier than the average lot. And while this list is comprised of all different kinds of installments — those that have great stories and decent laughs, those that have decent stories but great laughs, etc. — I’ve still tried to select the overall strongest. As I’ve already noted, it wasn’t easy; these episodes didn’t make it a “cheesecake” walk (pun intended), because almost every excursion here does something well and something not-so-well. (So pay attention to the many different types of honorable mentions too. I try to keep them few, but couldn’t this week.) Yet the good news: this dip in quality is temporary — these problems won’t prove permanent. We’ll talk more about how the show managed to rebound next week (even though, as was the case here, it’s not always so clear; stay tuned…) But in the meantime, 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 may be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Three. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by Terry Hughes.
01) Episode 52: “Old Friends” (Aired: 09/19/87)
Sophia meets a new friend and Rose has trouble with a Sunshine Cadet.
Written by Kathy Speer & Terry Grossman
No other episode here so appropriately illustrates the duality of quality within the season as this episode. While we get a terrifically funny story about a Sunshine Cadet (a Girl Scout, for all intents and purposes) — played by Jenny Lewis, the future musician and former regular of Life With Lucy — who holds Rose’s beloved teddy bear, Fernando, hostage, we also get a terribly self-important and comedically bankrupt story about Sophia befriending a man who has dementia. No matter how many people praise their scenes for their humanity or the strong performances (this is the one that won Getty her Emmy), the simple truth is that the story is far less entertaining than its companion, making for an episode that constitutes some of both the strongest and most forgettable (sorry, bad joke) material of the season. Half-a-classic.
02) Episode 53: “One For The Money” (Aired: 09/26/87)
The girls reminisce about past money-making endeavors.
Written by Kathy Speer, Terry Grossman, Barry Fanaro, Mort Nathan, and Winifred Hervey Stallworth
One of the things that most indicates the tiredness within the writing this season is the fact that there are three anthology episodes. For those who didn’t catch last week, in which the show debuted a successful anthology episode and followed it up quickly with an even better one, I’m referring to episodes that are structured around a single idea, but feature several thematically related sketch-like sequences in place of a singular story. These are easy because they don’t have to be written or shot all at once. (Taxi used to do the same thing at the end of its seasons.) It’s a gimmick, but if several of the sequences work, you tend to have a truly solid and laugh-driven (because it’s not story-driven) installment. This one has the iconic dance competition that yields many laughs and another fun moment where the girls are singing and stuffing chickens.
03) Episode 59: “Brotherly Love” (Aired: 11/14/87)
Dorothy goes out with Stan’s brother, angering both Stan and Blanche.
Written by Jeffrey Ferro & Fredric Weiss
While I find Stan to be a strong comedic presence — mostly because of the reaction that his appearance usually elicits from Dorothy — episodes that feature him always tend to be hit-and-miss. This year, however, I note myself really enjoying every offering in which he appears and I think it’s because each Stan episode also promises to be a heavy Dorothy episode, and that’s especially an asset in Season Three. This outing has always been a sleeper favorite; that is, I forget how decent this entry is until I watch it again. Sure, I’m not thrilled with the story nor have I ever been a fan of McLean Stevenson, but the script, the first by this new duo, is occasionally strong — with several wonderful and funny moments. (Only someone like Dorothy could make a joke about Hamlet and have it be both funny and fitting!) Dark horse.
04) Episode 60: “A Visit From Little Sven” (Aired: 11/21/87)
Blanche uses Rose’s naive cousin to make her beau jealous.
Written by David Nichols
With a script by a freelance writer, the episode’s fresh perspective helps to break some of the rut into which many of these others have found themselves. In both the teleplay’s depiction of the characters and the places it goes for comedy, this entry is one of the few here that actually feels connected to what was produced the two seasons prior. It’s primarily a Blanche story, affording plenty of material for McClanahan, who otherwise doesn’t get to shine as bright as she did last season (for which she won an Emmy). The best scene, however, occurs at the start — and this script boasts a terrific first act — when the ladies are shocked to see that Rose’s cake, which is supposed to be shaped like Florida, actually resembles a part of the male anatomy. Dorothy’s reaction is a riot, letting Arthur walk away with this entire Blanche-Rose episode.
05) Episode 61: “The Audit” (Aired: 11/28/87)
Dorothy is audited alongside Stan, while Blanche and Rose go to Spanish class.
Written by Winifred Hervey Stallworth
Although more Hervey Stallworth (she added the Stallworth in between this season and the one prior) scripts are in today’s list than any other, my opinion of her contributions remain the same: she knows the characters, but doesn’t typically produce the funniest material. This episode may seem on the surface to be a very run-of-the-figurative-mill offering that’s neither fantastic nor disastrous, but on closer look, there’s much to enjoy in the bevy of strong character moments we get along the way. And because these character moments are so delectable, the comedy really lands. In fact, this may be among Hervey Stallworth’s funniest efforts, particularly because of a truly hysterical scene in which Dorothy and Stan visit the IRS agent, which is loaded with some of my favorite lines of the season. A consistent effort from an inconsistent season.
06) Episode 62: “Three On A Couch” (Aired: 12/05/87)
The ladies seek professional help to resolve their constant bickering.
Written by Jeffrey Ferro & Fredric Weiss
The second script by Ferro and Weiss, whose one-year tenure seems all too brief (especially considering that all three of the scripts for which they’re credited have made this list — unintentionally), I consider this offering to be another anthology episode, even though there’s a more concrete story in place: the girls visiting a psychiatrist to help them settle their shortening tempers with one another. Although this antagonism comes out of nowhere (in a typical sitcom story), I nevertheless think it’s a very believable idea that people who share so much time together get on one another’s nerves, and while I don’t appreciate the threat of break-up (because we know it’s impossible), I do recognize the need for conflict. As for the comedy, the newspaper ad scene is my favorite of the reminiscences, but the shrink stuff remains tops.
07) Episode 67: “Grab That Dough” (Aired: 01/23/88)
The women go to California to compete on a game show.
Written by Winifred Hervey Stallworth
Hervey Stallworth’s second individual script to make today’s list, this is a fan favorite that I truthfully find to be overrated. Why? It’s both a simple premise that could be done on any show, and is therefore not motivated by these four great characters, and it features storytelling beats (the switched teams) that we’ve already seen before (in Season One’s “The Competition,” to be precise), and therefore don’t feel new or interesting. However, I still enjoy the episode for the laughs it does deliver and for the care it takes in trying to make the gimmicky game show sequence ride on humor that’s specific to the characters and not purely situational. The highlight for character-driven stuff is probably Blanche’s “Better late than… pregnant” joke, but there are more than a few gems here and, thankfully, the script is able to overcome its easy premise.
08) Episode 68: “My Brother, My Father” (Aired: 02/06/88)
Dorothy and Stan pretend to still be married when Sophia’s brother visits.
Written by Barry Fanaro & Mort Nathan
Bea Arthur won an Emmy for her stellar work in this episode, which has Dorothy and Stan (Herb Edelman, as always) pretending to still be married when Sophia’s brother, Uncle Angelo (Bill Dana), a priest — and a presence whom I incidentally find too cartoony for the series — comes to visit from Italy. Now, this is a premise that, like the above, could be done on any series (and has been done on many — for instance, episodically with The Odd Couple and in a variation, serially with Occasional Wife). But as with its predecessor, the script does a wonderful job of motivating all the story beats through established character traits, and then supporting the narrative through unbelievable comedy so that the nature of the plot is totally forgiven. Furthermore, I appreciate the elements of farce that weave throughout, with the arrival of Blanche and Rose in their nun costumes from their production of The Sound Of Music being the most comedically rewarding moment of the entire season. A hysterical classic — the least forceful entry from Fanaro and Nathan this year — and an easy choice for MVE.
09) Episode 72: “Larceny And Old Lace” (Aired: 02/27/88)
Sophia dates a mobster and the girls read Rose’s diary.
Story by Jeffrey Ferro & Fredric Weiss | Teleplay by Robert Bruce & Martin Weiss
With a story by Ferro and Weiss, a new duo who gave this year some of its more memorable entries, and a teleplay by their replacements, Bruce and (another) Weiss, who’ll stay on board for two more years, this outing is among the most unique. While the guest appearance of Mickey Rooney threatens to be a gimmick unto itself, the installment crafts an interesting character for the actor that is driven by substantive material (and not his simple star power). Additionally, Sophia gets what is clearly the A-story — her second of the season and a novelty in these early years; this won’t actually be a conscious occurrence until after Getty’s Emmy win. Meanwhile, there’s an easy but amiable subplot with Dorothy and Blanche reading Rose’s diary, but it’s fascinatingly plotted — concluding right in the outing’s middle. Not perfect, but fun and fresh.
10) Episode 74: “Mixed Blessing” (Aired: 03/19/88)
Dorothy’s son gets engaged to an older woman — an older black woman.
Written by Christopher Lloyd
Of all the episodes on this list, I struggled most with this one, because the premise is an odd mix of character-ignorant social relevance and outlandish gaggy humor that’s so broad it almost makes us cringe. But by a strange chemical reaction, the final product is more shockingly rewarding than most. (Maybe because the idea is so risky and calls for extreme reactions, it simply stands out from the honorable mentions.) Also, this entry seemed to warrant inclusion here because it’s a Christopher Lloyd script — his first to be singled out in my coverage. Since The Golden Girls, Lloyd (Frasier, Modern Family) has gone on to have an incredible career, and I think it’s fair to say much of his success can be attributed to lessons learned here. Frankly, his episodes on this series don’t work with regularity, but this is his funniest entry of the season.
As noted above, there are several different honorable mentions here. There are episodes that feature admirable attempts at comedy, but unfortunately can’t break the bonds of humorless and unenjoyable non-character-driven stories — “Letter To Gorbachev,” a Fanaro/Nathan outing that I sometimes try to convince myself is funny enough (Dorothy is killer here) to overcome its topical, unfunny premise, and “Dorothy’s New Friend,” a clear “homage” (the generous term) to an entry from The Mary Tyler Moore Show that marks a solid premise-elevating first try by Bruce and Weiss. Then there’s an installment that utilizes a broad, ridiculous story, with bold humor that follows suit — “Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself, a flighty Lloyd script that tries to be too conveniently tight and thus just misses the mark. And then there’s a middling entry with a couple of BIG funny moments — “And Ma Makes Three,” which includes a truly riotous St. Olaf story involving a crack and a crow, and also points toward the heavier Dorothy-Sophia material we’ll see in the years to come (this was the closest to making the above list). Lastly, although I don’t consider it very honorable, I’d be remiss not to mention Alice Ghostley’s hilarious turn as Stan’s mom in the season finale, “Mother’s Day,” an uneven anthology episode (that’s not unlike last season’s “Bedtime Story.”)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of The Golden Girls goes to…..
“My Brother, My Father”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fourth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!