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.
After a third season that undoubtedly fell short of the high expectations set by the two years prior, Season Four finds The Golden Girls back to a respectable level of quality. This return to form is somewhat unexpected, especially considering that both the third and fourth years boast the same chief architects — Kathy Speer, Terry Grossman, Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan. They’re rejoined this year by veterans Christopher Lloyd and Winifred Hervey Stallworth, the latter of whom is no longer on staff but does contribute one more script, and the prior year’s promising new duo of Robert Bruce and Martin Weiss. In fact, the only new additions here are Eric Cohen, a one-season wonder, and partners Richard Vaczy and Tracy Gamble, who’ll carry on, with Bruce and Weiss, through next year’s “changing of the guard” (to be discussed more next week). Naturally, because of the major shift in personnel between years four and five, many fans use this development to divide the series into two parts for critical discussion — the early seasons and the later seasons — thus regarding Season Four to be the last year in association with the show’s collectively stronger first half, third-year slump aside.
Most of the discussion about “Golden Girls A” versus “Golden Girls B” will be saved for later, but here I’ll note that every season has a life and quality of its own. I can lump the first two together for being the strongest and the last two for being the broadest, but the middle years are each wildly different, and it’s a testament to the strength of the characters that we don’t find the aesthetic changes as jarring in casual viewings as we do in study (an important distinction, by the way). For while I personally think that Seasons Three and Four are radically opposed in both quality and temperament, the show itself doesn’t quite reflect such disparity, because the characters have remained solid, with the women themselves bringing consistency to a storytelling that, for a period of time, isn’t. Of course, when I chide the writing for its inconsistency, I’m doing so, once again, based on metrics established in the initial, evidently superior, years; this is always The Golden Girls and it’s 90% of the time (that’s a personal approximation, folks) going to deliver something — if not aesthetically appreciable, then — feel-good and entertaining. This truism will continue in the weeks ahead — that’s how viewers can conceivably pair Season Three next to Four, Four next to Five, etc. But while this explains the average audience member’s ability to survive the many qualitative gradations, how could it be that Season Four is much better than the third when, unlike with next week’s palpable issues, there are no major personnel shifts on which we can pinpoint these noticeable changes? After all, the same group of writers is responsible for overseeing both this year and the last.
I think the answer exists specifically in the juxtaposition of these once-glorious, now-perhaps-tired veterans (particularly the core foursome) alongside this liminal “new wave” crew, some members of which (Bruce and Weiss) emerged battle-tested out of last year’s figurative carnage. For while those aforementioned architects bring into Season Four their expertise of both the characters and the show, the fresh voices supply invigorating laughs and more creatively commendable (that is, unique but not attached to accompanying desperation) stories. The effect is a healthier flow of inspiration, supported by a foundational base of knowledge, particularly as it pertains to the ensemble. Additionally, this body of work represents another raising of the show’s comedic ante, for it is often said that, although The Golden Girls is a better written show at the beginning of its run, the laughs increase in both size and frequency with each successive year. In terms of results, that’s not completely accurate, but there is truth here with regard to the show’s impulses — they’re going for more. We see this a lot on sitcoms that are blessed with substantial runs: the need for new stories and beats yields bolder choices, and both the surprise and audaciousness of these maneuverings facilitate the possibility of bigger laughs. The key, as always, is to keep the humor from overriding the audience’s common sense and to ensure that said guffaws are always rooted in established characterizations. This year’s ability to do just that is what makes it (particularly in comparison to its seasonal neighbors) a strong showing.
But there are traces of Season Three that still linger. First, this year maintains the last’s laugh-driven mode of storytelling, only here it’s mitigated in intensity and strengthened in outcome through the fresh ideas being injected by the new members of the writing staff. In fact, one can see just how imperative these new figures are by looking at the adverse results in some of the misguided outings helmed by members of the original quartet. For instance, Fanaro and Nathan’s penchant for gimmicks delivers a ridiculous two-parter involving Sophia’s hasty marriage (an honorable mention for its sheer ability to deliver laughs — at times — in spite of itself; very Season Three, right?) and a shamelessly thin offering built around the guest appearance of Bob Hope. Both push hard and don’t have enough to show for it. Meanwhile, Speer and Grossman impart the series’ misguided need for social relevance — evidenced by the miserably unfunny “Brother, Can You Spare A Jacket?” — onto some of the new members’ efforts (like Bruce and Weiss’ “High Anxiety” and Vaczy and Gamble’s “Sophia’s Choice”), and it’s a notion that will remain in play next year to inconsistent appeal. This is problematic because in early years the intense focus on character could save us from these (Benson-ish) story tropes and aims, but given the nature of the show’s use of its own humor at this point, Season Four can’t claim as strong a balance of comedy and drama that the second year, in particular, could manage so well. Some comedy here is too cheap; some drama here is too steep. No calibration.
As always, we navigate around these textual concerns by focusing on the strength of our performers. By this time, all four women have won Emmys for their work — Arthur and Getty both got theirs before production even started on the season, which, like everything from ’88-’89, was delayed by a lengthy WGA strike — meaning that the figurative playing field is now leveled: there’s no one on a specific quest to win an award. In this regard, the show is more relaxed in the material it chooses to distribute. However, with Getty proving her worth by anchoring a few episodes last year and coming out with a golden statue in reward, the show finally treats Sophia with as much importance as the other three characters. Having covered this series over the past few weeks, I’d forgotten how carefully the show let us know early on that, while it may have been an ensemble of four, the other three stars were the only ones around whom it was required to craft regular stories. That thinking changes here in Season Four, for there’s never before been more opportunities thrown to Getty as a character of equal distinction to the others. And although Sophia was always a regular source for boffo comedy — especially at the button (end) of a scene — allowing her regular chances to be funny while driving (or in many cases, co-driving) the weekly story is rather new to this season.
Meanwhile, the bond between Sophia and Dorothy is allowed to center whole episodes, rivaling the friendship that exists between the three “girls” as the show’s most important dynamic. Naturally, this development bodes well for Arthur’s Dorothy, who has another strong showing as a result of this deliberate emotional focus on the relationship with her mother. As for Rose and Blanche, the show is in a rut, as the writers have trouble crafting resonant stories for these two comedically consistent, but dimensionally stagnant characters. The attempts to give them material of substance here very seldom strike that desired balance of comedy and drama, meaning that the show often decides just not to try, instead pairing the duo together (or one of them with Dorothy, if the other is blessed with an A-plot) in inconsequential stories that don’t reveal anything, but at least deliver a few laughs. Fortunately, they’re both in store for a mini-creative renaissance, but that’s for another season (as always, stay tuned)… 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 might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Four. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Every episode this season is directed by Terry Hughes, save one unhighlighted entry.
01) Episode 77: “Yes, We Have No Havanas” (Aired: 10/08/88)
Sophia and Blanche both fight over the same man.
Written by Mort Nathan & Barry Fanaro
The fourth season opens with one of the funniest episodes of the entire series, in which a typical sitcom story (and The Golden Girls has already done it before as well) about two characters fighting over the same love interest is made hysterically fresh by the nuances of the script and the delicious character beats, most of them belonging to Sophia and Blanche, who find themselves in competition for the same Cuban cigar heir, a role originally written for Cesar Romero. Nathan and Fanaro load the teleplay with lines of supreme quality, as the rapidity of high-achieving laughs is unrivaled by any other offering this season and the story points toward the elevated role Sophia will hold for the rest of the run. Meanwhile, the equally typical, but even less character-rooted, subplot (we’ve seen it before on The Lucy Show, Mama’s Family, and will see it soon on Married… With Children) of Rose taking a class — taught by Dorothy — to get her high school diploma is almost as rewarding (surprisingly). Despite the logistics (and continuity) one must overlook with regard to this premise and the simple fact that the stories have no reason being paired, the boisterous laughs and the always gratifying dynamic between Arthur and White cement an entertainment value that can, if nothing else, justify our ability to derive comparable enjoyment. At a Sitcom Fest (basically a party where we watched sitcoms), I showed this installment to a group of friends who had NEVER seen The Golden Girls before and they were in stitches. My choice for the season’s best episode — a classic. Absolutely hilarious.
02) Episode 78: “The Days And Nights Of Sophia Petrillo” (Aired: 10/22/88)
Sophia has a busy day out while the girls lounge around.
Written by Kathy Speer & Terry Grossman
After a season in which the stories were so ostentatious that they often got in the way of our enjoyment, this low-concept episode is a treat. Of course, as one who believes the best multi-cams embrace their theatrical origins of intimacy, I’m always drawn to shows in which the premise is slight, for that puts all the focus on quiet character moments — for better or worse. Here, of course, it’s for the better, as Dorothy, Blanche, and Rose sit around all day not doing anything but talking, and as all Golden Girls fans know, these conversations, many of which are tangential to the weekly story, serve as the show’s comedic nucleus. True to form, none of their stuff disappoints here. Also, in evidence of Sophia’s growing prominence (as with the above), she gets a whole story to herself, and although some moments with her are too saccharine (don’t get me started on the little kid), the juxtaposition of her material with the others’ is excellent.
03) Episode 79: “The One That Got Away” (Aired: 10/29/88)
Blanche sets her sights on an old flame while Rose thinks she’s seen a UFO.
Written by Christopher Lloyd
A typical complaint I have with contemporary sitcoms is that they don’t justify why two disparate stories occur within the same episode, and that’s an issue I could raise here, which may be the most surprising addition to today’s list. I could try and find some convoluted reason as to why the quite funny story about Blanche trying to seduce the only man who’s ever rejected her (despite the fact that he’s, ahem, let himself go) is combined with an incredibly ridiculous story about Rose and Dorothy seeing what the former thinks is a UFO, but the truth of the matter is there’s no good reason. However, because both stories delight on their own terms, the final results are nevertheless rewarding. The Blanche stuff is easily great, and the Dorothy/Rose moments are surprisingly stellar, for they illustrate exactly how the pairing of strong characters — with a notable script (among Lloyd’s funniest) — can elevate such an absurd plot.
04) Episode 85: “Scared Straight” (Aired: 12/10/88)
Blanche’s visiting brother hides his sexual orientation from her.
Written by Christopher Lloyd
One of the interesting things about this year that I mentioned only briefly above in my seasonal introduction is that the series continues to derive self-importance from discussing topical issues — like homelessness, drug addiction, or in this case, sexual orientation. I often find that lofty ambitions can be counterintuitive to laughs and entertainment, but as was the case with the similarly themed “Isn’t It Romantic?”, when these offerings can remain true to their established characters, they become more easily justified. For instance, I think it’s wonderful that sexually liberated Blanche is not very accepting of her brother’s orientation — for while that may be ironic, it makes sense given her conservative upbringing. Additionally, Lloyd injects enough comedy to make the script a favorite, particularly in the final scene with Blanche and Clayton.
05) Episode 90: “Love Me Tender” (Aired: 02/06/89)
Dorothy’s new relationship is strictly physical.
Written by Richard Vaczy & Tracy Gamble
Here I’ll plug Jim Colucci’s new book Golden Girls Forever, which features many fascinating tidbits about the series, including the fact that this episode was one of Bea Arthur’s least favorites, mostly because of jokes about Dorothy’s physical appearance (a sensitive subject for Arthur) and the casting of John Fiedler, not a hunk, as Dorothy’s hunk. Of course, while we can understand Arthur’s sensitivity, I hope she came to understand that Fiedler’s casting is precisely what makes this episode work as well as it does, for the whole joke is that this tiny unassuming man is capable of making all these grown women quiver. It’s very funny. Meanwhile, there’s an amusing B-plot for Blanche and Rose, though it reminds of a story from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Also, note that this is the first script by Vaczy and Gamble, a strong duo who’ll stay till the end.
06) Episode 91: “Valentine’s Day” (Aired: 02/11/89)
The women recall past Valentine’s Days.
Written by Kathy Speer & Terry Grossman and Barry Fanaro & Mort Nathan
Of all the “anthology episodes,” this offering is both the funniest and most successful; every single vignette is outstanding. There’s the requisite flashback to Sophia as a newlywed (with Sid Melton as Sal and Bill Dana as her dad) and Blanche’s sweet story about (unknowingly) helping a man propose to his beau, both of which are memorably enjoyable. And then there’s two of the funniest scenes in the entire series, as Dorothy, Blanche, and Rose end up at a nudist colony by accident — it’s a story we’ve seen on both The Bob Newhart Show and Good Morning, World, but this show does it best — and, my personal favorite, when the ladies’ plan to nonchalantly buy condoms from the drug store goes awry. Filled with classic moments, this was the last script (in production order) by these four great writers, and it’s a fitting swan song. A favorite.
07) Episode 92: “Two Rode Together” (Aired: 02/18/89)
Dorothy wants to spend quality time with Sophia.
Written by Robert Bruce & Martin Weiss
This is one of two episodes on today’s list that I like specifically because of the exploration of the mother-daughter bond between Dorothy and Sophia, and more than any other offering, this is the one that comes to mind when I think of their sublime dynamic, likely because it is explored in a low-concept premise that’s utterly relatable. The A-story basically is that Dorothy wants to spend time with Sophia, fearing that they might not have many years left together. It’s sweet, it’s human, and because this is Sophia we’re talking about, invites opportunities for comedy (and, to Buena Vista’s delight, Disney references). Their scenes are easy but special, and while this isn’t one of the funniest episodes, it’s one of the most important. Also, there are the anticipated laughs in the subplot of Blanche and Rose working on a children’s book.
08) Episode 95: “Till Death Do We Volley” (Aired: 03/18/89)
Dorothy gets a visit from a friend with whom she’s always in competition.
Written by Richard Vaczy & Tracy Gamble
Another candidate for one of the season’s most humorous offerings, this Dorothy-heavy outing concerns the rivalry she shares with an old high school friend, Trudy. Their practical joke oneupmanship culminates in a prank of epic proportions, as Trudy (SPOILER ALERT) fakes her death during a tennis match just before Dorothy, now riddled with guilt, is hosting their high school reunion. It’s a very funny idea, yet while it may be a surprise to those who’ve never seen it before, I don’t think the story deserves any credit for being surprising or unpredictable. (I mean, did anyone really think that Dorothy slept with Trudy’s husband right after her teary breakdown? Come on.) Instead, this outing is laudable for the Vaczy and Gamble script, probably the most amusingly potent contribution from their tenure on the series. A fourth season classic!
09) Episode 99: “Rites Of Spring” (Aired: 04/29/89)
The women recall previous attempts to improve their looks.
Written by Eric Cohen
This is Eric Cohen’s only year and he seems to fade into the background in favor of other new writers (not to mention the still wonderful old writers). Of course, he only made two credited contributions, so we don’t get a lot of chances to sample his work — or, at least, the work credited to him. If this episode is any indication, he has funny ideas, but doesn’t yet have the ability to connect them to character. Frankly, of all the episodes here, this one’s inclusion was least certain, for while I really enjoy the workout sequence (and for all its bizarre charm, the hairdressing scene with Lloyd Bochner), I don’t think it has a lot to do with the characters. The most interesting element of this whole offering comes from the debate about who is Dorothy’s best friend. It’s not so funny, but it’s pertinent to our understanding of these gals.
10) Episode 100: “Foreign Exchange” (Aired: 05/06/89)
A couple from Italy believes that their daughter was switched at birth with Dorothy.
Written by Harriet B. Helberg & Sandy Helberg
The series’ 100th episode is actually written by a pair of freelancers. Like several entires on today’s list, we have two stories which don’t connect, but because both of them are so individually enjoyable, the entire episode is able to work as a whole. You’ll notice elements common to the season — while Dorothy and Sophia get an earnest A-plot all about their relationship, Blanche and Rose get a greatly amusing subplot that serves the episode broad comedy. The dirty dancing scene is yet another highlight of the season, while the interaction between Dorothy and Sophia continues to strengthen the latter’s position on the series. There are plenty of laughs in their story too (thank goodness), and even with the forced tension (which we know will be resolved by episode’s end), the story is feel-good; here, that’s enough.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed this list include: both parts of “Sophia’s Wedding,” which feature an ostentatious and NOT character-driven premise, but nevertheless has some decent laughs, including those involving a catty caterer and a group of Elvis impersonators (one of which is Quentin Tarantino), “Stan Takes A Wife,” which has a trite premise but some fantastic moments for Bea Arthur, “High Anxiety,” which is hilariously funny in spite of a rotten primary story that feels too Very Special Episode-esque; nevertheless, it most deserves to make the above list (shockingly), and “Sophia’s Choice,” which benefits from a funny Blanche subplot and a strong Vaczy/Gamble script, both of which almost counteract the similarly too weighty A-story (a trend we’ll see continued next week…)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of The Golden Girls goes to…..
“Yes, We Have No Havanas”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fifth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!