The Ten Best THE GOLDEN GIRLS Episodes of Season Four

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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 ShowMama’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

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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

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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 homosexuality from her.

Written by Christopher Lloyd

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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 homosexuality — 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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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…)

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*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of The Golden Girls goes to…..

“Yes, We Have No Havanas”

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Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fifth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!

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26 thoughts on “The Ten Best THE GOLDEN GIRLS Episodes of Season Four

  1. YES!!! Inluv that you choose “yes we have no Havanas” as the mvp. That’s one of my top 5. Hands down! Great list 2. Cant wait till next wk thx

    • Hi, BB! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Glad you’re enjoying. I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts on Season Five as well — not a simple year to dissect. Stay tuned…

  2. Great list!! You nailed my favorite episode from the season too. And I also am vehemencely against the Bob Hope outing– so gimmicky! There are a few here like this but on the whole it’s a great year! I even like the Wedding two-parter in spots. What do you think of “Blind date”? It just misses the mark for me. Not as good as it needs to be I think.

    • Hi, Elaine! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I agree with you regarding “Blind Date” in that it misses the mark, particularly with the A-story, which tries to supply some emotional complexity for Blanche while utilizing familiar sources of humor (like the awkward blind jokes, which are in the same vein as the short jokes from “A Little Romance”), but never truly crystallizes — maybe because the story itself is not conducive to greatness in the first place. It’s emblematic of that aforementioned rut in which this season has found itself with both Rose, and to a lesser extent, Blanche. Meanwhile the B-story, another premise that’s identical to one done on CHEERS (with Rose and Coach serving as interesting companions), was adequate from inception and doesn’t do anything to bolster the installment’s enjoyment.

      As for “The Auction,” I generally find the outing forgettable EXCEPT for the auction scene itself, which is easily amusing (despite being reminiscent of a classic THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW gag, which I’d imagine isn’t 100% original either).

  3. Another fine list. However, I’d have to choose “Valentine’s Day” as MVE. “Yes, We Have No Havanas” is funny but introduces a depressing mean-spiritedness that will creep into the show. I cringe when Blanche tells Sophia, “I just hate you.” (Sophia will tell Rose later in the year that she hates her as well.) There’s nothing warm about the episode, except perhaps for Rose earning her high-school diploma (despite telling the girls last season that she was valedictorian of her class).

    I’m pleased you recognized the flawed but delightful “Days and Nights of Sophia Petrillo.” It’s simple, deft storytelling that works particularly well with these characters. It’s also refreshingly original in a season where the writers recycled so many stories from other shows and even GOLDEN GIRLS itself.

    “Two Rode Together” is also a personal favorite of the entire series for its relatable, honest, gimmick-free character comedy. This is the GOLDEN GIRLS I loved.

    My one disagreement: It’s totally absurd and, yes, recycled, but I am a fan of “Yokel Hero.” It was risky of the writers to take us to St. Olaf, a bizarre, fictional land that could never be as weird or as amusing as we outsiders imagined. But there are laughs aplenty in the episode. (I’m partial to the train scene in the planes. trains, and horse-carriage sequence.) This is a story the show would never have produced in its first two seasons, but I find it far superior to similarly outlandish efforts to follow because the goofiness comes with large measures of wit and heart.

    I assume you have banished Kid Pepe to the dungeon with Marguerite and Mr. Terrific?

    • Hi, Red Herring! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes, I am neither a fan of “Fiddler On The Ropes” nor “Yokel Hero,” both of which I’d categorize as among the season’s weakest (next to the few already discussed above).

      Regarding “Yes, We Have No Havanas,” I’m not as bothered by the “depressing mean-spiritedness” as you are because I take it with a proverbial grain of salt. We know how these ladies feel for one another — and I’d argue that the show increasingly sentimentalizes their bond with each successive season, broadening the redundant heart as much as the cheaply gotten humor (a movement toward extremes in every direction). But I’m generally anti-semtiment, anyway, because I feel it’s too easy for sitcoms to use warmth in place of comedy — and if I had to make a preference between these two extremes, it’d be for the latter (although, this too must be qualified, as Season Three so ignominiously illustrated). To wit, I could never predicate enjoyment solely on warmth, but I could, in specific cases, do so for comedy.. because that’s what the sitcom, at the very least, is supposed to guarantee.

      I only blanch (pun intended) about excessive acrimony if a teleplay can’t motivate the conflict through the characters themselves, and that’s a point that I think could easily be raised about the aforementioned installment. It’s only forgivable, in fact, because our individual self-preservation necessitates lowering our own standards of quality with each new season. We’re no longer at a point in which we can realistically anticipate the same calibre of material that was being delivered in 1986. In this case, I think the story becomes no less a contrivance (or gimmick even) for this era than the anthology episodes are by design. And while a case could quite thoroughly be made for “Valentine’s Day” and “Yes, We Have No Havanas” boasting matching levels of humor, I think the latter better represents the season — simply by not being an atypical anthology, but also and more importantly, by both treating Sophia as a co-lead and pairing the girls off in disparate stories that never try to connect; that’s Season Four in a few words.

  4. As ever, Jackson! Expert picks. Season four was actually my favorite season of the show for many years. Though these days I’m quicker to put on episodes from a few of the other seasons before I will the best from season four, I do still have a great affinity for this year. As the centerpiece season of the whole series, I think it gets the formula “just right” so much of the time.

    I really like what you said: “every season has a life and quality of its own”. Exactly! Oftentimes I find that what season (or ‘version’) of The Golden Girls (or any sitcom, for that matter) I want to visit varies greatly depending on my mood/needs that day. I think what sets this season apart from the first three is, indeed, the development of Sophia. At long last, season four sees Sophia officially ‘initiated’, if you will, as the full-fledged fourth lead. It is truly lovely to see she and Dorothy’s dynamic given a deeper respect throughout this year, and I so appreciated how the writers continued to prioritize the evolution of their electric relationship on through to the series’ conclusion.

    Between your Top Ten and your Honorable Mentions, you covered every single one of my absolute favorites, with one exception: “The Auction”. Maybe it IS the auction scene alone that makes the episode more memorable than it otherwise would be as a whole, but that one would definitely be up there for me. “Rites of Spring” is just damn funny! The scene at the gym, in particular, never fails to crack me up (“Charley Horse!! She has a CRAMP, you pea-brain!”). I’m a real (or “REALLY”, as Dorothy would surely correct me..) big fan of Cohen’s two offerings; no doubt he would have gotten even better had he stayed on.

    I used to have a soft place in my heart for “Brother, Can You Spare That Jacket?” (and I’m still a sucker for it on a rare and tender day), but now I find it quite maudlin and too miserable for its own good. The bones of the script, about the lost ticket, is like “Bonus Bucks” gone oh so badly wrong. Tackling grave issues is always a gamble on this show; it’s pretty much 50/50. With “Brother”, the haunting final sequence at the shelter ends up feeling more than a bit awkward and preachy. The topic is simply too uncomfortable for a vessel such as The Golden Girls to try and handle, in my opinion. However, I have to admire the writers for attempting to bring attention to the forgotten, neglected, and struggling among our elderly population and beyond. But is that The Golden Girls’ place? It may not be fair to even compare it to “Bonus Bucks”, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of how successful that episode was and WHY — all it really came down to is where they decided to end the scavenger hunt for the lost item (the laundry facility? or a homeless shelter?). The Golden Girls veered us way off course on that one, choosing to make its point so deliberately void of even the POTENTIAL for laughs. It sobers the audience rather than lifts us, which has to be said to be counter-intuitive to what a sitcom is meant to do. Quite an odd choice, but considering the historical context, really not so odd. Social relevance in the sitcoms of the ’70s and ’80s was pretty much par for the course, and admittedly I appreciate even a lot of ‘Very Special Episodes’, but I’d like it to at least be funny! See: “Scared Straight”.

    THANK YOU for picking “The Days and Nights of Sophia Petrillo” as one of your elite ten! No one seems to mention that episode, but it’s always been a personal favorite of mine. There’s just something about the girls having a lazy day around the house, doing nothing in particular, bonding and chatting over cheesecake that warms me on a rainy day. More profoundly, the disparity between their perception of what Sophia’s life must be like and what she actually does do all day (I love getting a peek into that!) really makes you stop and ponder on how much our own assumptions dilute or cloud reality. “I bought a nectarine!”

    I can’t help but love so many lines and moments in “Sophia’s Wedding”, in spite of its bigger issues. The girls running that pizza and knish stand, Dorothy taking up smoking again, the Elvis fan club — Nathan and Fanaro strike again. Of course, their HOME RUN of the season, bar none, is “Yes, We Have No Havanas”! I agree with you 100% — there’s no other choice for MVE. That line about the “inch of water”…I swear you can even see Rue trying to hide the smile that’s daring to burst across her face right after Sophia says that line, even though Blanche is, of course, furious! I would have to go for “Love Me Tender” as my runner-up (and yes, wasn’t the contention behind the scenes fascinating!). A truly hysterical first outing for Vaczy & Gamble — what an addition to the team and I thank the stars they stayed. As for the B-plot, I don’t mind the obvious “Mary’s Delinquent” lifting here; Rose suggesting they could go all go and see “Oliver & Company” with their ‘pals’ versus Sue Ann coming in with that AFRO! The contrast alone reconfirms why Betty White is a national treasure. (“CONDOMS, ROSE! CONDOMS, CONDOMS, CONDOMS!” <– My all-time favorite of anthology episode scenes, yes!)

    The main thing I've been dying to ask you about this season pertains to the original writing staff — what in the world did they leave for? I haven't been able to find an answer to this in my many years of being a fan. I'm not in the least bit knowledgeable about how sitcom productions work, so maybe it's the norm for writers to move on (and, as a writer, I'm sure you know this). I realize that with Murphy Brown the original set of writers had pretty much transitioned out somewhere between the fifth and sixth seasons, which also caused a major dip in quality, to say the least. Were contracts up and the production team simply decided not to renew? Was it fatigue (which, frankly, began to show in spots of season three)? Were they just ready to pass the baton after four solid years? The way their final episode, the two-part clip show "We're Outta Here!" is titled, seems to give off the impression that they were just 'done' with the show, but The Golden Girls was such a hit, so I don't see why they'd want to go unless they were totally creatively bankrupt (which, as was evidenced by this fine season, they clearly weren't — plus, they were already mixing in some new blood to great, if uneven, success).

    • Hi, Izak! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Speer, Grossman, Nathan, and Fanaro left to form their own production company, KTMB, which got a series on the air for the ’90-’91 season, THE FANELLI BOYS. I don’t know if the split from THE GOLDEN GIRLS was amicable, and I’m not sure how far in advance the plans were made — it seems the information was held, at least from the actors (including the nervous Arthur), until the end of the production season.

      • Fascinating…I had no idea the quartet had formed their own production company, but if even the cast wasn’t kept in the know, I do wonder how that all transpired. All I know is that I’ve never been able to find any solid facts and as far as I’ve researched, none of the writers from the original team have ever really addressed why they departed. Thanks for the tip, Jackson!

        • They were still in business with Touchstone, Disney, and NBC after leaving THE GOLDEN GIRLS, so if their departure from the series was in any way tenuous, it would have only been so with Witt-Thomas-Harris. It sounds, at least, like just an amiable “moving on” — if anything so rosy actually EXISTS in this business…

      • TV GUIDE, back when it reported industry news, announced in early ’88 that the core writing staff would be departing GOLDEN GIRLS at the end of Season Three to form their own company. However, Speer, Grossman, Nathan, and Fanaro returned for one additional season, perhaps to allow the producers time to assemble a new writing regime, most of whom would come off of their syndicated series, IT’S A LIVING, when it ended in 1989.

      • Oh wow! Thank you SO much for that crucial piece of info, Red Herring! That explains it — I’m so happy that all four decided to return for one more year to help with the transition. Season four is, of course, the better for it. Mystery solved!

      • Well I disagree – I think they should have left after last season because I don’t think the fourth year,despite a few goodies, was a big improvement over the already disappointing third. The show was begging for fresh voices and their signing for another year just prolonged a vital transition. Maybe my opinion is in the minority though but I think most of what’s good here comes from the new wave not the tired old writers. I like the early years best, but they clearly dropped the ball after season too and never recovered it. I remember reading that those writers were going to leave after season three and rejoicing!!!

        • Hi, Nat! Thanks for reading and commenting.

          Although I do believe Season Four to be a significant improvement over its predecessor, this belief is predicated, I think, on the relationship shared by the “old” and the “new.” Change is vital in every writer’s room, and the third season certainly made the case for needing untapped sources of creativity. Frankly, there were problems at the top with that core foursome’s ability to continue delivering satisfying character content, and there was no easy way to fully navigate around these deficiencies with them still there.

          However, the issues could be somewhat ameliorated by embracing new ideas and idea-makers, who themselves needed experts on the show to point them in the right direction. So there was unquestionably a need for freshness going into Season Four, and while the results here (I think) proved vastly superior to the year prior because of this give-and-take, nothing — to your point — was really solved; it couldn’t have been without a shake-up.

          And yet, the fact that the “old” and “new” could exist together for a single year was crucial in making for a smooth(er) transition when it eventually occurred, and I agree, it truly needed to happen for the series to, at the very least, enliven and amiably complicate what was already a happening descent. Stay tuned for more in the weeks ahead…

  5. Speaking of IT’S A LIVING, has that one ever been thought about for coverage? I haven’t seen the series since it originally aired!!

    • I have 119 of the 120 produced episodes of IT’S A LIVING, so it’s inclusion here is not beyond the realm of possibility. However, my previous attempts to enjoy the series — both in the hopes of covering it here and in sampling Sotkin and Whedon’s pre-THE GOLDEN GIRLS work for upcoming posts — have been relatively fruitless; I intend to make a more concerted effort at a later date, but my impression remains that it is never truly great. (EMPTY NEST, although never great either, is more likely because its tone is more congruous to the fare I typically enjoy!)

  6. While I appreciate her talents, one thing that tends to take the edge off of Estelle Getty’s weightier moments as Sophia (at least for me) is that Getty apparently had a habit of relying on cue cards. It always takes me out of the moment when I see an actor’s eyes regularly shifting away from the person they’re supposed to be engaged with and moving a few inches to the left or right to catch their next line on that card.

    • Hi, Brent! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      That bothers me as well, but I don’t think Getty was nearly as distracting on THE GOLDEN GIRLS as folks like EVE ARDEN had been on THE MOTHERS-IN-LAW or even the great Lucille Ball was for the duration of HERE’S LUCY. Getty doesn’t pull me out of the action in the same way those ladies, for instance, could.

      I also think if Getty’s nerves and memorization problems hadn’t been made public, this would hardly be noticeable (on THE GOLDEN GIRLS; it was more apparent during her tenure on EMPTY NEST), especially because Sophia’s age and medical history gave more of a license for her not to be as sharp as her cohorts. Her shifting eyes can be read as the character literally searching for those next words, and while we, of course, know better, I don’t think it hurts the comedy whatsoever. The directors worked around her and the occasional reading is not perceptible to casual viewers.

  7. Getty’s Sophia does get more of the serious stories in the latter half of the series than in the first, but it turns out that she is utterly dependent on the Dorothy character to incorporate her into what’s happening. On The Golden Palace and Empty Nest, she becomes some bizarre alien character who causes mischief and insults people and then disappears when the real plot has to move forward.

    This year, I liked Bang the Drum, Stanley for its focus on the ethical gap between Dorothy and Sophia. It’s a running joke throughout the series, and I liked its illustration there. (I know you’re not crazy about the Stan stories.) I also like The Impotence of Being Ernest (and not only for the title). It is similar to a lot of other Rose material, but it seems better played and more sharply written than some of the earlier versions.

    • Hi, Lee! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I think you’re right that most of Sophia’s substantive material is dependent on her relationship with Dorothy, but the later seasons also develop for her a dynamic with the other two women that, of course, never fosters the same gravitas for storytelling, but at least makes for a unique and comedically dependable trio. And it’s important to note that the show, especially as Arthur inches out the door, does try to strengthen these other bonds — something that simply wasn’t a concern in the early years — and doesn’t necessarily point towards Sophia’s total dependency on Dorothy. It’s actually THE GOLDEN PALACE that makes the strongest case for this claim.

      However, I also think the problems with crafting ideas for Sophia’s character on both THE GOLDEN PALACE and EMPTY NEST have as much do with the missing Dorothy (and the former show’s accompanying problems in this regard will be discussed in a few weeks) as they have to do with their already problematic/ill-suited premises. For instance, Sophia doesn’t click on EMPTY NEST because her inclusion in the ensemble makes little sense — Dorothy or no Dorothy — and THE GOLDEN PALACE has bigger foundational problems than the absence of Arthur. (Stay tuned for more…)

      Regarding Stan episodes, it’s not that I’m “not crazy” about them on principle; I actually appreciate the Edelman-Arthur dynamic and consider myself more receptive than most to their comedic chemistry. (There’ll be more on this as well…) I simply find that his appearances come in just as many episodes that hit as just as many that miss. I put “Bang The Drum, Stanley” in the latter category, as I think the story overwhelms the humor. I don’t buy the “ethical gap,” because it doesn’t yield anything that I find humorously compensatory for the predictable arc and the cartoonish moralizing; thus, it’s not worth the investment (for me).

      But I too like “The Impotence Of Being Ernest.” I don’t consider it stronger than some of the similarly designed Rose episodes from the first year (even “Rose The Prude,” when her characterization was still murky but the script bolstered its appeal through the other three girls), yet I do find the story a MUCH better way of exploring her character than, say, “You Gotta Have Hope” or “Yokel Hero.” And it’s probably one of White’s more multi-dimensional outings of this otherwise-unconcerned-with-Rose season. Fortunately, there’ll be more attention paid to her in the weeks ahead…

    • Hi, R! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Sorry to say I don’t really have that kind of visceral reaction to any of the performers from the shows covered here — all of my problems, even if they are in relation to performance, come from the text and the characterizations (or lack thereof). Although some performers, I think, don’t necessarily make for a great show (or I find them to be generally overrated), I don’t really dislike anyone on principle — even from the shows I’ve rejected or avoided. Often I can’t stand characters, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a performer about whom I feel the same throughout a considerable body of work.

  8. Great analysis of Season 4. I have noticed ,as the show matured, it tended to rely on Arthur and Getty for more character driven comedy while White and McLanahan provided a lot of physical comedy which seemed to to suit all parties well. However, I have always found the most comically satisfying pair to be Arthur and White. There’s something about the two of them together that’s always guaranteed to make me laugh the most.

    • Hi, Brandon! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I like the Arthur/White dynamic as well; their characters are the most dissimilar out of the foursome, making the two’s pairing both good for laughs and for the unalloyed presentation of their distinct personalities. Regarding my thoughts on the women’s depictions in later seasons, stay tuned…

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