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.
Season Five is often regarded as the beginning of the series’ final era, as the departure of the foursome who had been running the show for the past four years (Speer, Grossman, Fanaro, and Nathan) to start their own production company (KTBM), along with veteran Christopher Lloyd, left only two pairs of writers with previous experience on the series — Bruce and Weiss, who joined in the rocky third year, and Vaczy and Gamble, who came aboard in the fourth. This complete dismantling of not only the series’ core writing staff, but the core writing staff who had been responsible for the development of the series (along with Winifred Hervey Stallworth) since the very beginning, does make for a significant change. Those writers had a history with the show and its characters, and although they were as much responsible for some of the prior two years’ weakest entries as they were the first two’s most sublime, the institutional knowledge they created always allowed for more of a fidelity to both character and tone — a lot of which, as we’ll see in these remaining weeks, will be altered irreparably. But, unlike some viewers, who associate the many aesthetic changes that are implemented by this almost entirely new staff with the show’s downward trajectory, I take less of an absolutist position, and I am as interested in recognizing the unique strengths of this new era as I am the weaknesses.
After all, while I’ve already expressed my staunch belief that the best years have already passed, I see the series’ creative descent as inevitable, even (and, perhaps, especially) if the KTBM quartet had remained. If anything, the series being forced to overhaul its creative resources makes said descent more complicated, giving us different things to appreciate along the way. But as I often say, this is still the same show, and the reason that I specifically hold The Golden Girls in such high esteem is that I find the difference between the series’ base level of quality in its best season and its base level of quality in its weakest season smaller than in so many of the other series I’ve covered here (including our two direct predecessors — The Cosby Show and Night Court). That’s as much a reflection on the inherent charms of the weakest moments as it is on the fluctuating nature of the highest moments (due in large part to the aforementioned quartet, who aren’t, at all, the strongest writers ever featured on this site, but could indeed create magic on occasion). Also, it’s naturally easier for the early years to be superior to the later ones — on any series — because both the characters are newer, and therefore can inspire more stories (they’re not yet over-tapped wells) while being molded with greater creative license, and the stories themselves remain closer to the show’s thematic origins, meaning there’s a stronger episodic connection to the series’ basics and a nod to what the audience has been told is important. In this regard, the earlier company had the easier job. I always try to keep this in mind when evaluating the work of those who came after them, giving the newbies credit for what they do well.
But, first, know that none of this is intended as a means of downplaying just how different the sensibilities became in these later seasons directly as a result of this new staff — and in many cases, how these sensibilities were less conducive to material of the calibre that we’ve seen before. In fact, a survey of this new crew’s backgrounds gives handy insight as to how these two “eras” differ (and keep in mind the argument made in this series’ opening post about its great mix, specifically, of MTM and Normal Lear principles). On this new crew we have Marc Sotkin, whose previous credits include Garry Marshall’s slapstick-inclined Laverne & Shirley and Witt-Thomas’ own non-spectacular It’s A Living; Tom Whedon, who worked on everything from Dick Cavett’s talk show, to Lear’s diluted All’s Fair, to the mindless Alice, during which two of Lucy’s old writers were producers, to the pre-KTBM days of Benson, and then onto It’s A Living; Phillip Jayson Lasker, who wrote a few early episodes of the sketch-to-sitcom Mama’s Family and a short-lived Danny Arnold series called Joe Bash; the team of Jamie Wooten and Marc Cherry, two young writers with no series credits — the latter of whom would go on to create the dramedy Desperate Housewives; and Gail Parent, the only female on this new staff, who wrote one early script of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, two early Rhodas, one episode of Susan Harris’ Fay (shared last month), but earned the bulk of her credits writing for Lear’s Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and the early seasons of The Carol Burnett Show.
As you can see, this new staff has an erratic background. With so few of them having had any time with either Lear or MTM (the only exceptions being Parent, and to a lesser extent, Whedon), these writers come from other genres, like talk and variety — or in Mama’s Family‘s case, a variety sketch masquerading as a series (which I still love, by the way) — with sitcom experience existing from shows inferior to the substantive fare typically produced by the two most potent forms at the time, Moore’s and Lear’s: the slapstick cutesy stuff of Garry Marshall, the unappealingly cartoony and old-hat Alice, and the we’re-better-than-a-sitcom trappings of Danny Arnold, just to name a few. These scattershot sensibilities are mirrored throughout the last few seasons of The Golden Girls, as no longer can the series ever claim to be a specific type — or the balance of two specific types; rather, anything goes with this crew, whose lack of creative restraints yields fruits both sweet and sour. Sweet: fresh ideas. Sour: because so many of these writers come from shows that didn’t well-utilize the “Character + Logical Motivation = Story” formula to seek comedy, we find the relationship between character and story reversed. If in an MTM show — and even a Lear show, when it was functioning correctly (read: somewhat like an MTM show) — stories were only the logical product of character exploration, shows like Laverne & Shirley and Alice started backwards, creating scenarios for exploration and contorting the characters to get there, thus essentially refocusing what was important. In the case of The Golden Girls, the characters here are so rich in comparison that they always retain their prominence, but the way the writers use them does change…
Now the series’ emphasis is on exploring chosen ideas — even, as is often the case, if that idea is simply comedy — and because the new writers are aware that they’ll never be able to know the characters as well as the original team did, they simply decide not to fixate on the characterizations beyond how they can help the show meet its weekly narrative and comedic goals. To this end, the characterizations can’t help but alter as a result of how they’re being utilized — and the results vary for each of the girls. Before discussing each one in particular, I also want to note the simple fact that every single character is broadened during the fifth season, and while this happens on all long-running series and had absolutely occurred to each character under the “previous administration,” the changes here are accompanied by sweeping alterations in tone. In the quest for bigger, bolder, and newer, there’s a movement towards extremes in every direction — starting with the way the show employs its humor. Never again will The Golden Girls be content with abject realism — now there’s going to be a perennial wink at the audience (which, it should be noted, is a sitcom trend from around this time that we’ll be exploring over the next year), as the show uses its own identity, and the identity of the characters, to build to higher laughs. In this sense, the show at times becomes a burlesque, with considerable camp in play. The result is often laughs that are loud and proud, and if that’s what you’re most seeking, you’ll certainly find them with frequency during this era.
Personally, I don’t mind the modulated “wink” as a stylistic choice unto itself… unless this goes directly against either the integrity of the show or the integrity of the characters. To the former, although the series didn’t begin with a wink, I don’t think a baroque sense of self-awareness is counter-intuitive to its comedic objectives; the audience can still derive the same pleasures. I do, however, think this wink proves problematic to our understanding of some of the characters — and this is where I take my primary issue with the final seasons. Those who don’t bode well under this new aesthetic regime are Dorothy and Sophia. With Dorothy being the series’ structural anchor, she was, by design, the most grounded presence out of the foursome. But in this systematic broadening of style and substance, her character isn’t opened up for new stories; just the opposite: she’s limited — as the removal of her character’s concreteness destroys all the definition she ever had. Great Dorothy episodes in these last three years are much harder to find than they were in the beginning, and it’s because her character can’t exist in broad abstractions. (I also maintain that, being the show’s center, Dorothy problems are the worst kind of problems for this series to have.) Sophia, meanwhile, is hampered not just by her association to Dorothy, but also by the thinness of her portrayal — in comparison to the others. The show’s long-time fourth wheel has always been given the least attention, meaning that these new writers have a harder time expanding her possibilities; instead, they choose to broaden what’s already in place — specifically, her sharp-tongue and lack of self-control — to the point that it’s unrealistic. So while Dorothy is lost, her mom becomes a caricature, and neither is ripe for story.
At the same time, these new writers do wonders for the characterizations of both Rose and Blanche. With regard to the former, I believe that in addition to being the hardest character to define, Rose has heretofore been the hardest for which to create story. She’s not as grounded as Dorothy, but she’s certainly not as broad as Blanche (or Sophia), so finding the happy medium where she can exist peaceably is a challenge, especially when caught in the middle. Mostly we’ve seen her become cartoony and one-note as the show became laugh-driven, and, frankly, we’ll see more of that over the next two years. In this season, however, the writers seem to be making a concerted effort to discover how Rose can be made more receptive to stories — and in focusing their eyes on what her character is being given to do, she also becomes more human and believable in the process. (It’s shocking, actually, when viewed next to what’s being done to Dorothy.) In addition to differences in the way the character is written (the biggest is finding her in possession of a slightly elevated sense of self-awareness), Rose gets both a new job and a new boyfriend, each of which provides worthwhile fodder for story. Although the new job isn’t terrifically evocative for comedy (or the use of the other characters), the addition of Miles (Harold Gould) as a recurring love interest — the show’s first — is incredibly smart. Neither Dorothy nor Blanche could have a permanent beau because the show would lose jokes; Sophia couldn’t have a permanent beau because that would be all jokes. Rose is the perfect character to benefit from a regular relationship, for the show only gains: more story for Rose, and better material for White. It doesn’t last, but it’s noted and appreciated.
However, the real beneficiary of this new creative direction is Blanche, whose character is already perfectly in tune with the campy, theatrical nature in which the show is moving. Because Blanche has been practically winking at the audience for years, her presentation, while certainly heightened in every direction, doesn’t change in the same way that the others do. It’s different in that it’s more extreme than last year, but the character is still the most recognizable. Additionally, the writers have an easier time crafting stories for her — probably, again, because she’s the most broad, and is therefore in more familiar territory than her cohorts for some of these realism-eschewing writers. But I’m not going to knock the writers for having the best understanding of Blanche due to their backgrounds; it’s precisely because Blanche fits the new staff’s style and is given the best stories that her character transcends the outrageous stereotypes associated with this exaggerated form of comedy and becomes a more multi-faceted character than she’s been since the second season (if even then). For in addition to giving McClanahan most of the year’s funniest material, and maybe the best stuff of her career — and let’s note that a lot of it is jarringly bold and works only because she sells the heck out of it — she also gets a counterbalancing emotional depth from earnest character dramas (“Ebb Tide” is the most exciting of this lot) which examine Blanche in ways, again, we haven’t seen in years. And these episodes generally work better than other similarly rendered dramas BECAUSE of the way the writers know Blanche and can weave in her comedy throughout the substance.
But character dramas aren’t the only dramas being explored in Season Five, for the year boasts the series’ highest rate of topical issue-oriented narratives. (And again, this is because the show is now idea-based and prone to extremes.) Given that this is a Susan Harris show, it’s always had a leaning to social relevance. These aims have been present since the pilot, became more prominent last season during the mix of the “old” and the “new,” and are now part of the series’ identity in a manner more explicit than we’ve seen before (or, thankfully, will see again). In Season Five alone, there are stories about artificial insemination, age discrimination, animal rights, assisted suicide, homelessness, teen pregnancy, heart problems, illegitimacy, HIV, infidelity, and gambling addiction. Heck, the year begins with a dreadfully unenjoyable PSA two-parter helmed by Susan Harris — her first scripts since the Season Two premiere, and the last she’ll write for the series — about Dorothy suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which begets the seasonal trend. This episode, like many of these topical entries, get preachy, over-delivering the message with all the fervor of the show’s new comedic exaggeration… but without the resulting laughs. As always, the fault exists within the way the message is delivered — the way things are said: with a desire to instruct. Yet lessons aren’t heard, they’re learned.
Furthermore, another big problem is the relationship these stories have with humor; while these scripts make careful note to find a way to counterbalance the premise’s seriousness with moments of great levity, they usually exist only in subplots and small exchanges, leaving the bulk of these lofty primary stories to operate with a level of self-importance that negates potency. In these cases, the drama doesn’t work and therefore ruins the episode. You see, that pesky desire to instruct gets in the way of the show’s promise to the audience: entertainment. And in this regard, these new writers still aren’t able to deliver the fleeting balance that was once achieved in late Season One and early Season Two with regard to tone. For although every episode this season has laughs — and there seems to be an unspoken rule that there can be no tears here if there aren’t laughs too (for which I’m grateful) — the individual calibration of how they’re used in relation to each other isn’t consistent enough to be lauded. In this regard, Season Five is a lot like Season Three, for there are many stories that don’t work, but scripts that do a great job of trying — and that’s another thing for which I’ll commend the year: it’s really trying its best.
An idea may be improperly conceived (flat-out gimmicky, like the Van Dyke installment) or have devastating consequences on the characters — making it an abject failure — but this comes without the faux-pride of Season Three, which was an utter disappointment and, in my mind, makes Season Five — the last season with Terry Hughes (we’ll discuss more next week) — a success story. For while the former failed without having a good excuse, the latter proves that the series can survive adversity and still be, at certain costs that must be individually adjudicated, delightful. So I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest. 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 Five. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by Terry Hughes, except the two-part clip-show that closes the season.
01) Episode 105: “The Accurate Conception” (Aired: 10/14/89)
Blanche’s single daughter considers artificial insemination.
Written by Gail Parent
My pick for the best episode of the year, this installment also makes part of its mission to address a (then) mildly controversial social phenomenon — artificial insemination — along with the idea of single motherhood. As always, I don’t enjoy seeing the show mired down with stories that are more important than the characters, but Parent’s script, her first for the series, is delectable. Not only is every single character written in character, but the laughs are fast and furious. I’m not even sure if I can think of another The Golden Girls offering that has quite as many memorable one-liners. The kitchen scene is a series classic, while the entire sperm bank bit (“Oh, boy, we’re going to a sperm bank!” — read more about this quote in the Colucci book) is a tour de force. My favorite joke involves an allusion to Blanche DuBois. Superb — probably one of the most comedically rewarding of the new year, a great showcase for each woman (written by a woman), and the strongest indication of the series’ new tone (warts and all).
02) Episode 108: “Dancing In The Dark” (Aired: 11/04/89)
Rose feels too stupid to date her new college professor boyfriend.
Written by Phillip Jayson Lasker
Harold Gould, who played Rose’s first post-Charlie beau way back in the first season, joins the cast in a recurring capacity in another role, Professor Miles Webber, whose personality (and frankly, intelligence) make him an odd fit for the unsophisticated (shall we say) Rose. But there’s a sweetness to the chemistry they share, and although we don’t know yet in this episode that Miles will ever be seen again, there is a sense that this is the first time we’re seeing a man with any permanency. I wrote above in my commentary why giving Rose a love interest was a smart idea, and you can already tell in this outing that it’s giving her new things to play. Now, this isn’t a hilarious excursion, but there are nice moments, most of which are predicated entirely on character. And I like the simplicity of the whole affair. An easy choice for this list.
03) Episode 113: “Ebb Tide” (Aired: 12/09/89)
Blanche returns home following the death of Big Daddy.
Written by Marc Sotkin
As mentioned in my introduction to the season, the new writers’ predilection for topical drama also makes room for drama that’s character-based, and this episode is emblematic of why the latter is always more satisfying. The story has Blanche returning home following the death of Big Daddy and includes a lot of really serious and earnestly rendered moments for McClanahan, who once again plays off the divinely present Sheree North (as sister Virginia). McClanahan gets a great monologue at the end of the show that doesn’t appear forced, but instead feels organic to the story and her character. Meanwhile, as we see so often this year, the heavier story is balanced by a terrific subplot involving Rose and Sophia (an underrated duo) and their attempts to capitalize on Blanche and Dorothy’s absence. Some laughs, some tears. Well done.
04) Episode 116: “Great Expectations” (Aired: 01/13/90)
Rose takes Dorothy to a positive-thinking group, and Blanche’s beau has a heart attack.
Written by Robert Bruce & Martin Weiss
With all of the new writers defining the series’ emerging tone, the two sustaining duos tend to fade into the background, for while they may arguably have a better perception of the characters as they formerly existed under a previous administration, their efforts to reconcile these obvious differences sometimes become incongruous with the show’s comedic aims. This is absolutely the best episode of the year written by Bruce and Weiss, who distinguished themselves in the third year by elevating substandard stories through (then) seemingly fresh teleplays. The entry not only fits the seasonal focus of giving Blanche emotional depth (in a story with Robert Mandan), but it also has fantastic moments for Rose, and particularly Dorothy. And because the latter is so ill-used this year, the fact that this entry presents her well is exceptional.
05) Episode 117: “Triple Play” (Aired: 01/27/90)
Rose meets Miles’ daughter, Sophia benefits from a computer glitch, and Blanche schemes to meet men.
Written by Gail Parent
There’s a lot going on in this fast-paced outing, which boasts a rare three stories, but the plotting is saved by the decision to have them all take place within the same location: the house. (Aha — the much desired one-act you know I love so much!) Also, in a slight variation on the intertwining of stories, the script makes the unique decision to have the characters swap conflicts. In other words, Blanche deals with Rose’s problem (she’s just met Miles’ disapproving daughter), while Dorothy deals with Blanche’s problem (she’s rented a Mercedes and put it up for sale in the newspaper, all in an attempt to meet rich men). It’s clever. Meanwhile, Sophia has received over $100,000 in Social Security from a computer error, a story that yields a lot of fine jokes. Another masterful teleplay by Gail Parent, probably the most sold of the new crew.
06) Episode 118: “Clinton Avenue Memoirs” (Aired: 02/03/90)
Dorothy takes Sophia back to Brooklyn to regain some lost memories.
Written by Richard Vaczy & Tracy Gamble
This is probably the least amusing entry on today’s list, and it’s the only other one I’m highlighting here that’s written by members of the staff who worked under the original quartet. I actually don’t think it’s great either; I think it relies too often on comedic ideas as opposed to material that’s actually funny, and uses an A-plot that’s too enamored with its own sweetness to be taken as seriously as some of the year’s other heavier material (particularly the Blanche stuff) that tries less hard to tug at the heart strings. However, I greatly appreciate the attention it gives to the relationship between Sophia and Dorothy, along with the history they share, and because so much of that is missing during Season Five, I consider this a valuable entry — giving us something the others don’t. The year’s must humane presentation of Dorothy and Sophia.
07) Episode 119: “Like The Beep Beep Beep Of The Tom-Tom” (Aired: 02/10/90)
Blanche is scared of intimacy after having a pacemaker implanted.
Written by Phillip Jayson Lasker
All three of the scripts credited solely to Lasker have made today’s list — unintentionally so. However, in this survey, I’ve noticed that each of his contributions, surprisingly, tries to focus itself on character exploration — in this case Blanche, who has a pacemaker installed and then is afraid to be sexually active with her boyfriend (Robert Culp). It makes for perhaps the season’s best dramatic use of her character, for although installments like “Ebb Tide” are brilliantly written and give McClanahan meatier material to play, this episode hits directly at the character’s primary source of comedy: her sexuality, and the accompanying vanity. With the very things that make Blanche Devereaux a character these writers can maximize for comedic value in question, we’re really striking at the foundation of who she is. A fine script; a pointed look.
08) Episode 120: “An Illegitimate Concern” (Aired: 02/12/90)
A man claims to be Blanche’s late husband’s son and Dorothy joins Sophia in a mother-daughter competition.
Written by Marc Cherry & Jamie Wooten
Another episode with a main story too dramatic for my tastes, it’s saved by both the fact that it’s more rooted in character than story, forcing Blanche to come to terms with what the appearance of an illegitimate son does to her memory of her late husband, and also by the delicious subplot, which features one of the show’s best gags: Sophia and Dorothy dressed as Sonny and Cher, respectively, singing “I Got You, Babe.” It’s such a memorable bit that it would have appeared on this blog regardless of the episode itself, which I nevertheless think is worth mentioning because it’s the first script by Cherry and Wooten, whose writing style — big laughs, superficial drama, plenty of camp — tends to define my perception of the later seasons. They’re not the show’s strongest, but they helm some of the most memorable scripts, this being one.
09) Episode 123: “Sisters And Other Strangers” (Aired: 03/03/90)
Blanche thinks she’s inspired her sister’s novel and Dorothy hosts a visiting communist.
Written by Marc Cherry & Jamie Wooten
Above I described Cherry and Wooten’s scripts as big laughs, superficial drama, and plenty of camp, and their second script for the series reinforces those claims. While the entry remains consistently funny with gags that elicit huge responses (the Vanna White joke always gets me), there’s a potentially dramatic storyline with the appearance of Marian Mercer (formerly of It’s A Living) as a communist cousin of Stan’s, but it’s never allowed to go too deep. Neither is the A-plot of Blanche feuding with her sister Charmaine (Barbara Babcock), which again, features some light drama but remains campily comedic, as the former is convinced that she has been used as inspiration for the title character in the latter’s novel, Vixen: Story of A Woman. We’re not quite in cartoon territory, but there’s a distinct element of knowing parody in play.
10) Episode 125: “The Mangiacavallo Curse Makes A Lousy Wedding Present” (Aired: 03/31/90)
At a wedding, Sophia gets vengeance, Rose is horny, and Blanche and Dorothy feud.
Written by Phillip Jayson Lasker
For the second time on today’s list, we find an episode that’s making use of three storylines, and once again, the outing manages to work because all of the plots are happening in the same location — at a wedding. While Sophia basks in the misfortune that she’s caused by putting a curse on the bride’s father (after he left Sophia at the altar years ago), the show provides a new comedic nuance to Rose’s character: she gets horny at weddings. Like her competitive streak, these surprising personality beats (though perhaps not in keeping with continuity) help make her more workable. My favorite story, however, involves Dorothy insisting that Blanche is a bad friend for only being generous when it doesn’t hurt; as a means of disproving this claim, Blanche agrees to set Dorothy up with one of her best beaus — and then proceeds to steal his attention all evening. Some big laughs come in this relationship-focused premise by Lasker.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed this list include: “Rose Fights Back,” which is smart for giving Rose a new job (and opening her character up to more story), but hits its theme of age discrimination so hard that the otherwise comedic script by Sotkin isn’t quite able to rise above its entrapments, “That Old Feeling,” Whedon’s best effort this year, which has an amusing subplot for Dorothy, Rose, and Sophia, and a sentimental Blanche A-plot that I wish had as many laughs as its similarly constructed competition (because the characterizations are generally solid), and “Comedy Of Errors,” one of the few Dorothy entries here, which gives her a fine story that’s in character and wrapped in a script by Don Reo (whom you’ll see here again if/when we get to The John Larroquette Show, projected for early 2018) that’s comedic, but doesn’t actually GET the characters in the same way as the idea itself promises (and that’s a troubling critique to register given that this season is filled with writers who don’t yet get the characters). I also appreciate many moments of “Not Another Monday,” thanks to another strong script by Gail Parent, and would have included it above if the assisted suicide storyline with guest star Geraldine Fitzgerald hadn’t led to such a terribly unrewarding and undeservedly self-indulgent arc, and think “Mary Has A Little Lamb,” boasts a funny freelance script married to an unworkable A-plot and a trite subplot. I’d also be remiss not to mention “Sick And Tired (II),” which gives Blanche a truly ridiculous B-story in which she goes delusional while trying to write a novel — for it’s evidence of McClanahan triumphing over absurdity.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of The Golden Girls goes to…..
“The Accurate Conception”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the sixth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!