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.
When asked to cite my least favorite season of The Golden Girls, I often say the sixth, because although the third is the most disappointing for reasons heretofore discussed, and the seventh contains the show’s absolute worst moments (stay tuned next week), Season Six has the lowest base level of quality. In other words, if you were to examine the average level of quality in the non-spectacular and non-disastrous episodes from each season, you would find that this year is the least meritorious. We will discuss what goes “wrong” this season in a figurative moment, but first let’s note that Season Six is really an aesthetic extension of the prior. In fact, the writing staff remains practically unchanged, with the only departures being the duo with the most seniority, Bruce and Weiss. In their place, comes a pair whose most substantial credit had been the later seasons of The Jeffersons, Don Seigel and Jerry Perzigian, along with the future creator of Arrested Development, Mitchell Hurwitz, and the busy Jim Vallely, ably partnered with last season’s MVP, Gail Parent. (The show’s script coordinator, Robert Spina, also delivered two scripts.) These new voices hasten the ongoing descent into broadness, but their specific styles also add to the year’s overwhelming focus on narratives — for better and, more often, worse.
For in spite of wisely dropping last season’s extensive foray into social relevance, Season Six is still made up entirely of high-concept, semi-serialized, and ostentatious stories designed to perk up aging characters. In this regard, the year is very much like the third, which suffered from both narrative desperation and a disconnect between stories and character — thus forcing us to examine their relationship. Here we see, more than ever before, stories used specifically to meet comedic, or in a few cases, dramatic (like the tonally imbalanced “Ebbtide’s Revenge”) objectives. But as we all know, stories should only be used for the focused exploration of character — not in the procurement of intended responses or preordained outcomes. And while I’d argue that characters nevertheless develop only as a result of participating in story, these new writers (last year’s included) seem to think that narratives are not just a vessel for character exploration, but the singular tool itself. In other words, plots are how this year defines its characters, which means that characterizations become dependent on story — as opposed to the more desirable reverse. So, while this season takes both its successes and failures with the foursome in generally the same manner as it did in the year prior, the enhanced emphasis on premises that are sometimes dubiously conceived only heightens the accompanying missteps.
As with last season, Blanche continues to thrive because she remains in step with the show’s increasingly burlesque tone, through which these writers obviously focus most of their stories (sometimes very successfully, particularly with Cherry and Wooten). In fact, when looking at the year’s triumphs, you’ll see that McClanahan is yet again the most active participant; her character, again, is explored both humorously and emotionally in ways consistent and satisfying, even though the strokes continue to grow broader — a reaction to the extreme plots (ex: George returns from the dead) being crafted. By the same token, Sophia herself continues to be defined in extremes, and even more than last season, we find her getting stories (like the ridiculous “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Sophia?” — the epitome of a gimmicky premise and one of the aforementioned duo’s weakest) of equal comedic or dramatic weight to the others’. Unfortunately, because her characterization under these writers remains too thin, moments of actualization beyond the easy laughs or nebulously motivated dramatics are inconsistently delivered, proving that regardless of stories or focus, the way she’s being written is still problematic. The only slight positive that starts to emerge for Sophia here in Season Six is her growing bonds with both Rose and, in particular, Blanche, which will prove vital for her continued existence once Dorothy inches closer to the exit door.
Actually, the characters whose depictions most warrant discussion this season are Rose and Dorothy. With regard to the former, last year saw these new writers finding fresh ways to examine Rose in previously unexplored stories — thus helping to restore for her a sense of humanity. This season, with the show’s broadness only increasing, we find the character once again vacillating between believable naïveté and cartoonish stupidity, the latter being only too ideal for easy jokes and contrived stories. Because of this mercurial presentation, Rose becomes the year’s most inconsistently written, with her viability more episodic than ever. Additionally, issues with her character are compounded by Miles (Harold Gould), who was introduced last season as a recurring boyfriend. This was a smart move for Rose’s development, and, fortunately, this year’s crew recognizes the need to finally give Miles a characterization unto himself — something he lacked in Season Five, which was more concerned with finding story for Rose than exploring their relationship. Unfortunately, the way the season decides to do this is specifically through narrative — a gaudy, gimmicky narrative — involving Miles being in the Witness Protection Program. It’s one of the most absurd and unrewarding ideas in the show’s history because it rejects our common sense, and although it is only confined to two episodes, the arc illustrates the year’s problem precisely: the misplaced faith in story.
…Which brings us to Dorothy, the character whom last year’s writers simply did not understand. They certainly understand the series’ need for her prominence, but they still can’t write her with any semblance of integrity, because their ideas of comedy and story remain too baroque for her grounded design. So this season finds the writers attempting to assuage their Dorothy issues by giving her a semi-serialized arc in which she reconciles with her ex-husband Stan (Herb Edelman). On paper, this seems like a good idea, for Stan and Dorothy have an emotional history that ties into both the characters’ backstory and the show’s mythos. Also, as performers, Arthur and Edelman’s dynamic is such that it makes many ideas seem more worthy of our emotional investment than they would appear on the page. But the story was mostly motivated by behind-the-scenes maneuverings. You see, Arthur’s contract was up after this year and she was making rumblings about wanting to leave the show, particularly after last season’s departure of regular director Terry Hughes. This big storyline was a means of giving Arthur something seemingly more substantial before providing her an exit in May, with the fake-out February Sweeps wedding merely a potential dry run for the eventual farewell, likely without Stan. (Note that Debbie Reynolds was indeed introduced as a potential Arthur replacement.)
Ultimately, Arthur re-signed and the show continued for another year, leaving the arc as just a temporary case of Dorothy’s chronically bad judgment. The problem? In addition to the simple fact that no story is ever going to be able to redeliver a characterization that can’t exist within this current creative climate (without some big staff changes), the storyline itself isn’t properly handled. For while it’s easy for the audience to get on board with a Dorothy and Stan reconciliation, the show doesn’t motivate it well enough. Why? Well, The Golden Girls is unfamiliar with serialization, and they hold themselves back — limiting the story to just five episodes, only three of which deal specifically with the reconciliation. Now, I personally do not mind that this story is reserved for a few individual episodes, because I generally worry about over-serialization in sitcoms anyway, but I also think that an arc intended to have legs must be reinforced in many small character moments that are separate from story. That is, Dorothy needed to talk about Stan outside of the accompanying stories and during episodes in which he otherwise did not appear. Because this does not happen, the arc is denied build and believability, making it a bust not just for Dorothy, who is no better explored than she was at the start, but also for the season’s narrative standing, which is proven decidedly incompetent.
Yet aside from quasi-serialized stories, the year also has an abundance of the aforementioned gimmicky or logic-defying premises. (Need examples? Sophia becomes a nun. The girls star in a musical of Henny Penny. Dorothy rehabilitates a recluse played by guest star Martin Mull — which is as bad as last year’s Van Dyke vehicle.) As a result of such foolishness, we have more episodes that fundamentally feel beneath the show and these characters, who are nevertheless reflected by the plots into which they are shoehorned (hence the low base-level of quality). Additionally, without Terry Hughes at the helm, the season’s energy is somewhat off-kilter, aiding whatever issues already exist in the weekly stories and making it even harder for the girls to elevate their material. Still, as usual, at the end of that figurative day, we’re not without hope; there are still moments to enjoy here, because while very few episodes work in total, there are plenty that boast enough worthwhile beats to be recommendable. This is, after all, The Golden Girls. 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 Six. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that 21/26 episodes this season are directed by Matthew Diamond; those that have been selected and aren’t directed by Diamond will be noted below. Also, remember that, as always, hour-long installments are regarded as two separate episodes — as they would in syndication.
01) Episode 130: “Once, In St. Olaf” (Aired: 09/29/90)
Sophia must undergo surgery while Rose meets her father.
Written by Harold Apter
Don Ameche guest stars as Rose’s biological father, a monk whom she meets in the hospital at which she volunteers. It’s certainly a situational contrivance, but once that initial hurdle is excused, the rest of the story proves incredibly rewarding — both emotionally for Rose and comedically for the audience. In fact, in addition to being one of Rose’s best outings, this is among the year’s funniest, with laughs coming directly from the characters, particularly in the subplot involving Sophia’s hernia surgery, which she’s using to guilt Dorothy (who made her lift wicker furniture). The script, the second of two by Harold Apter, is loaded with delicious lines; there are too many to list, but I’m quite fond of the “Zulu, Queen of the Dwarf People” joke that’s called back later in the episode, along with many little moments thrown to Blanche.
02) Episode 133: “Wham, Bam, Thank You, Mammy” (Aired: 10/20/90)
Blanche gets a visit from her childhood Mammy.
Written by Marc Cherry & Jamie Wooten
Although Cherry and Wooten wrote this episode for Esther Rolle, as they were anxious to reunite her with both McClanahan and Arthur (they were all formerly costars on Maude), an unfortunate car accident rendered Rolle out of commission and made necessary a replacement that came in the form of Ruby Dee. She plays Blanche’s former Mammy — cue a lot of campy jokes about Blanche’s southern heritage, most of which delight (my favorite involves one of Big Daddy’s letters and the lyrics to the classic Jolson song) — who it is revealed had a relationship with Big Daddy. McClanahan is given the opportunity to run the gamut of emotions, and while the premise itself is indeed contrived, both her performance and the enjoyable script make the episode both memorable and commendable. Some worthy laughs in this campy entry.
03) Episode 135: “Zborn Again” (Aired: 11/03/90)
Dorothy begins dating Stan while Rose deals with an annoying coworker.
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz
The first episode by Mitchell Hurwitz, the future creator of Arrested Development, this is also the installment that takes the seeds of the Dorothy/Stan reconciliation arc (planted in the season’s third entry) and grows them into a full-fledged story. In itself, this premise yields laughter, and Hurwitz’s script, though not as tight or as knowing as others this year, has an elevated sense of humor that consequently benefits the end product. However, the A-plot is secondary in enjoyment to the subplot involving Rose and an obnoxious co-worker, who, through a nasty turn of events, ends up being her boss. It’s a fantastic story for Rose, who is usually the annoying instead of the annoyed, and the teleplay, again, maximizes the potential laughs. (Another great example of the show sometimes knowing how to write well for Rose in this era.)
04) Episode 137: “Mrs. George Devereaux” (Aired: 11/17/90)
Blanche’s late husband returns and Dorothy has two famous beaus.
Written by Richard Vaczy & Tracy Gamble
Because I made objections in my seasonal introduction about this year’s too frequent use of gimmicks, it may seem odd that I’m highlighting this installment, which is among the show’s most gimmicky — a dream! But because the entire episode is revealed to be a dream, the ridiculousness of the entire affair is justified (unlike many of the other reality-deprived excursions that don’t have any excuse), thus allowing the audience, upon repeated viewings, to recognize the smarts that actually went into structuring an episode whose palpable surreality only builds with each scene. As with many outings here, McClanahan gets to do some fabulous work, as the story about the return of her husband necessitates more dramatics, all of which she plays with laudable truth. Meanwhile, the Sonny-Dorothy-Lyle triangle is just plain kooky.
05) Episode 138: “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun… Before They Die” (Aired: 11/24/90)
Blanche gives bad advice on men to both Sophia and Rose.
Written by Gail Parent & Jim Vallely
My choice for the best episode of the season, this entry is not only among the most humorous, but it also features a thematic cohesion in which both the narratives and all four characters can exist enjoyably. The teleplay — by this era’s most laugh-driven (Cherry and Wooten) — unites two stories under the same general theme: Blanche’s disastrous advice about men. Of course, Blanche’s advice to Rose about making Miles jealous backfires, as does Blanche’s advice to Sophia about sexually pursuing a handsome gent played by Caesar Romero. The Rose story, which isn’t as well-conceived as the Sophia story, nevertheless makes sense given the character’s tendency to take every word literally, meaning that the easy humor is at least contextualized within her rooted presentation. And while Blanche is really the structural star (no surprise for these writers and this season), the outing gives moments of genuine pathos to Getty, while also providing her supreme laughs — a balance we seldom find in the later years, and the prime reason this outing is special. (The “sixty-five year old drag queen” reveal is perhaps the season’s most memorable sight gag.) A hilarious entry — and the icing on this figurative cake? Dorothy, independent of story, can simply do what she does best: react to the hijinks. Masterful.
06) Episode 142: “Sister Of The Bride” (Aired: 01/12/91)
Blanche’s brother announces his marriage to a man.
Written by Marc Cherry & Jamie Wooten
Cherry and Wooten, in particular, specialize in meaty Blanche episodes, and this offering, which sees the return of Blanche’s gay brother and further forces her to reconcile her feelings for her sibling’s sexuality, reinforces this strength. Despite treading over “ground” that the series has already covered in Clayton’s first appearance, there are more laughs this time around (and the duo’s commitment to this story is palpable). However, I’m actually more fond of the subplot, as the B-story of Rose hoping to win a Volunteer Award now that the usual recipient has died allows both for the (truthfully anticipated, but not disappointingly so) subversion of the story’s expectations and the reemergence of Rose’s competitive streak, a reliable source of laughs, and one that was established even before the character was fully set. Great under this season’s terms.
07) Episode 146: “Older And Wiser” (Aired: 02/16/91)
Dorothy gets Sophia a job at a home, while Blanche and Rose are hired as models.
Written by Richard Vaczy & Tracy Gamble
This is one of the few here that’s not vastly superior to the honorable mentions below. I can explain why this episode isn’t great by comparing it to my MVE. You see, that one featured two stories and connected them through Blanche’s bad advice, allowing for thematic cogency. This outing uses two different and varyingly enjoyable plots, and never justifies why they belong together. As a result, the sum of this offering’s parts is not greater than the parts themselves — especially because said parts aren’t equitable. As usual, the best moments are for Blanche and Rose, who get the more comedic story of modeling for an unglamorous Penny Saver ad (the reason this entry is featured), while Dorothy and Sophia get a merely mediocre A-plot that tells us nothing new, but at least tries to present them nobly. Not great, but no mistakes.
08) Episode 147: “Melodrama” (Aired: 02/16/91)
Blanche wants commitment from a one-night stand man, and Rose auditions to be a reporter.
Written by Robert Spina
A bit of an underrated outing, this episode is like the above in that two unrelated stories fail to be connected within the same teleplay — although they’re each a little more satisfying, and of equal measure, so the lack of narrative finesse is more forgivable. Also, let’s note that, not surprisingly, the stories, respectively, are for the tonally conducive Blanche and the inconsistent, but more usable, Rose. The Mel Bushman (Alan King) plot for Blanche allows her humor and heart, while the Rose plot, made possible by the career change that happened last season as part of the show’s attempt (then successful) to better her for story, delivers the bigger laughs. A bit loud? Yes, but Rose’s characterization remains connected to her unique brand of logic, meaning that her presentation, unlike in other unhighlighted offerings, stands fairly strong.
09) Episode 148: “Even Grandmas Get The Blues” (Aired: 03/02/91)
Blanche convinces a beau that her granddaughter is really her daughter.
Written by Gail Parent & Jim Vallely | Directed by Robert Berlinger
As with so many of the episodes featured this week (and the last), the bulk of this installment’s enjoyment is derived from the teleplay’s use of Blanche, and just as I’ve been repeatedly expressing, the strength of this era’s depiction of her character in comparison to her cohorts’ (particularly, the one who most suffers: Dorothy) is so embedded in these years’ foundational aesthetics that I worry my commentary has been repetitive. For instance, and once again, this episode is highlighted because of its comedic and perhaps character-revealing utilization of Blanche in an A-plot that’s so enjoyable that it overcompensates for a lackluster subplot with Sophia and Dorothy. And even though this is far from the year’s best Blanche show, it’s still generally better than those with A-story attempts at featuring Dorothy. That’s why it’s here.
10) Episode 150: “What A Difference A Date Makes” (Aired: 03/23/91)
Dorothy dates the man who stood her up for the senior prom.
Written by Marc Cherry & Jamie Wooten | Directed by Lex Passaris
Despite a script by Cherry and Wooten, who operate comfortably within the series’ new tone (and indeed may be its most vocal contributors) while often delivering the most comedically satisfying results, I think this episode is mediocre. However, my decision to highlight it here was simple: it’s the year’s most valiant attempt at a strong Sophia-Dorothy A-story. (Yes, it’s better than the one in “Older And Wiser.”) The premise, which I still think is too convenient, has Hal Linden playing Dorothy’s old high school flame; their relationship was unintentionally sabotaged by Sophia. It’s emotionally manipulative and employs dubious continuity, but the idea of mother setting in motion her daughter’s long streak of bad luck is narratively sound. Also, the entry is bolstered by both the direction of Lex Passaris (his first) and a funny Blanche subplot.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Stand By Your Man,” which was the closest to being featured, because it contains a truly riotous scene in which Sophia accompanies Blanche along on the latter’s date with a handicapped man (essentially a rehash of a season four entry in which Blanche dated a blind man, and a variation on the first year’s classic “A Little Romance”), both parts of “There Goes The Bride,” which feature comedic teleplays that try to enhance the appeal of the storytelling machinations, and “Love For Sale,” the capper to the year’s Dorothy-Stan arc, which is most memorable for the auction scene. Of more honorable mention quality are “Blanche Delivers,” which pushes too hard for laughs and sets the tone for the season, and “Witness,” which has the conclusion of the awful Miles arc but comes paired to a riotous Blanche subplot.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of The Golden Girls goes to…..
“Girls Just Wanna Have Fun… Before They Die”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the seventh season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!