Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the conclusion 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.
The seventh and final season of The Golden Girls is the culmination of everything we’ve been discussing these past few weeks — that is, it’s the ultimate and most pure manifestation of the series’ positives and negatives during its “second era.” Like the last two, this season offers desperate stories, broad characterizations, and the mitigation of rampant mediocrity in favor of regular storytelling failures — all made possible by the seemingly schizophrenic fluctuations in quality engendered by the previously established burlesque tone and the characterization struggles within it. As with the season prior, there’s little change in the writing staff. In fact, there’s only one new writer — Kevin Abbott, replacing Philip Jayson Lasker — meaning that the seventh year is really not so creatively different from its predecessor. The prime delineation is that while many of the stories being crafted here are still too often rooted in their own premises instead of the characters themselves, last year’s focus on serialization is significantly downplayed. Accordingly, I tend to categorize the season not based on it’s storytelling (as I did last week), but by the tone and the quality of the laughs being delivered, or over-delivered, or under-delivered. This isn’t a story year; this is a style year — and that’s why it’s so uneven.
Said style, as discussed upon its introduction by the new staff in Season Five, is even more conducive to extremes than the series had been experiencing at the beginning of its run (and that’s saying something, because based on the show’s Lear roots, such reactions were always anticipated). So it’s no surprise, given the broad nature in which this new staff began their first season, that the series would be building in this heightened direction, in which everything is grander — the style, the substance, and the responses elicited. Thus, with many of these writers coming into their third season, we find that everything they do has enlarged in scale: bigger attempts at humor (some of which work, some of which don’t), bigger attempts to reveal things about the characters (most of which don’t work, because they’re trying too hard with characters we know too well), and bigger outright story missteps (often dealing with character/logic problems). In fact, I think this season boasts some of the worst ideas out of the entire run, including a loud conspicuous bit involving Stan and a monkey, and episodes predicated so far from — not even reality (if they were simply surreal, that could possibly remain connectable), but — common sense, that they’re getting close to embarrassing. (Are they really asking me to believe for 15 minutes that Blanche slept with Rose’s husband? Really? Or that Sophia would encourage Gloria to sleep with Stan? Double really?) I cringe a lot here — not as disdainfully as I do in Season Three, but more often and with greater sadness. These problems are foundational, related to the way these scripts are being written, and it’s clear the end is nigh.
Well, that’s really only in the first half of the season, which I would qualify as essentially a disaster, and the lowest point in the history of the show’s run. Things actually pick up mid-season as the show gears towards its conclusion. You see, everyone knew going in that Bea Arthur would be leaving the series at the end of the year, and once it was confirmed officially that both she would indeed depart and Estelle Getty would be staying (a fact that wasn’t assured at the year’s start), the show decided to put more emphasis back on the characters and their relationships, hoping to craft a fine swan song both for Dorothy, and also for the other characters in relation to her. This deliberate focus on character elevates the year’s overall quality significantly, because there are actual gems here that are perhaps even better than the gems of the few years prior. (Once again, we are dealing with extremes; higher highs, lower lows.) And while common sense always remains in a reduced supply, when the show recognizes the need to keep its ideas simple, focusing on these four women and their relationships, we’re able to cash in on our seasoned emotional investment. That’s the nature of the final stretch of episodes. (In this regard, this season is very much like Cheers‘ last, which began very disappointingly and turned around at mid-season with a vigor too exciting and delicious to ignore. Both shows struggled for story — either rehashing old ideas or moving too far away from reality in search of them — only to return at the 11th hour to the things it valued most.) If only these intentions weren’t solely confined to the latter half of the season, this year may have been a contender.
But how are the characterizations this time around? Well, the new team of writers has always had clear strengths and weaknesses. They’ve been great for Blanche. They know how to craft stories for her, they know how to give her emotional depth, and they know how to broaden her comedy without jeopardizing the character. (In fact, by being so attuned to the show’s tone, Blanche has managed to stay the most relatable — in spite of the surrounding lunacy at which she winks.) They’ve been hit-and-miss for Rose. They also know how to craft stories for her, they know that anchoring her in a regular romance gives her dimension (although they’ve struggled with how to write Miles — last year he was in the Witness Protection Program; this year’s he’s all of a sudden a skinflint), but they aren’t nearly as good at giving her comedy. That is, they’re always stepping over that delicate logic line with jokes that stretch her naive characterization too far. More often than in any other year, there are times that I wince at the jokes given to Rose. (One of the worst involves Rose literally “smelling rats.”) Meanwhile, the new writers have been good at deepening the relationships that Sophia shares with the other girls and treating her in scenes with a weight equal to theirs. But her stories are inconsistently enjoyable because they fluctuate between overly gaggy and overly sentimental as a result of her own depiction — middle ground is hard to find. Yet together, this season proves (intentionally), that this trio alone can deliver both genuine laughs and a unique emotionality based on shared history and easy chemistry. However, that result is slightly misleading, for while they can carry scenes, carrying stories looks to be challenging — because structurally, they need a Dorothy.
These writers have always had a tremendous issue with Dorothy. They know she’s the star, they know to give her meaty stories, and they know how important her usage is to the show. However, they’ve never gotten her voice right. So, finally, in Season Seven, they no longer try. After years of struggling to find a characterization that seemed impossible to craft under these new terms, the show concedes defeat and simply begins drawing her with the same broad, zany and burlesque brush that it’s been using on the others. And because the writers retain her prominence — an odd combination of them giving her one last hurrah while moving her closer to the exit — Dorothy sort of becomes the show: reflecting its notions of aggrandized comedy and the unshackled nature of these evolved (or devolved, in her case) characterizations. As a result of the show no longer struggling with Dorothy, many fans find her depiction here comparatively refreshing. But I do not find her presentation laudable or worth more than sustained derision. For although Arthur seems to be enjoying herself for the first time in years and the show is actually able to deliver laughs for her character, the characterization is so disconnected from its roots that she’s both unrecognizable and ill-fitting. In other words, the show has always needed Dorothy to be grounded — that’s why she was its anchor — so by making her as goofy as her cohorts, the show permanently wrecks the ensemble. Now the girls take turns being the “sensible one” based on the demands of the story, with a definable core no longer in existence. And while we, along with the show (which is proud of being able to finally use her) still cling to the idea of Dorothy as said core, it’s just formality — based on memories of what was and a fear of what’s to come. We wonder: can the show carry on next year without her? Structurally, it still seems doubtful. But, aesthetically, I’d argue, it already has been…
We’ll talk more about the spin-off in tomorrow’s Wildcard post on The Golden Palace, and my thoughts on the series finale are below. In the meantime, it’s also worth noting that this final season found the show moving from its regular 9:00 timeslot on Saturdays to 8:00, where it was one of three regular Witt-Thomas-Harris shows (cue several crossovers in two NBC themed nights — discussed below) and dropped from a seasonal rating of #10 to #30. I don’t think the rating plummet had any bearing on the show’s quality this year, or Arthur’s decision to depart (and thus end) the series, but, the drop in ratings did have an effect on the development of the spin-off. (Again, stay tuned for tomorrow…) Frankly, the show was ready to end. Quality had slipped, and while it always reinforced its above-average pedigree and often delivered “the goods,” these characters, particularly within this format, were growing tired. What else was there left to say about them? Not much… Nevertheless, it’s been a pleasure to discuss the show here on Sitcom Tuesdays; I find a lot to like in every season of the series — there’s much more to enjoy this year than in the final seasons of the last two shows we’ve covered here, for instance — and 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 might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Seven. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that 21/26 episodes this season are directed by Lex Passaris; those that have been selected and aren’t directed by Passaris 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 156: “The Case Of The Libertine Belle” (Aired: 09/28/91)
The girls go on a weekend murder-mystery retreat.
Written by Tom Whedon
A classic example of the gimmicky premise, this installment finds the women going on a murder mystery retreat sponsored by Blanche’s museum, where in addition to the staged murder, there’s another “real murder” that needs solving as well (of course, we hold little doubt that it too is just performed). Apparently, the episode was a knowing parody of Murder, She Wrote, which starred Arthur’s former Mame co-star and good friend Angela Lansbury. But putting the high-concept story aside, one can appreciate how really funny this installment actually manages to be, with terrific character moments — Dorothy being the amateur sleuth is intensely rewarding — and several big laugh lines that help to elevate this offering from some of the other lesser entries that were produced and aired at the beginning of the season. Memorable, enjoyable.
02) Episode 158: “That’s For Me To Know” (Aired: 10/12/91)
Blanche learns that she’s not legally allowed to rent to three boarders.
Written by Kevin Abbott
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know that there’s a type of story away from which I wish sitcoms would shy — the ol’ “one character may have to leave (but it’s the middle of the season and we all know he/she won’t).” This offering sort of engages in that premise, but there are scenes in the story that overcompensate, specifically the voting bit where everyone thinks that Dorothy should leave. Meanwhile, the subplot of Dorothy trying to uncover the truth about an old photo of Sophia with a strange man leads to a revelation that, truthfully, is a lot to metaphorically swallow (desperation + odd continuity), but this pair is in want of these deeper moments, so there’s some merit. I’d also note that Abbott, a newbie, can craft a decent script if the story issues aren’t insurmountable. A very flawed outing, but likable.
03) Episode 166: “From Here To The Pharmacy” (Aired: 12/07/91)
Blanche can’t remember a returning soldier to whom she’s promised herself.
Written by Gail Parent & Jim Vallely
I consider this entry to be among the most simple on today’s list — there’s no gaudy narratives, no distracting characterizations, and no tonal extremities. As a result, this episode affords us the chance to really appreciate just how comedic this crew can be when they’re not trying so hard. Parent, the only female on the staff, along with her partner Vallely, have been among the final era’s most consistent, imbuing their work with a quietness and a sanctity of relationship that makes these efforts stand apart. These qualities are most appreciated, especially here, when Blanche, who gets more emotional exploration in a story that looks to give her a recurring beau (but doesn’t eventuate into such), is at the helm. Best of all: there are some fine laughs along the way — both in the A-story and the subplot involving the other three girls. Underrated.
04) Episode 169: “Goodbye, Mr. Gordon” (Aired: 01/11/92)
Dorothy reconnects with an old teacher with whom she’s smitten.
Written by Gail Parent & Jim Vallely
The primary plot of this episode has Dorothy reuniting with an old English teacher (James Callahan) on whom she had a big crush in school. He romances her and ultimately uses her to essentially do his work for him. It’s not a very enjoyable premise, and it derives much of its humor from Dorothy’s schoolgirl contortions, seemingly anachronistic to her usual behavior. (Of course, Dorothy’s been more excitable this season anyway, so much of this comedic potency is lost.) What really makes this episode a standout is the delicious subplot of Rose persuading Dorothy and Blanche to appear on a show together where, to all three of their surprise, the duo is portrayed as a lesbian couple. The idea is more funny than the execution, but because the laughs are there in support, it still works. For that scene alone, this is a seasonal hit.
05) Episode 170: “The Commitments” (Aired: 01/25/92)
Dorothy dates a Beatle impersonator and Blanche worries about her sex appeal.
Written by Tracy Gamble & Richard Vaczy
With Dorothy now reflecting the show’s dubious sensibilities, this season finds her with the kookiest storylines; this is one that always comes to mind. The source of the story’s comedy again comes from the same place as the last: Dorothy falling all over herself with heretofore unseen giddiness over something that helps invoke the past. Above it was her regard for an old teacher; here it’s her youthful obsession with the Beatles. Meanwhile, the subplot is all about giving Blanche MORE depth, something these writers often do to counterbalance how big they’ve made everything else, and although this bunch does few things subtly, we all know they are both capable of writing for Blanche, and that McClanahan is capable of playing her. This isn’t a terrific entry, but it benefits from existing in a period of rejuvenation for the show.
06) Episode 171: “Questions And Answers” (Aired: 02/08/92)
Dorothy is excited when Jeopardy! has local auditions.
Written by Don Seigel & Jerry Perzigian
Seigel and Perzigian, a duo who joined the series last season, have never been among my favorite writers. However, if they’re blessed with a good idea as foundation, they’re generally able to deliver it without much trouble. This episode is an example of a good idea; well, let me be more specific, the game show bit is a gimmicky idea: one we’ve seen on everything from The Odd Couple to Mama’s Family. But the concept itself is a guarantor of laughs, making it easier to write. (Dorothy on Jeopardy! — can you see what I mean about the show catering to her character in a way they hadn’t been able to do in years? Even if it’s cheap…) Also, this episode serves as a great place to bring up that the final year of this series has become a parade of guest stars — this one alone features both Alex Trebek and Merv Griffin. Fun — inartful — but fun.
07) Episode 173: “Journey To The Center Of Attention” (Aired: 02/22/92)
Blanche is jealous of the attention Dorothy receives at a local bar.
Written by Jamie Wooten & Marc Cherry
My pick for the strongest episode of the final season, this outing has also become notable for being among the favorites of both Arthur and McClanahan, each of whom gets wonderful material to play. The script, by Cherry and Wooten, begins with a terrific story: Blanche encouraging Dorothy to join her at a local hangout, only to become jealous when Dorothy steals the attention by singing. For Arthur, she gets to sing and gets to be regarded as beautiful (something both actress and character always wanted to be). For McClanahan, this begets wonderfully humorous material — like her own disastrous attempt at a song — and continued growth. The final scene in the bathroom between the two ladies is probably the best material they ever get one-on-one on this series as Blanche finally pays Dorothy a sincere compliment. It’s a terrific scene, and fortunately, this great pathos doesn’t have to come at the expense of comedy. Also, there’s a subplot involving Rose and Sophia arranging the latter’s wake — but forgetting to tell the guests that Sophia’s still alive. Easy laughs, but still gratifying. A classic.
08) Episode 175: “A Midwinter Night’s Dream (II)” (Aired: 02/29/92)
Miles and Dorothy deal with the aftermath of their kiss.
Written by Tom Whedon
The second half of an outing that aired as one hour in its original broadcast, this was part of a “Leap Day” themed night on NBC, made all the better by the fact that The Golden Girls existed in the same universe as two of the other shows that aired that evening, Empty Nest and Nurses, thus allowing all three shows to crossover and share minor story points. As the flagship, The Golden Girls got an extra half-hour (bumping a midseason replacement that had just been scratched) to kick off the evening. The episode, broad by design, benefits from an element of Shakespearian whimsy that helps to justify some of the out-of-character shenanigans. I believe Part II is better than Part I because there are more opportunities for the performers to make choices that help elevate the material, like White in the scene where she kisses the thief, and then in the one following, where she admonishes herself for being a “bad girl.” Also, this is one of the best uses of Miles, who, from the start, seemed more compatible with Dorothy.
09) Episode 178: “Home Again, Rose (II)” (Aired: 05/02/92)
Rose undergoes a triple bypass surgery.
Written by Jim Vallely | Directed by Peter D. Beyt
Truthfully, I’m surprised to see this one here, as I think the idea of giving Rose a heart attack is awfully unfunny, no matter how strong the script that does it manages to be. But this outing is unforgettable for a scene where Rose imagines that all of the girls, who have had their heads cryogenically frozen, are resurrected — on platters of ice — 100 years later. It’s a unique scene and it makes the whole episode. I’m also quite fond of the scene in which Rose and her daughter talk before going into surgery, as the script is able to weave laughs into a really heavy moment with great care, sort of making up for the terribly preachy “we are family, even though we’re not related” theme with which we’re hit pretty hard. Part II is both more dramatic and comedic than Part I, which is nevertheless also recommended. Important, but well-handled.
10) Episode 179: “One Flew Out Of The Cuckoo’s Nest (I)” (Aired: 05/09/92)
Dorothy and Blanche’s uncle fake a whirlwind romance to get revenge on Blanche.
Written by Don Seigel & Jerry Perzigian
As the first part of the hour-long series finale, it’s important to note that both parts are not written by the same writer(s), and that Part I is set two months before the events of Part II, allowing them to really feel like two separate entities. Part II, a de facto honorable mention, is all about the big event of Dorothy’s wedding, which allows Arthur to leave the show, and the other three girls to carry on together in some capacity. (As you all know, I am against BIG EVENT finales, and this is too much like that.) But Part I is more interesting, because it isn’t poisoned by the self-important storytelling. That’s not to say Part I isn’t ambitious; in fact, it’s even more ambitious, as the script has to take Dorothy and Blanche’s Uncle Lucas (Leslie Nielsen) from strangers to fiancés. But because the episode is allowed to have a strong relationship with its comedy, it actually works. As for what I feel about the finale developments as a whole, I like that Dorothy falls in love with Blanche’s uncle and gets married — I don’t like that it all happens in a single hour. (Wouldn’t it have been more buyable to see the two months elapse in real time? What if Part I happened in March and Part II in May? More story, more believability, less sensation.) ‘Tis a difficult job done — primarily in Part I — admirably.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed this list include: “Room 7,” the closest to being highlighted above because I do think its intentions are character-rooted, even though its saddled with some of the worst depictions of Rose (and Sophia) that we’ve ever seen, and a Blanche story too ostentatious to effectively play, along with “Beauty And The Beast,” which has one of the funniest moments of the season (“What the hell goes on at night in this house?”), a fine guest star (Edie McClurg), but two flawed stories, “Old Boyfriends,” in which Ken Berry and Betty Garrett both guest star (that’s the prime draw — the stories are troublesome), and “Rose: Portrait Of A Woman,” which is burdened by a weak Rose A-story but an interesting subplot for Dorothy, who is better used here than elsewhere. Also, I’d like to mention the respective weaker halves of the three two-parters highlighted above, including the actual final half-hour, which surprisingly, has laughs, despite its suffocating self-reverence.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of The Golden Girls goes to…..
“Journey To The Center Of Attention”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the first season of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!