Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! As mentioned in yesterday’s final post in our series on the best of The Golden Girls (1985-1992, NBC), today’s entry looks at the spin-off series, The Golden Palace (1992-1993, CBS). Don’t let the snarky title fool you — I actually like this series much more than many of the others you’ve seen on Wednesdays this year!
(January 2022 UPDATE: The Golden Palace is finally available to stream on Hulu. In celebration, I rewatched the entire series — over five years after first writing this post. Here is a list of the episodes I would highlight as the best, if I were picking today.)
An extension of The Golden Girls, much in the same way that Archie Bunker’s Place was an extension of All In The Family, the new series began with three Miami roommates, naive Rose Nylund (BETTY WHITE), lusty Blanche Devereaux (RUE McCLANAHAN), and spunky Sophia Petrillo (ESTELLE GETTY), now down their tallest companion, selling their home and buying a struggling hotel. Of course, at the time of purchase, the ladies had no idea it was indeed struggling and had only two regular employees, sharp manager Roland Wilson (DON CHEADLE) and plucky chef Chuy Castillo (CHEECH MARIN), thus forcing all three women to pitch in and help with the day-to-day operations. The hotel also hosted a permanent resident, young Oliver Webb (BILLY L. SULLIVAN), a foster child for whom the staff cared — until his quick departure after only eight episodes, which were aired out of sequence.
The reason for the the child’s presence — something my regular readers already know I think was a bad creative decision — is easily explained. The Golden Palace was, of course, pitched in early ’92 by executive producers Witt-Thomas-Harris (the latter of whom, Susan Harris, again served as the series’ creator) to NBC, which was the home of the trio’s soon-to-end The Golden Girls. The network agreed to order 13 episodes for the ’92-’93 season. CBS, looking to bolster its comedic presence, offered to pick up the spin-off for a full season. The veteran producers appealed to NBC to counter with a better offer, but the network refused to make a larger episodic commitment, as a result of declining ratings (and, probably, a lack of faith in the new show’s premise). So The Golden Palace found its home at CBS, where the producers were promised more creative freedom and the opportunity to cultivate for the show a new identity, part of which involved the casting of both Marin and Cheadle, which in addition to masculinity, introduced some diversity to the series. But CBS’ bid for The Golden Palace was calculated — the network desperately wanted a killer Friday lineup to compete with ABC’s TGIF, and The Golden Palace was to kick off the evening. In a clear bid for the family demographic, the series decided to add in the kid. But, once it was realized that he did nothing for the show — he wasn’t a strong enough scene partner for Sophia, as initially intended — or its comedy, he was quickly ousted.
But as is often the case with these short-lived spin-offs, especially those which come from incredible parents, some of these little decisions (like the kid) are trivial in light of the flawed foundations on which the very choice to do these new shows are made. In other words, it doesn’t matter what the new show does or how it does it, when the simple inescapable truth is that the spin-off shouldn’t have happened. A classic example is Phyllis (1975-1977, CBS), which was slated for failure by design, even before any structures were established. Yet, while there are lots of Phyllises, there are also Rhodas, which don’t manage to best their predecessors but still offer ample delights. (And of course, it’s quite rare, but every now and again we find a Frasier, which some — though not I — posit as being as good as the show from which it spun.) So what is the case here with The Golden Palace? Well, I’m going to perhaps surprise you all and note that the series is somewhere between Rhoda and Phyllis, for although the decision to do a follow-up to The Golden Girls without one of its most important ingredients is a risk I would never advise for any reason other than $$$, I am not of the opinion that the show is worthless, or, that it never could have worked. No, it could have worked, and indeed, as I noted, it’s often very enjoyable — not surprisingly, given that several of the same writers (Sotkin, Cherry, Wooten, Hurwitz, Vallely) are still around — but for several reasons, it’s a noted decline.
The easy explanation is that the show doesn’t work because it needs Dorothy. But that’s only partially true. You see, it’s not that the show misses Dorothy, because the writers were smart to immediately change the location. If the new premise had remained in the house, like several of the Dorothy-lite episodes from the final year of The Golden Girls, we’d always feel that the new show was incomplete and insufficient — no matter who was chosen as the late-in-life replacement. Frankly, the risk of radical change was necessary in the quest for any type of tangible reward. (Also, with her characterization undergoing a personality transplant in its final season, the Dorothy we know and love hadn’t existed anymore anyway, thus making easier the emotional detachment.) So with the new format, The Golden Palace itself is not in want of her presence, and although I don’t speak for most of the audience (that I know for certain), there’s no other reason than personal predilection to think otherwise. In fact, as the two-parter in which she appears illustrates, Dorothy doesn’t fit within this new environment, especially because, given the events of the prior show’s finale, her story has been concluded. (We don’t need to see her again, especially so early in the run.) But, on the other hand, the spin-off does suffer because of Dorothy’s absence — and it’s because the characters miss her. I don’t mean the characters themselves miss her, although that is true. I mean that the characters have trouble functioning without her. Dorothy wasn’t just the anchor of The Golden Girls, she was also the “logical smart one,” the straight-woman off of whom the ditz, the slut, and the smart-mouth could revolve (at least, in the early seasons when they were all functioning well).
Without this grounded presence, the broader characters must alternate performing Dorothy’s role (just like last season, but now with higher stakes and less narrative subtlety). In other words, when the show is going to play up Blanche’s promiscuity for the sake of the big laughs to which these characters have become accustomed, then Rose is going to have to play strangely sensible, and when Rose is going to indulge in the simpleton tendencies for which she had become known, then Blanche must assume the controlled role of straight-woman. In the process, their characterizations become inconsistent holograms of their former selves, on whom we can only rely part of the time. In fact, you’ll notice the best episodes are the ones that can keep the trio’s voices and behaviors consistent with how we knew them on The Golden Girls. (Sotkin, despite hit and miss scripts, generally seems to do this better than his funnier cohorts.) But the show appears to know it needs a straight-man, so attempts are also made to have the two male regulars assume the position. It’s only somewhat successful. While Chuy sort of takes on the dynamic with Sophia that the latter had with Dorothy (or is positioned to do so within the pilot), as they’re both going to be combating and collaborating in the kitchen, his energy is an odd fit for the series, especially because Marin’s persona somehow doesn’t allow for a complex character, making it hard for him to gel with the women — especially the thinly drawn Sophia.
Cheadle, meanwhile, is much better in his role as the young, but wise hotel manager. The writers seem to give him lines that would have been thrown to Dorothy, and his delivery is often capable, aided by the fact that he’s both a physical and energetic contrast to the women. And unlike Marin, Cheadle doesn’t feel out-of-place on The Golden Palace; rather, he’s the agent that most defines the show as an entity different from The Golden Girls. I personally enjoy his work very much on this series, although there are two primary reasons that I can’t qualify it as significantly positive. The first is because he does get Dorothy-ish lines, giving him material reminiscent of Arthur’s only heightens the viewers’ belief that this show never should have happened without her. Also, one look at the premiere’s attempt at a cheesecake scene (something they don’t do too often thereafter — their scarcity is good for the show and its new identity, but bad for the women, as these were their prime moments on The Golden Girls) and we know how far we’ve fallen. And ultimately, there’s one hurdle specific to The Golden Girls that makes a successful spin-off so tricky — these women have never played regularly off of males, and that’s probably the biggest change in the new series, although we’re distracted by some of the other gaudier choices (like the kid, or the premise itself — discussed below.)
The other reason that Cheadle’s addition, despite the actor being strong and his character actually working on a weekly basis, really can’t be qualified as a major benefit is because The Golden Palace is plagued by a hierarchical structure, rendering his contribution to the show only occasionally important. (Well, that’s half-true; I think he’s always important, but the way the scripts collectively treat him is touch-and-go.) On The Golden Girls, it was simple. Dorothy was the starring anchor, Rose and Blanche were starry support, and Sophia benefited from her connection to Dorothy, gaining prominence alongside the other two as the series progressed. Without Dorothy — again, the show doesn’t miss her, but the characters do — Blanche and Rose become the stars: an odd dynamic. White gets top billing, but McClanahan gets more to do, as Blanche is the most assertive in the hotel’s operations (and is the easier to write for the retained staff). The stories take turns giving them the spotlight, but it’s very clear that they are co-leads. (Of course, because the effect that Dorothy’s leave has had on their characters, neither one’s ascension as the narrative’s driver is consistently rewarding.) Meanwhile, without Dorothy, Sophia recedes back to a lower tier, never recapturing the amount of focus afforded the other two ladies, for she’s so resistant to any story in this new environment that’s not relationship-driven (and those are hard to find). And yet, given the audience’s advanced connection to all three of the women, Sophia is still treated as more important than the two men, even though Cheadle is used more often and seems more narratively relevant than Sophia; our emotional investment in the character keeps her prominent. (This is the same thinking that went into her misguided addition to Empty Nest the following year.) So make no mistake: this is not an ensemble cast. This is a cast that stars several Golden Girls and features a tiny ensemble.
But I wonder: could they have done it any differently? Well, that’s an interesting question, and it leads into my final talking point about the series’ premise. While I think it was absolutely necessary to change locations, I believe that the hotel premise is perhaps the show’s biggest mistake. You see, while hotel sitcoms are generally trite and story-driven — the best hotel sitcom, Fawlty Towers, only lasted 12 episodes — the transition from a low-concept show like The Golden Girls, which in its best moments was only about four women gabbing at a kitchen table, to a show that, while not high-concept, seeks heavy setting-driven stories, marks another big contrast between the two. Furthermore, for characters that are already in a state of flux after losing their straight-woman anchor, scripts that require more story beats than character beats are disastrous, as the issues these writers are having can never be solved when the characterizations are diluted and contorted based on the demands of the plot. And all of this is exacerbated by the hotel premise. Now back to the question — could they have done it differently? Of course. With Witt-Thomas-Harris insistent on remaining in business with the three girls, the decision to go from a domestic sitcom to a workplace sitcom is motivated. But I would have taken specific care to ensure that wherever these women moved, their relationships with each other and with the inevitable new regulars (whether that included men or not), remained paramount. It’s a generic note, yes, but nonetheless seminal, and something that The Golden Palace takes for granted, perhaps in its pursuit to be different from The Golden Girls.
And, yes, The Golden Palace isn’t The Golden Girls. But it has a lot of the original show’s good qualities, like the constant crusade to makes its audience laugh. As mentioned above, I actually do like this series, especially in comparison to other spin-offs and single-season flops we’ve seen here. In fact, although the ratings were disappointing, CBS did renew The Golden Palace for a second season, only to cancel the series — along with two of the other sitcoms on their Friday night lineup — just before the new schedule was revealed. The only series in that initial block to survive for another year, its second and final, was Bob (1992-1993, CBS), covered here back in 2015. (That series actually retooled itself for its brief second season by adding on none other than Betty White as a new regular.) Frankly, I’d have renewed The Golden Palace over Bob in a heartbeat, as I consider the former quite superior to both the latter and the latter’s spring ’93 replacement, Good Advice (1993-1994, CBS), which I’ve also covered here. So, I ultimately want to make clear that, in spite of the bad decisions, both large and small, that render the series irreparably damaged and notably lesser than the original, The Golden Palace isn’t exactly as sad and sorry an affair as some might insist. Hopefully the entire series will be released on DVD one day — I know there’s a market — because I enjoyed selecting my favorite episodes and I’m pleased to highlight them below. As always, they are listed in airing order.
01) Episode 1: “The Golden Palace” (Aired: 09/18/92)
Rose, Blanche, and Sophia move into their new hotel.
Written by Susan Harris | Directed by Terry Hughes | Production No. 1
The series premiere is the only script for which Harris is directly credited. As is often the case when the creator is involved, the results are tighter, and all of the characters remain consistent. I commend the decision to begin the outing at the house for one final scene as they move, but I also think it’s a mistake not to show the moment where Blanche and the women decide to buy the hotel. It’s such a leap to believe — also, the primary reason that the premise doesn’t work — and the only way to combat this would have been to take great care in believably showing us how it happened. Obviously, the show knew that it wouldn’t be an easy sell, so they avoided it.
02) Episode 5: “Ebbtide For The Defense” (Aired: 10/16/92)
Rose overbooks the hotel while Blanche discovers their insurance has been canceled.
Written by Marc Sotkin | Directed by Peter D. Beyt | Production No. 8
Above I noted that Sotkin seems to retain the best grasp of the characters’ voices, for although not all of his episodes are worthy of being highlighted — he has a tendency to go for problematic or inferior stories — the depiction of the characters as congruous with how we know them to be is vital. His work is never more appreciated than it is in this episode, which is very situational. Now, I don’t say that entirely pejoratively; once the decision is made to set the show in a hotel, it’s important to actually make use of the premise and find stories that capitalize upon the setting. Sotkin does the best job of maintaining the characters’ integrity in this process.
03) Episode 10: “Marriage On The Rocks, With A Twist” (Aired: 11/20/92)
Roland’s parents visit and Sophia pranks Rose.
Written by Marc Cherry & Jamie Wooten | Directed by Peter D. Beyt | Production No. 12
I suppose the primary attraction to this episode is the guest appearances of both Tim Conway and Harvey Korman as a pair of radio DJs who conspire with Sophia to pull a prank on Rose, in which she feels responsible for Conway’s death. Prank type stories, by design, are more plot-oriented than character-oriented, but the presence of these two gentlemen makes for some really kooky and memorable moments (and even McClanahan has some trouble keeping a straight face). Does it feel like a gimmick to bolster a sinking ship? Yes, but’s the kind of storytelling this format engenders. Also, Roland gets an A-story of equal importance.
04) Episode 11: “Camp Town Races Aren’t Nearly As Much Fun As They Used To Be” (Aired: 12/04/92)
Blanche and Roland argue over the confederate flag, and Rose has a moral dilemma.
Written by Marc Sotkin | Directed by Lex Passaris | Production No. 4
This is the fourth produced episode; these early scripts tend to be funnier than the later ones because they’re still being written by staff who came from The Golden Girls. But as is often the case early on, there are issues — functional plots (that have to be gotten out of the way), nebulous characterizations (for newbies), and questionable stories. This offering has all of the above and I’m shocked that I like it so much, for the debate about the Confederate flag between Roland and Blanche does feel a bit Very Special Episode-ish. However, Sotkin’s script paints the characters true, keeps the laughs flowing, and uses the story to cement Roland’s place on the show. I do feel that CBS uses the racial dynamics exploitatively, but it’s not as bad as it could be, and because the script manages to weave together drama and comedy well, I give it credit.
05) Episode 18: “You’ve Lost That Livin’ Feeling” (Aired: 02/19/93)
A restaurant critic dies while the health inspector pays a visit.
Written by Marco Pennette | Directed by Peter D. Beyt | Production No. 18
Ah, a tried-and-true Fawlty Towers rip-off, and the primary reason that I gave this post its title. I’ve said before that dead bodies go well in sitcoms, and it would seem the hotel setting fosters an easy connection. (Well, the association exists between the hotel premise and bedroom farces, which often use dead bodies.) There’s probably no doubt that Fawlty Towers was directly invoked during the creation of this outing, because the two are so similar, but, as a result, this does happen to be among the series’ funniest — originality be darned. (Note that Bea Arthur did the same story in Amanda’s, a short-lived Fawlty Towers remake, discussed here last year.) Also, note the author: Marco Pennette, future co-creator of Caroline In The City (among other shows).
06) Episode 19: “The Chicken And The Egg” (Aired: 03/05/93)
To please a beau, Blanche asks her daughter for an egg cell.
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz | Directed by Lex Passaris | Production No. 15
Although aired in syndication as the final episode (and listed in every online guide as having served as its finale on May 14th), this entry was not broadcast as such. It would, however, be a decent finale, for I consider it among the entire series’ strongest. McClanahan, in particular, gets great moments of comedy, as Blanche drives the story and remains in character — thank goodness! Meanwhile, the memorable second act centerpiece is a dream sequence in which all the regulars are pregnant: a surreal beat that we haven’t seen a lot from these two shows, but it nevertheless plays with the necessary laughs. Also, Debra Engle returns as Rebecca Devereaux.
07) Episode 24: “Sex, Lies, And Tortillas” (Aired: 05/07/93)
Rose’s granddaughter visits as the hotel hosts a bunch of spring breakers.
Written by Michael Davidoff & Bill Rosenthal | Directed by Lex Passaris | Production No. 17
I think one of the reasons this episode makes my list, despite a story-heavy premise that doesn’t particularly excite, is that it’s one of the few — from the entire series — where the new male characters seem more equal to the established female characters. This dynamic probably points to what would have come in a second season, as some of the hierarchical limitations discussed in my general series commentary would have dissipated. It’s also interesting to note how non-The Golden Girls writers make use of the three women in this new setting. They have the broad ideas intact, but there’s been some evolutionary changes made. It’s thought-provoking.
Other notable episodes not mentioned above include: “Promotional Considerations,” the second episode, which has some functional responsibilities but nevertheless makes time for broad laughs, and “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas,” in which the three girls do a take-off of A Christmas Carol in Chuy’s nightmare. Fans of The Golden Girls will specifically be interested in both “Seems Like Old Times (I)” and “Seems Like Old Times (II),” in which Dorothy returns and plays the antagonist for some redundant closure, and “One Angry Stan,” in which Stan fakes his death and we say goodbye to him once again (redundantly… again). Miles also appears twice as the show severs his relationship with Rose, but those episodes aren’t worth mentioning; on the contrary, they’re both pretty dire.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical!