Thursday, January 30, 2020

The 10 Best "Designing Women" Episodes

Was there ever a great show that peaked for as short a time as Designing Women? It’s undeniably a classic — beautifully acted, frequently well-written, and unafraid not only to tackle social issues, but to get passionate about them — but the series, at its very best, had such a short lifespan. Less than a year passed between the show maturing and it showing signs of age, and although sporadic greatness would continue for a few more seasons, that peak level of sustained brilliance never returned.

But even sporadic greatness isn’t anything to sneeze at. It’s easy to enjoy Designing Women, and to fool yourself into thinking that it’s brilliant for much longer than it is. It was easy to do so during its original run. Right from the start, its blend of ribald quips and unapologetic sentiment was so fascinating — and its left-leaning sensibility so disarming — that you were more than willing to overlook any growing pains in tone and approach. And by Season 2, you were so impressed that those issues had been ironed out that it didn’t much matter that humor had been subordinated to earnestness. But you didn’t know quite how good the show could be until it started taking itself a little less seriously in Season 3 — and trusting that the actors could bring honesty and complexity to the scripts however broad or outrageous the situations became; the series got no less provocative, but much funnier. Season 3 is a marvel — it’s as good as ‘80s television got — and although the way that TV Guide chose to praise it in their year-end wrap-up seemed at the time rather like a back-handed compliment (the cast "finally got some sassy screwball scripts worthy of their considerable talents"), in retrospect you understand what they were responding to. In Season 3, creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason figured out how to retain the sincerity, the power and the topicality without sacrificing the laughs.

And no sooner did the show have its knockout season than the decline began. Part of it was beyond the creative team’s control. Jean Smart’s real-life pregnancy minimized her screentime early in Season 4; Delta Burke’s dissatisfaction (and, we later learned, clinical depression) meant she started missing shows. And then, after 3-1/2 seasons where Bloodworth-Thomason and Pam Norris had written most every episode, Bloodworth-Thomason’s departure to launch Evening Shade required an infusion of new blood — and as it turned out, no one could write the show nearly as well as those two. (New story editors Dee LaDuke and Mark Alton Brown were a notable disaster. Like most of the incoming writers, they penned something much more traditionally sitcom-ish in nature — fastening on one or two dominant traits to define each character, rather than defining them by their inability to be so easily typed.) And then the cast shake-up in Season 6 was mishandled; the new actors themselves weren’t an issue, but the (non) development of their characters was. But it wasn’t until Season 7 — with showrunner Norma Safford Vela at the helm — that the series crashed and burned. Dixie Carter, who had never voiced a public complaint, expressed her dissatisfaction via that homily that “if it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage.” With Bloodworth-Thomason and Norris gone, some weeks the page was pretty much blank: devoid of wit, inspiration, relevance and even consistency of character.

But that third season is a wonder, the fourth season — despite its obstacles — very good, and the four seasons surrounding them as ingratiating as ever. Designing Women is a show that would never get produced on network television today: a show that dared to be political, provocative and defiantly feminist, and that gave you a real feel for the women of Atlanta even if you’d never ventured south of the Mason-Dixon line. (A quick word of warning: the series is currently streaming on Hulu — and best avoided. The episodes are cut to shreds — even shorter than the original syndication prints — and it’s easy to miss the greatness when all the gracefulness is gone. Uncut episodes can be found at Daily Motion, although locating them requires a bit of detective work.) Below, my 10 favorite Designing Women episodes, plus another ten that I adore. You’ll see a lot of familiar episodes missing. I was looking for episodes that impressed me from start to finish, that offered 24 minutes of sustained excellence — not merely episodes elevated by one of Julia’s memorable tirades or their sensitive tackling of a social issue — and happily, Designing Women had no shortage of those.

10. A Toe in the Water: After Bloodworth-Thomason’s bloated, enervating hour-long Season 6 opener, this second episode, by new showrunner Norris, reassures us that all will be well: that new cast members Julia Duffy and Jan Hooks will not only fit snugly into the existing ensemble, but prove valuable and entertaining, and that the writing will remain as sharp and funny as ever. None of that actually turns out to be true, but “A Toe in the Water” makes the case so persuasively, it’s one of the best broken promises in TV history. It understands exactly how to use Duffy, which few Season 6 offerings do. Most of the season’s scripters had no idea what to do with the aggressively annoying character Bloodworth-Thomason had introduced in the season premiere. Norris knows. She makes Allison marvelously self-deluded, forever posturing and forever deflated, but also gives her a smart way with a clever quip and, most critically, the ability — as an outsider — to see her coworkers more clearly than they see themselves. Here, Allison returns from therapy and shares the details of her latest session. She and her therapist have agreed that Julia, whose boyfriend died the previous spring (Carter’s real-life husband Hal Holbrook was off doing Evening Shade), is in a latency period and needs to start dating again. Julia counters that she is in fact seeing someone — but her case isn’t bolstered when he arrives at Sugarbaker’s and turns out to be, in Allison’s words, “the gayest human being I’ve ever seen in my life.” (“Julia, he was wearing a Lacoste. He knows what a pablum is. In a twenty-second conversation, he managed to work in Ida Lupino.”) “A Toe in the Water” shows how Allison can work as a foil for the others and as a crowd pleaser in her own right. The episode satirizes gay stereotyping and images of masculinity so successfully that it was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award, and provides Dixie Carter with one of her last sensitive showcases, as Julia is forced to admit that she was dating a man she believed to be gay in order to avoid moving on. Tonally, it’s nothing like the previous five seasons — it’s brasher and more insistent, and still a bit scrappy, as the cast finds their new rhythms — but it feels very much like the template for an entertaining reboot that, sadly, never emerges. Also worth a look: “Payne Comes Home,” from the same season — Carter’s last great showcase and another solid showing for Duffy, who's (surprisingly) well-paired with Alice Ghostley. (It’s credited to Eleanor S. Hyde-White, who has no other writing credits to her name at IMDb, so I have no idea who the heck she is; it’s also the only episode of the twenty listed here that isn’t by Bloodworth-Thomason or Norris.) Picking up the threads of a plot left hanging in Season 4, we learn that Julia’s son Payne and his bride Sylvie discovered, soon after their wedding, that she wasn’t pregnant after all, and have been struggling with married life ever since. As Julia wrestles with whether to shelter her son or force him to face his responsibilities, Allison — who prides herself on keeping up with all the latest trends — puts the story in a broader context: “I saw something like this on 20/20. It’s called Return to the Nest Syndrome, and it’s an epidemic. They had on an accountant, a lawyer and a dentist — and they all lived with their mommies.” Meanwhile, Mary Jo offers her own mixed emotions about watching her son Quint grow up, while Carlene — dipping into her recent history — espouses the value of newlyweds staying close to home: “Let me tell you, when your husband is not treating you with respect, it is real convenient to be able to have your mama come on over and whoop him.” Unlike most of the Season 6 entries, there’s not one cross word between Mary Jo and Allison, and the episode is all the better for it.

9. Charlene Buys a House: Pam Norris had quite a few scripting credits to her name when she joined Designing Women in Season 3; her longest-running gig had been four seasons with Saturday Night Live. She settled in within a few episodes, but her early work wasn’t as polished as Bloodworth-Thomason’s. She hit the jokes harder (you often saw them coming), and although she always got her laughs, she got them in strange places, often halfway through lines. (The actors would be left having to shout the rest over the audience response.) She could be as funny as Bloodworth-Thomason, but she lacked her grace — at least, at first. But in Season 5, Bloodworth-Thomason left to create Evening Shade (penning none of that season’s Designing Women scripts), and happily, Norris’s talents fully blossomed when they were needed most. The other scripts in Season 5 rarely rise above the adequate, but Norris’s nine are uniformly strong. Her more serious episodes are sensitive without being maudlin, and in the underrated “Pearls of Wisdom,” she imagines a forage through a salad bar that ranks up there with the show’s best comedy bits. “Charlene Buys a House,” on paper, is one of the slightest things the show ever produced, but it's that very slightness that provides an ideal framework for some of the most delightful banter in the show’s seven-year history. Charlene, after hiring the designers to decorate her new home, is displeased with the results and forces them to spend the night while the paint dries. As the hours pass, tempers rise, and as tempers rise, the laughs multiply. Along the way, new age mumbo-jumbo is debunked, ghost stories are shared and Halloween costumes unveiled, and somehow everyone from Spike Lee to Ed McMahon to Gary Coleman manages to be effortlessly referenced. A mere recitation of the jokes doesn’t fully convey the ease with which the actors sling them or the fresh spins they put on them. (Charlene: “On principle, I don’t think I should have to pay for a color that didn’t turn out the way it was supposed to.” Suzanne: “Oh get real, Charlene, you picked it, we painted it, and that’s the way it is. It’s like I used to tell my ex-husbands: you married me, you thought we were gonna have sex, we’re not gonna have sex, and that’s the end of the story.”) “Charlene Buys a House,” ostensibly the most lightweight of episodes, was one of two selected by the producers for Emmy submission when the show was nominated in 1991 for Best Comedy Series. Watching it, you understand why: unburdened by the mechanics of plot, the cast never worked better as an ensemble. Also worth a look: “Anthony and Vanessa,” another highly watchable episode built mostly on banter. On the surface, it’s about Anthony choosing between two potential girlfriends. But mostly, it’s an excuse for Bloodworth-Thomason to engage in a comedic stream of consciousness, as we move from Suzanne drinking the milk Charlene has expressed for Olivia to a discussion of handymen’s low-hanging trousers, with special appearances by Ian (“our homosexual waiter”) and Charlene’s nanny Mrs. Philpott, whom Suzanne is convinced is a fugitive named Roberta Harwood from Unsolved Mysteries. It’s goofy, good fun. A lot of “big events” happen in Season 4 (Charlene gives birth, Suzanne confronts her weight gain at her class reunion, Anthony gets shot and graduates college, and a twister rips through Sugarbaker’s), but it’s one of the slenderest episodes that’s among its most entertaining.

8. Dash Goff, the Writer: It’s Bloodworth-Thomason musing on the death of her own discipline. The first appearance of Suzanne’s ex, Dash Goff, becomes a treatise on the decline of language, in particular the sort of literature that Bloodworth-Thomason — and her characters — were raised on. The exposition is flimsy, to put it kindly: Dash is in town, drowning in self-pity after receiving multiple rejections to adapt his latest novel, and he consoles himself by spending time with the series regulars. In a preposterous contrivance, Julia laments that they’ve disbanded her junior study club (“we used to talk about a different book every week”) and suggests that Dash help her reorganize it and then lead it. But when the group meets, it’s just the series regulars, who are apparently — in all of Atlanta — the only five characters in search of an author. But the episode is merely an excuse for Bloodworth-Thomason to celebrate a lost age of elegance and understatement and to reimagine her own creations — via Dash — in the lyrical prose of her literary predecessors: Julia, “who [runs] a perpetual temperature from cool porcelain to hot steel”; Mary Jo, “part calico choir girl and part satin dance-hall doll”; Charlene, “all cotton candy and pink champagne.” “Dash Goff, the Writer” is one of several Bloodworth-Thomason scripts that seem eerily prescient. She could hardly have imagined all the products and platforms that would be competing for our attention by the 21st century — video games and streaming services and, of course, the internet, with its infinite distractions — but was she surprised when, in 2015, the NEA reported that the percentage of American adults who read literature had fallen to a three-decade low? (And although the episode makes the case for experiencing great prose as a means unto itself, was Bloodworth-Thomason — so invested in social causes, and so eager to bring greater recognition to them — aware that studies have shown that literary fiction boosts the quality of empathy in the people who read it?) Nothing much happens in “Dash Goff,” and it could easily have come off as preachy and static, but the cast (including a very game Gerald McRaney) attacks it with such conviction and specificity that you’re swept along contently. And at the end, when Julia reads Dash’s letter of thanks and farewell, and the screen ripples and dissolves into a black-and-white image of the four women as he envisions them — lazing in white gauzy dresses on a veranda in the hot Georgia sun — you’re likely to come away transported, as you often do by a great work of literary art. Also worth a look: the return of Dash Goff, in the Season 2 closer “Reservations for Eight.” It’s a premise I rather hate — the failed trip, where the series regulars embark on a journey but “something goes wrong.” Here a freak avalanche keeps the four principals and their dates from hitting the slopes during a ski trip to North Carolina: a premise that lays the groundwork for Bloodworth-Thomason’s ultimate battle of the sexes. The initial tensions stem from the men’s desire to bunk with their significant others and the women’s insistence on maintaining an appearance of decorum — but the dialogue ultimately encompasses the essential conflicts at the core of male-female couplings from Adam and Eve onward. Although the women make their case more persuasively than the men — and outrank them in expressiveness (nothing, after all, can top one of Julia’s tirades) — the final, wordless sequence on a dance floor reveals that the men were equally astute in their estimation of the women. I’m unconvinced that Bloodworth-Thomason was aware that “Reservations for Eight” leaves the two sexes on equal footing — she always enjoyed giving women the upper hand — but that last sequence, as staged, resets the balance.

7. The Junies: We’re halfway through Season 3, and the series is firing on all cylinders. “The Junies” is only Pam Norris’s third effort and the kind of sitcom episode I’m predisposed to resist — the series regular who gets a part-time job moonlighting (I always think, if the workplace itself isn’t generating enough story-lines, maybe there’s something wrong with your premise) — but it’s told with a surety of touch, a touch of satire, and ultimately, a humanistic and feminist approach. Charlene, looking to make a few hundred dollars to pay off her Christmas bills, is convinced by her friend Libby to sell Lady June cleaning products. The Lady June belles have their own peculiar customs, which Julia finds baffling (Charlene: “If I sell $5000 worth, I can be a daisy.” Julia: “What does that mean: be a daisy? It’s just something somebody made up. How can you take it so seriously?”), and recruitment techniques that Julia finds distasteful: “I cannot abide people who brag about their money. Especially those that talk about ‘digits’. How they made five digits or six digits.” (It’s a clear send-up of Mary Kay Cosmetics, founded in 1963, whose annual sales figures by the mid-‘80s had exceeded nine digits.) And once Charlene gets started, the belles won’t let her stop. (“Don’t look for excuses to fail,“ Libby coaches her, parroting the company credo: “Look for reasons to succeed.”) It falls to Charlene’s co-workers to infiltrate the annual Lady June sales meeting, where Julia attempts to deprogram her. But when Lady June herself appears, the women gain some insight that gently refocuses all that’s come before it. It's a script that reminds us that not all women eager to join the workforce have the luxury of setting themselves up in a three-story Victorian mansion; it's also the first in a string of startlingly good episodes stretching nearly to season’s end, with only one dud along the way (“Odell,” the season’s sole script not penned by Bloodworth-Thomason or Norris). Also worth a look: another late Season 3 winner, “Mr. Meal Ticket.” When Mary Jo’s boyfriend J.D. moves in while waiting for escrow to clear on his new condo, then loses his job, Mary Jo starts to panic about being the sole breadwinner. (Julia: “You know, Mary Jo, it’s awfully hard to find someone to love in this world, and if you’re going require that he also makes more money than you do...” Mary Jo: “I didn’t say that I require it, and Gloria Steinem, forgive me: I just think that the man should make money.” Suzanne: “Amen and hallelujah to that!”) As with “The Junies,” the episode uses Charlene’s gullibility to satirize a growing trend (here, America’s fascination with psychics), then uses the most unlikely character, Julia, to unexpectedly validate it. The episode is undermined only by a weak final scene, and a payoff that's the last thing you expect. The ending promises that Mary Jo and J.D.’s relationship is moving into “a whole different stage,” but when the next episode begins, Mary Jo announces that he’s been relocated to Cincinnati, and they’ve decided to call it quits. With Charlene’s approaching nuptials, it was useful to have Mary Jo re-enter the dating pool, and some of the best episode to come — “Manhunt,” “Have Faith” and “My Daughter, Myself,” among them — benefit from that. And clearly J.D.’s departure was mandated by Richard Gilliland being hired to headline the (short-lived) CBS sitcom Heartland. But for a series that prided itself on continuity, J.D.’s sudden exit makes for a strange story-telling glitch.

6. Killing All the Right People: It’s October 5, 1987 — nine years into the AIDS crisis — and President Reagan has delivered his first speech on AIDS only six months earlier. Network bigwigs have been no bolder. After NBC tackled the made-for-TV movie An Early Frost in 1985, programmers shied away from addressing the AIDS crisis again — and if they did, they rarely explored its effects on the gay community. It was more palatable to show it affecting young children; even drug users were seen as more sympathetic victims. But Bloodworth-Thomason, whose mother had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion, was determined to do it right, and miraculously, CBS didn’t stand in her way. There are issues in the story-telling: it’s one of those plots that introduces a character we’re told is of some importance to the series regulars — only for them to serve their purpose and never reappear. (Here it’s a character basically introduced in order to die. It’s a story-telling device that was oddly appealing to Bloodworth-Thomason, who’d reuse it twice in Season 4.) But once the exposition is out of the way, “Killing All the Right People” evolves into something special, tying together two stories: a gay friend of the designers asking them to plan his funeral, and the PTA asking Mary Jo to make the case for having birth control materials available to high-school students. And although it’s the first serious episode (and heaven knows not the last) to bring on Alice Ghostley as comic relief, she’s used sparingly. The principals are quite capable of garnering character-driven laughs even as they’re asked to dole out grim statistics. As Mary Jo seeks to write her speech before the final debate, she implores Julia to share her Terminator tactics, and the four women — plus Anthony — reveal the things that get them fired up. (Suzanne: “Oh, I’ve got one. When men use women’s liberation as an excuse not to kill bugs for you. Oh, I just hate that! I don’t care what anybody says, I think the man should have to kill the bug!”) And although her speech to the PTA is one of those scenes that can be ghastly on screen — as Mary Jo stumbles at the start, then “finds her voice” — Annie Potts’s performance is so convincingly down-to-earth that it transcends the tiredness of the trope. (“We’re not just talking about preventing births here,” she announces, interweaving the two plots: “We’re talking about preventing deaths.”) Also worth a look: another Mary Jo-centric episode, Norris’s “Working Mother.” (It was the other episode submitted for Emmy consideration in Season 5.) Her best friend Charlene’s decision to spend more time with her newborn — plus her recent experiences with a new client, a wealthy brat named Randa Oliver — cause Mary Jo to reflect on her own failings as a parent. It’s an episode about working women and stay-at-home moms that manages to be timely without feeling preachy, in which Mary Jo’s insecurities — as in “Mr. Meal Ticket” — prompt her to be wretched to someone she loves, in this case Charlene. Plenty of early Designing Women episodes cast an unflattering look at men; the pilot was pretty much panned for what was perceived (by male critics) as its man-hating tone. (CBS, aware that the pilot was not exactly reviewer-friendly, included the second episode as well in its advance screeners.) But as the series progressed, it was unafraid to dare women to be better, too. “Working Mother” is an episode that demands that women respect and stand up for each other, regardless of the life choices they’ve made — it speaks to a shared sisterhood. As a bonus, you get to hear Adam Carl recite the alphabet song.

5. Big Haas and Little Falsie: The Golden Girls were outspoken, but they were unthreatening. They were mature women living in Florida: the elderly relatives that you did or didn’t listen to, but never took too seriously. The Designing Women weren’t so easily ignored. By virtue of being younger, and in their sexual prime, they had power. As Annie Potts noted in a first-season interview, “We’re more dangerous: we’re still in our reproductive years. When [the Golden Girls] do it, everyone says, ‘Oh, that’s so cute.’ But when we do it, everyone says, ‘You hussies.’” It helps explain why Designing Women took a while to become a critical darling and an audience favorite (it didn’t even crack the top 30 till Season 4), and why the show was forever being misrepresented and misunderstood. In 1988, this Bloodworth-Thomason episode — in which Mary Jo considers breast augmentation — intimidated people, and nervous critics were quick to label it jiggle TV, as if the show were suddenly tapping into a late-‘70s mentality. On the contrary, it’s the full flowering of the Season 3 format, in which issues of consequence are explored, but the tone of the show doesn’t change dramatically to accommodate them. Here, Mary Jo’s uncle dies and leaves her $3000, stipulating that it be spent on something frivolous. And Mary Jo decides to get her breasts enlarged. (“Mary Jo, I can’t believe you want to have that done. What’s wrong with your chest?” “Well, in case you haven’t noticed, Charlene, I don’t have one.”) Along the way, as Mary Jo tries on various prosthetic bras to see what size she feels most comfortable with, she observes how both men and women treat her differently. (“We have been big fools,” she advises Julia, as she waltzes into an upscale bar to try out her fake breasts, and a steady stream of men line up to buy her drinks: “These things are power.”) The previous season’s “High Rollers” had spoken to the temperamental and philosophical differences that separated Mary Jo and Julia from Charlene and Suzanne; “Big Haas” reasserts the same pairings, but takes its cue — rather daringly — from the physical attributes of the actresses themselves, and as such, it’s a story that could only have been told with the original cast. (And from a character perspective, of course, the self-esteem issues that plague Mary Jo through the first four seasons lend themselves to this particular story.) It’s an episode about body image and the way society prizes certain physical attributes, and in 2020, with social media contributing to a rise in body dysmorphic disorder, the issues raised don’t seem so much titillating as timeless. (And although Mary Jo doesn’t go forward with the surgery, it doesn't feel like a cop out; there’s a sweet ending — neatly foreshadowed — that brings things to a satisfying conclusion, and a button that carries into the closing credits.) Also worth a look: the previous episode, and the first episode in Season 3 where you get a taste of the show’s new, tangier flavor. “Getting Married and Eating Dirt” takes its cue from a pair of New York Times articles published in 1984 and 1986, about the “Southern Practice of Eating Dirt.” Julia reads the latest and bristles at seeing an entire region libeled for something so preposterous. (Bloodworth-Thomason no doubt couldn’t name the paper outright for legal reasons, so she cannily has Julia reference an article in “the Times” and Suzanne comment, “That’s what you get for reading a New York newspaper.”) Running counter to this is Bernice’s announcement that she’s getting married, and turning up at Sugarbaker’s with bridesmaid costumes. (It contains of one of my favorite Julia Sugarbaker lines, when the four women are being fitted in hideous pink dresses with lace overlay, and hats made from tulle netting, and the seamstress asks about the hemline. “I don’t really think it matters much,” Julia responds in a low moan: “We’ve pretty well dispensed here with anything resembling pride of personal appearance.”) The two plotlines converge in the final four words.

4. The Strange Case of Clarence and Anita: Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s last great episode. The successful nomination of Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court (despite the credible charge of sexual harassment leveled against him by professor Anita Hill) prompted Bloodworth-Thomason to pen this script and rush it into production; it aired a mere three weeks after Thomas’s nomination was confirmed. The pressures of the shooting schedule are evident in spots (there’s some stumbling over lines; Meshach Taylor mispronounces Bette Davis’s first name, and there’s either no time — or no one focused enough — to correct him; and Duffy reverts at least once to a Stephanie Vanderkellen-like squeal), but mostly, the time constraints give the playing an urgency that feels utterly right for characters commenting on history as it’s happening — and for an audience audibly enthused at being part of that history. Bloodworth-Thomason described it at the time as a valentine to Hill, but it's more of a catharsis, or perhaps a war cry, for all the women fed up with expecting — much less demanding — equality and respect. You can feel the writer's wrath in every line; she has so much she wants to say, and she squeezes it all in. It’s an episode that only could have been told with the Season 6 cast, with the politically conservative Allison and the politically naive Carlene balancing Mary Jo and Julia’s liberal views, with Anthony offering perspective as both an African-American and a budding lawyer, and with Bernice — the mistress of malaprops — keeping the laugh quotient high. In our current political climate, when ABC prevented Black-ish from doing an episode about “taking the knee” because they feared angering the Administration, “The Strange Case of Clarence and Anita” serves as a vivid reminder how much bolder network TV was a generation ago. Jeff Sagansky — then President of CBS — was one of Bloodworth-Thomason’s staunchest defenders (his successor Les Moonves, as we’ve now learned, did everything he could to stifle her voice and scuttle her career), and his support was never more valuable than it was here, as Bloodworth-Thomason crucifies the Senate Judiciary Committee and, in a larger sense, the rampant misogyny that characterized the Clarence Thomas hearings and predetermined their outcome. “They’re ridiculing her for not coming forward then,” Julia observes: “They’re blasting her for coming forward now. I think they taught their lesson very well.” What lesson is that? “The lesson that says all men are created equal.” In the aftermath of the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in 2018, when the old boy network gave even less credence to evidence of sexual assault than they had to sexual harassment a generation earlier, Mary Jo's televised tirade near the end now rings out with decades of anger, betrayal and humiliation: “I don’t give a damn if people think I’m a feminist or a fruitcake. What I’m going to do is get in my car and drive to the centermost point of the United States of America and climb the tallest tower and yell, ‘Hey, don’t get me wrong — we love you, but who the hell do you men think you are?’” Also worth a look: another episode ripped from the headlines (in this case, Delta Burke’s weight gain), Season 4’s “They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They?” It was nominated for two Emmys, for Best Actress and Best Director, and it probably boasts Burke’s best performance. The pain she conveys as Suzanne is forced to confront her former classmates at her high school reunion is powerful. But although her final speech — in which Suzanne’s accepts an award as “The Person Most Changed,” then offers up all the ways, in addition to her appearance, that she’s grown since graduation — is beautifully phrased, it’s undeniably manipulative, eliciting a response by giving Suzanne a measure of clarity and maturity that disappear by the following episode. As such, it’s a memorable and even moving episode that doesn’t quite play fair — but there’s a terrific central performance.

3. Come On and Marry Me, Bill: The show essentially stops in place — in the days leading up to Charlene’s wedding — to celebrate the singular and sympathetic character it’s created, and the actress who’s brought her so vividly to life. It’s four set-pieces — Charlene’s slumber party, the rehearsal dinner, Bill’s bachelor party, and the wedding ceremony. Each is scripted and performed with care, and the highlights pile up fast: Julia, Mary Jo, Suzanne and Bernice lip-syncing to Laura Nyro’s “Bill”; Julia serenading Charlene with a restrained rendition of “My Buddy”; a toast by Charlene’s Uncle Howard (in real life, Bloodworth-Thomason’s Uncle Howard), who’s equal parts elocutionist and serial pincher; a bachelor party that gets out of hand, as Charlene and Bill wind up handcuffed to an exotic dancer named Little Latin Lupe; and a last-minute save by Charlene's madam friend Monette, who not only knows about menage-a-trois cuffs (“I keep a set in my purse”) but has a key to unlock them. (Charlene, in gratitude: “I’ve never been so happy to know a hooker in all my life.”) The episode speaks to Bloodworth-Thomason’s commitment to continuity, rare for sitcoms of the day. Where most shows would opt for a small wedding, to avoid having to trot out all the friends and relations who’ve been seen and referenced in years past, Bloodworth-Thomason goes big — because the truth is, an Army Colonel from an old Southern family wouldn’t be having a simple ceremony. And so we’re treated to return engagements by Charlene’s mother (Ronnie Claire Edwards, from Season 1’s “Nashville Bound”), her brother Odell (Gregory Wurster, last seen four episodes earlier in “Odell”), her best friend Monette Marlin (Bobby Ferguson, from Season 1’s “Monette”), Bill’s mother Ellen and his Aunt Phoebe (Benay Venuta and Anne Haner, from the previous episode, “The Engagement”) — plus semi-regulars Alice Ghostley, Priscilla Weems and Hal Holbrook. It’s lovely to revisit with them all, but mostly you spend your time watching Smart, and much of what you’re watching are reaction shots — embarrassment turning to gratitude, bewilderment giving way to relief and then to joy. And along the way, perhaps you’re thinking what a lovely journey you’ve taken with her these past three seasons, and reveling in Charlene’s happiness. Also worth a look: Bill’s second appearance, and the one that made it clear that he was going to stick around a while, “Second Time Around.” It’s emblematic of the tone of Season 2: sentimental and muted, but with enough heart to compensate for what it lacks in humor. Charlene and Bill’s romance is going strong — too strong, as it happens, as he’s feeling wracked with guilt, as if somehow betraying his late wife Nancy. Charlene’s character is more sophisticated than she’ll become by Season 3, and Douglas Barr hasn’t yet gotten the hang of performing in front of a studio audience, but it’s a heady and romantic outing, and it culminates in a lovely scene in which Julia summons Bill to her home to talk about her own experiences losing a spouse and trying to move on. She assures him, “Charlene has the biggest heart of anyone I know. I think she has room for both you and your Nancy.” It’s hard to live up to hyperbolic praise like having “the biggest heart,” but Smart makes you believe it. Lots of apocryphal tales about Designing Women have arisen over the years. Stories persist that the ratings dropped when Delta Burke, following a year-long feud with the Thomasons, was let go at the end of Season 5 (it makes for good copy), when in fact Season 6 was the show’s highest rated season. (It’s mostly because its lead-in, Murphy Brown, was enjoying its own highest-rated season, but still...) Sometimes even saner folks attribute the show’s creative issues and eventual ratings slide in Season 7 to Burke's departure. But it’s Smart who was irreplaceable.

2. One Sees, the Other Doesn’t: It does “They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They?” one better: it gives Suzanne a measure of maturity and self-awareness without rewriting her character. It also demonstrates how successful the transformation of Suzanne Sugarbaker has been in Season 3. Suzanne had been introduced in the pilot as a villainess — living in luxury and so oversexed that, as her sister put it, “if sex were a fast food, there’d be an arch over your bed”; the next two years were spent doing rewrites and damage control. How do you make smug self-satisfaction and self-absorption funny rather than mean-spirited or offensive? By early in Season 2, she was no longer led by her libido (she now considered sex “a little silly — and silly-looking”), and by late that season, she’d lost most of her money and a couple dozen I.Q. points. But the series really catches fire in Season 3 when it manages to link her outspokenness to an almost blissful obliviousness. (Her transformation begins in “Getting Married and Eating Dirt,” and amusingly, her mood there is attributed to PMS. But within a few episodes, it’ll become her default characterization: an outrageous outrage that neatly balances Julia’s sincere outrage.) And with her comedic usefulness now fully developed, Norris’s “One Sees, the Other Doesn’t” reestablishes her softer side. Suzanne returns from a spa treatment, primed for compliments, and when her co-workers fail to respond, she’s insistent: “You may not notice how ravishing I am, but a man would notice in a minute.” (Anthony retorts, “Yeah, well, thank goodness none of those rough, hairy beasts are around right now,” prompting Julia to chastise her: “Suzanne, must you always do that? Treat Anthony as if he were the eunuch of the harem?” Suzanne’s nonplussed response: “Oh, I do not. The what?”) And indeed the next man to appear — new client Danny Hetchcock — is indeed smitten; he also happens to be blind. There are a few clumsy beats needed to set the plot in motion, but once the principal players are properly positioned, it settles into an easy, uncommonly relaxed rhythm that allows for detail in the staging and nuance in the playing, culminating in four memorable scenes: Suzanne confessing her fears to her only confidant, Anthony (“All my life I’ve been the pretty one. I can’t date a blind man. Then who would I be?”); Julia intuitively understanding her sister’s reluctance to go out with Danny and relating it to her co-workers (“All the turtle oil and herbal wraps and new hairdos cannot cut any ice with this man, and neither can the sidelong glances, half smiles and mischievous twinkles that Suzanne has raised to an art form. This is her art form”); Danny offering Julia, Mary Jo and Charlene a fresh perspective on Suzanne that surprises and humbles them; and finally, Suzanne resolving to treat Danny no differently than any of her other suitors: “Now Danny, right now I’m giving you a little pout that says I’m mad at you, but I’ll forgive you if the restaurant’s nice enough. Now I’m throwing back my head in a spirited fashion to make my earrings dance.” And he’s delighted: “And now you’re smiling at me. Suzanne, I can read you like a book.” “Maybe,” she cautions him, “but just don’t think on the first date you’re gonna get to read it in braille.” In one sense, “One Sees, the Other Doesn’t” is the most unsubtle of episodes — laying out all the reasons that audiences should find (the new) Suzanne fascinating — but the delicacy of the approach fully disguises the intent, and by episode’s end, Suzanne has the audience wrapped around her finger just as surely as she does Danny. (It’s worth the price of admission alone just to hear the lilt in Burke’s voice as she exclaims, “I adore lobster.”) Also worth a look: another client who shakes things up, in Season 4’s “The Mistress” — except this time, everyone is thrown for a loop except Suzanne. A wealthy businessman asks the designers to redecorate his home and his condo: the former for his wife, the latter for his mistress. The contours of the plot are anticipated early on by Suzanne, who knows her co-workers well (and isn’t afraid to say “I told you so” when it all blows up in their faces — it’s one of the series’ best uses of Suzanne’s aforementioned smug satisfaction as a crowd pleaser), but Bloodworth-Thomason still has a few tricks up her sleeve. It’s got Constance Towers and Leann Hunley as, respectively, the wife and mistress, and I’m not sure any episode needs more, but it’s also got a smart script, crackerjack performances, and an unexpected and tender coda for Dixie Carter.

1. Full Moon: It’s bookended by what you believe is going to be the main plot: Mary Jo’s growing concern that her daughter Claudia is on the verge of having sex with her new boyfriend. (“I have done everything right. I have bought all the right books. No one is better prepared to make a responsible decision about having sex than my daughter.” “Then what are you worried about?” “I’m worried she’s gonna do it.”) But it takes a wild and wonderful turn a third of the way through into what’s become the series’ best remembered gag, as Julia — invited to participate in a fashion show — gets the back of her dress tucked in her pantyhose. (It riffs on a comment of Charlene’s from the pilot episode, referenced here.) “I cannot believe that all my life I’ve tried to create some semblance of grace and style,” Julia laments, “and now I’m going to be remembered as that woman...“ “...who mooned Atlanta,” Suzanne finishes, elongating the double o’s for emphasis. (The fashion show happens between scenes, yet it’s still the series’ best-remembered gag, because Julia’s mortification, Mary Jo and Charlene’s empathy and Suzanne’s irreverence are scripted with such wit and played to perfection.) It’s not just Suzanne who’s gotten a character upgrade in Season 3; Julia’s been humanized without being defanged. Sometimes her pronouncements have proven inaccurate or premature; other times, she’s been caught in awkward or embarrassing situations. But never has the show devoted a whole episode to her humiliation, and although the success of “Full Moon” meant that that would pretty much become an annual occurrence (she’ll get her head stuck between the railings of a banister the following season, via Norris), none of the follow-ups are as triumphant or as funny — or, of course, as surprising — as the first occurrence, in “Full Moon.” But it’s not just seeing the series’ stateliest character come undone that’s so exhilarating; Bloodworth-Thomason gleefully upends her own formula, trading in character-driven comedy for endgame-driven farce. It’s one merry contrivance after another: Suzanne receiving prank calls (“I want to barbecue your pig”) and deciding to buy a gun; Anthony agreeing to look in on her after he finishes rehearsals for his school play about Alcatraz; Mary Jo unable to reach her daughter as midnight nears and dragging Julia and Charlene off to find her; and Suzanne mistaking her co-workers for intruders and firing shots into the dark Georgia night — all so the five of them can wind up in police custody (Mary Jo, Julia and Charlene in pajamas, Suzanne in a peignoir and Anthony in his faux prison garb). Although Season 3 has upped the laugh quotient, you’re still unprepared for the comic heights to which this episode aspires. It’s about the last thing you expect from Bloodworth-Thomason, and there’s something lovely about seeing the series’ guiding force, who a season earlier seemed to have the weight of the world on her shoulders, now relaxed enough to laugh at her own creations. In the May 27, 1989, issue of TV Guide, in an article entitled "At Last! Women Worth Watching" (subtitled "With the likes of Roseanne, Murphy Brown and Designing Women, TV is finally getting the female experience right"), author Jane O'Reilly singled out “Full Moon” — of the dozens of Designing Women episodes aired to date — for particular praise, tagging it a "tour-de-force" and remarking of Bloodworth-Thomason, “Who ever said feminists couldn't have a sense of humor?” And that’s part of what makes “Full Moon” not merely the most ebullient of Designing Women episodes, but one of the most joyous half-hours of any series, period. For nearly three years, Bloodworth-Thomason had devoted her energies to dispelling myths about feminism, by showing how engaging, versatile, unpredictable and downright funny a group of forward-thinking women could be. In “Full Moon,” she leads by example. Also worth a look: Season 5’s “My Daughter, Myself,” which picks up the saga of Claudia’s adventures in dating — now two years later, when she’s matured so quickly that she’s become, in Mary Jo’s words, “an honorary Landers sister.” (Too young to remember the Landers sisters? As Suzanne might say, “Buxom blondes. Playboy pictorial. You figure it out.”) When Claudia’s latest date swings by to pick her up, Mary Jo is shocked to discover he’s 35, far more suitable for herself — and she finds herself in sexual competition with her own daughter. It’s got one of the great monologues, as Charlene compares Mary Jo’s dilemma to the plot of the 1945 film noir Mildred Pierce — then goes off on the kind of tangent you’d expect of a woman with the ability to be, in the words of Julia Sugarbaker, “completely and endlessly fascinated by absolutely nothing.”


Do you enjoy in-depth looks at hit shows? If so, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2; serve up my 10 Best Mary Tyler Moore Show episodes; pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly; and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons. Or if you have prefer dramas, check out my write-ups of Judging Amy Season 6, Voyager Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), Cold Case Season 4, and fourteen essays devoted to each season of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries -- not (necessarily) my top episodes, but the best whodunnits.

19 comments:

  1. Hi Tommy. Full disclosure -- I never really watched the Designing Women, and the only episode I have any memory of in your list is Full Moon.

    But as always, your analysis and commentary is a pleasure to read, and I'm glad to have spent my lunch break reading this piece. I may even dig into the Daily Motion to track these episodes down. Thanks for posting this!

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    1. Always appreciate your dropping by, Bob (especially given that these essays keep getting longer and longer!), and doubly appreciate your leaving a comment. If you do decide to check out a few choice episodes, most of Seasons 2-4 are up at Daily Motion (at least, for the time being); just search under name of show, season and number, and episode and number. (And you can find the episode numbers easily at epguides.com.) I don't usually direct folks to unauthorized streaming sites (especially since, in my day job, I'm constantly battling them), but it somehow seems *more* of a crime when the streaming services that are actually licensed to air these series (as with Hulu here) cut them to shreds.

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  2. As I have said, I have always been more of a GOLDEN GIRLS fan rather than a DESIGNING WOMEN fan...and my knowledge of the latter is very spotty at best.

    However, I have always acknowledged the fire and drive of this ensemble not to mention the writing of Bloodworth-Thomason and Norris.

    I do have to single out "Killing All The Right People" for its audacity and for how she was able to make a topic such as AIDS (especially at that time) laughs in a way that wasn't demeaning...and it was certainly a bigger success than GOLDEN GIRLS' AIDS episode which actually did go the blood transfusion route similar to Bloodworth-Thomason's mother.

    There is one moment I really loved in that episode which is when the great Dixie Carter is lecturing the character of Imogene, and this will probably be a paraphrase:

    "If God gave out Sexually Transmitted Diseases to people who were sinning, then YOU would be at the free clinic ALL THE TIME!!"

    Then there's a pause while the audience applauds and then she adds: "And so would the rest of us!".

    It's a subtle but genius addition because it sort of goes into the whole "They go low, we go how" motif that Michelle Obama always preached. Julia Sugarbaker puts her in her place but let's it be known that she is also not one to throw stones.

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    1. I remember I was in LA on business when "Killing All the Right People" aired. The morning that episode was to air, I got two newspapers at the hotel, and both had early reviews of the episode. One was glowing -- noting as you do how astounding it was that an episode about AIDS could be so funny, without any in way diminishing the horror of what was happening; the other was a pan, not just about the episode, but about the whole series. It found the episode typical of the series, which -- according to this writer -- basically modeled its four women on characters in a brothel: Julia, the madam; Suzanne, the expert; Mary Jo, the novice; and Charlene, the hooker with the heart of gold. I couldn't imagine -- still can't imagine -- a less appropriate time to put forth this (ridiculous) observation than when a network sitcom (in 1987, no less) is daring to do an episode about a gay man dying of AIDS. It's related to what I said above in my review of "Big Haas and Little Falsie" -- for some reason, critics were always eager to malign and misrepresent Designing Women. I do think it had something to do with what Annie Potts notes: that these young, outspoken women were very threatening to the patriarchy, and had to be put in their place. I think it also explains why the four actresses were ignored by the Television Academy year after year, until Delta Burke did an episode expressing embarrassment over her weight gain -- and only then was she deemed Emmy-nomination worthy.

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  3. That is fascinating, but I suppose it isn't surprising, that people would be so harshly divided over material such as this...especially considering the topic at hand that they had to find a reason to bash the show.

    I do think it is a crime that Dixie Carter never got nominated for an Emmy for this role. She was even my favorite as a child when I didn't even fully understand the show (my mother was a fan...and in fact, part of the reason I was named Anthony was...oddly enough..because of THIS Anthony)

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    1. Nothing I could write about Designing Women could be as fascinating as learning that you were named -- even in part -- after Anthony Bouvier. It made me wonder if in 1990 and 1991, when the show was at the peak of its popularity, there was a rise in the number of baby girls being named Julia, Suzanne, Mary Jo and even Charlene. Alas, I did some quick online research, and found no evidence of that...

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  4. I àgree on all counts Tommy - and how I miss the likes of Julia Sugarbaker to comment on our world situation today!

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    1. So glad you enjoyed, Steven -- this essay was, as you can imagine, an absolute pleasure for me to write. Always fun to look back on -- and dissect -- the shows that have meant the most to me. Alas, as I note above, something like Designing Women would never be produced now on network television, which has become so timid. But that's a reason to cherish the series all the more...

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  5. OMG! When I read the title, I literally thought this post would be about shows/films where women were designed like in Weird Science or Deux Machina!! Never heard of this show - did it make it over the pond?

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    1. Oh, Terry, that's so funny! I have no idea if Designing Women made its way to the UK, but it was a very big hit over here. It ran from 1986 to 1993, and during its two highest rated seasons (5 and 6), it was among the top-10 shows on television. It premiered two years before Roseanne and Murphy Brown (perhaps shows you know better), and as such, ushered in a great period for women on television. Its creator, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, had a distinct and passionate voice (during its second season, she was so committed to seeing the show reach its potential that she wrote all 22 episodes, which was unheard of at the time), and the four women at the heart of the series -- who ran a design firm (thus the title) -- were beautifully characterized and played. It was never honored by the Television Academy as it should have been, but it was a much-loved and groundbreaking show over here -- grounded by four marvelous actresses, splendid writing, and a willingness to tackle social issues other shows shied away from. If you care to sample a few at Daily Motion (I mention to Bob, above, how best to find them), "Killing All the Right People" represents the show at its boldest, "Full Moon" at its most irreverent.

      "Shows where women were designed"?!? I'll definitely have to let you tackle that one at your own blog. :)

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    2. OK, will try to track down an episode!

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    3. Loads of them, including the episode you recommend, are on YouTube.

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    4. Interesting. I see they just went up a few months ago, and I suspect Sony will demand they be taken down soon enough, as indeed they should: since the full series is available on DVD, folks shouldn't be posting it on YouTube. As I note above, I can't get behind copyright infringement, because in the recording industry, I battle it daily. The only (slightly hypocritical) exception I make is when studios haven't bothered to make shows available at all on DVD or for streaming. Then, honestly, I'm grateful to folks who locate and post them, and generally annoyed when the studios demand they come down. I always think, "Just make the shows available then..." Some kind soul uploads Knots Landing (all 344 episodes) every few months, then Warner Bros demands they be taken down -- even though they won't issue 12 of the 14 seasons on DVD.

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    5. Conflicted now! Do I have your blessing to watch the episode on YouTube, or not?

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    6. You're too funny! As noted, I just don't feel comfortable recommending that folks view readily available series on YouTube. But given that Designing Women is available neither on DVD nor on streaming services in the UK, I am fully prepared to give you my (completely unnecessary) blessing. As Julia Sugarbaker once said, "Go for it. Hang from the chandeliers. Put on some costumes. Order up some whipped cream. Just don't give me any more of your good reasons." (She was advising another character about having sex, but I think it works for YouTube as well...)

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  6. A wonderful essay on a fantastic show! Thanks for highlighting some of the amazing efforts and episodes by the cast and crew. I cant wait to rewatch the series in it's entirety again!

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    1. So glad you enjoyed. For some reason, it was much harder to pick a top 10 (plus 10 additional episodes) for 'Designing Women' than it was for 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show.' I feel like I spent a month settling on a top 10 before I even got around to writing! I suspect there were just so many episodes that, for different reasons, I wanted to acknowledge and/or praise.

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  7. My favorite, 'Reservations for Eight' is such simply because of the on-screen/off-screen chemistry between Dixie and Hal, and Delta and Mac during the episode but during the final scene in particular. [I am in the Designing Women group on Facebook]

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    1. I'm delighted you stopped by! I regret not being on Facebook, as I so welcome the chance to engage with other fans. There was no way I wasn't going to mention "Reservations for Eight"; it may not be one of my ten favorites, but I remember being absolutely floored by the audacity and eloquence of that final, wordless scene in 1988, and it packs no less of a punch when I rewatch now. You're so right: it's brilliant conceived, but the chemistry between Carter & Holbrook and Burke & McRaney lifts it that much higher. It's one of those sequences -- like the one at the end of "The First Day of the Last Decade of the Entire Twentieth Century" -- that I can watch over and over again.

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