Hello. My name is Kevin, and I love The Golden Girls, truly, madly, deeply.
My love affair with Dorothy, Sophia, Blanche, and Rose begin way back in the 1980s. Although the sitcom didn’t feature any of the things I was then enamoured with — scary monsters, rappers, bikini-clad beach bunnies — The Golden Girls pulled me in and they haven’t let go since.
For those who never followed the sitcom, which premiered in 1985, the premise was relatively simple: Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur), a substitute teacher from Brooklyn, N.Y., and her mother Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty) move into a house owned by Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan), an oversexed Southern belle, and Rose Nylund (Betty White), a small-town transplant from Minnesota. They’re all retired and single.
Over the course of seven laugh-track adorned seasons, the Girls got into an assortment of nutty situations and very special episodes. One week, the foursome would be competing against each other on a silly TV game show and the next week they were dealing with the impact of AIDS, when Rose receives a blood transfusion that may have been infected by HIV.
It was a given that almost every episode would hit certain beats: Blanche will talk about her sexual dalliances, naive Rose will pointlessly apply a St. Olaf, Minn., story to that week’s plot driver, world-weary Dorothy would usually be the voice of reason amidst all the madness, and cynical Sophia would say something sharp and biting and hilarious, cutting the tension. All of this would usually occur over a late-night dish of cheesecake.
Although the joke machine was frequently on autopilot, The Golden Girls avoided many of the standard sitcom conventions of the day, which typically centered around either a traditional nuclear family or some variation on Annie, wherein a rich, white man or couple takes in precocious child, most likely from an ethnic background.
There was a good reason The Golden Girls lasted seven years. The show portrayed women in their 60s as vibrant and sexual beings with clearly defined personalities. It was decidedly feminist in comparison to what else was on television then and in some ways now. When addressing thorny topics like interracial relationships, gay marriage, and immigration, the show was consistently irreverent and never condescending. Like All in the Family on which The Golden Girls writer-producer Susan Harris previously worked, the show didn’t stray away from topics that most fear to touched.
The five episodes below highlight many of the show’s strengths:
The lives of Blanche, Rose, and Dorothy are thrown a curve ball when Sophia unexpectedly moves in after her retirement home burns down and Blanche agrees to marry her current beau. While far from the best episode of the series, it’s the first one, and as such, worth noting. It’s also worth pointing out that in its debut, Blanche wasn’t the Southern belle she would later evolve into, and the episode featured a brief appearance by Meshach Taylor as a cop, one year before he would star in another show centered around four women, Designing Women. Oh, and Dorothy and the gang had a gay, live-in cook, Coco. He never returned.
“Isn’t It Romantic”
When Dorothy’s high school friend Jean visits, the intent is for two old friends to reminisce over old times. However, unbeknownst to Blanche and Rose, Jean is a lesbian. After an evening watching a movie and a late night chatting with Rose, Jean begins to fall for her. When Jean tells Dorothy she’s crushing on Rose, awkwardness ensues. However, the episode also delivers on one of the show’s strengths: its ability to address then-controversial subjects without resorting to the stereotypes that pervaded the landscape of 1980s TV.
Sophia develops a friendship with a man named Alvin. As their relationship grows, it becomes apparent that he is mentally deteriorating. Before too long, Sophia learns Alvin has Alzheimer’s. Meanwhile, Rose must bargain with a corrupt girl scout (played by a very pre-Rilo Kiley Jenny Lewis), who is holding Rose’s beloved teddy bear, Fernando, for ransom. While this is in some ways a very typical very special episode, it’s noteworthy thanks to its deft ability at weaving a serious A-story with a funny B-story. It’s both hilarious and sad.
“It’s A Miserable Life”
In “It’s A Miserable Life,” the girls petition to save a tree that sits on the property of Freida Claxton, the wicked witch of the neighborhood. At a public hearing, the usually kind and patient Rose tells Freida to “drop dead” — and she obliges, right in the middle of the courtroom. Predictably, Rose blames herself for Freida’s death, so she and the girls attempt to give her a dignified funeral. Since the main characters were older, it should be no surprise that many of the shows themes — overt and underlying — revolved around the spectre of death. While a few episodes tackled the subject from a serious angle, this one was equally successful at addressing it with gallows humor.
“Sick & Tired (Parts I and II)”
A very special episode that was so very special that it had to be divided into two parts, “Sick & Tired” stands out thanks to its conclusion. As the episode opens, it’s quickly established that Dorothy is feeling extremely tired. While she is sure she is sick, the multiple doctors she visits, including one played by Transparent‘s Jeffrey Tambor, tell her she’s fine and that the problem is all in her head. Meanwhile, Blanche decides to write the great American novel. When Dorothy confronts one of the doctors who had previously written her off, the perfectly scripted words of writer-producer Susan Harris, who at the time, had just been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, echoed the sentiment many frustrated patients have felt by delivering a monologue to end all monologues: “I don’t know where you doctors lose your humanity, but you lose it. You know, if all of you at the beginning of your careers could get very sick and very scared for a while, you’d probably learn more from that than from anything else. You better start listening to your patients. They need to be heard. They need caring. They need compassion. They need attending to. You know, someday Dr. Budd, you’re going to be on the other side of the table, and as angry as I am and as angry as I always will be, I still wish you a better doctor than you were to me.”
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Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.