This month we begin a new series—“Girls, Girls, Girls.” I am celebrating sitcoms that are based primarily on the relationships of women. We begin with a series that ran for seven years, resulting in 163 episodes. It revealed the joyful, disheartening, and disturbing details that occur in a long-term friendship. Today we learn more about Designing Women.
In September of 1986 a show debuted about not only friendship, but also about running a business, becoming independent, trusting in yourself, and living a truly southern lifestyle. We had watched shows about sisters before, about a workplace staff and how women rely on each other, but this show put it all in one place. Had this show been set in Chicago, Salt Lake City, or Boston, it would have been a totally different show.
Julia Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter) owns a design firm and runs it from her house. Her shallow sister Suzanne (Delta Burke), who was a beauty queen and is still a diva, works there too, along with a divorced mother Mary Jo (Annie Potts), a naïve country girl Charlene (Jean Smart) and a black ex-con man named Anthony (Meshach Taylor) who not only delivers furniture for the business but delivers his unique viewpoint as a male among women. For the seven seasons the show was on the air we got to know each of the characters intimately. We saw them fall in and out of love, get married, get dumped, love each other, hate each other, and learn about themselves as they went through all these changes together.
While Julia is the face of the company, Suzanne is a silent partner, Mary Jo is the head designer, Charlene is the office manager, and Anthony takes on a variety of duties that need to be tended to.
The famous exterior of the home/business was The Villa Marre, a Victorian mansion from 1981 that was located in the MacArthur Park Historic District in Little Rock, Arkansas. You can still drive by it today, and it’s listed in the National Registry of Historic Places.
The Golden Girls (which we’ll look at in a couple of weeks), had premiered the year before Designing Women. You can definitely see a similarity in the two shows. Both were set in the south, the business was in Julia’s house while the older women friends lived in Blanche’s home. You can compare Dorothy to Julia and Charlene to Rose and, with a little stretching, Suzanne to Blanche. With a lot of stretching, Anthony and Mary Jo can be compared to Sophia; they’re more practical and always willing to offer advice, requested or not.
The sitcom was created by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. She wrote about half of the episodes and was determined to include topics women were concerned about such as extra-marital relationships, body image, racial inequality, and terminal diseases. Although the show tackled many controversial issues, it was never preachy or judgmental. Linda’s husband Harry was an executive producer, so he also influenced the topics. The couple were friends with Bill and Hillary Clinton and voiced a decidedly more liberal viewpoint. This was especially tough on Dixie Carter who was a committed Republican.
Although the show was beloved by fans, critics weren’t on board, at least at first. Below is an excerpt from a New York Times article that ran September 29, 1986:
Like NBC’s “Golden Girls,” the new series “Designing Women,”tonight at 9:30, features four women with wisecracks to spare. Although they don’t live together in Florida, these women spend most of their time working together in a Victorian-type house in Atlanta. They are in the business of interior decorating.
The show was created by, and this evening’s premiere written by, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who also shares the executive-producer credit with her husband, Harry Thomason. The fictitious firm of Sugarbaker & Associates is headed by Julia Sugarbaker, a glamorous widow who is far from ready to become a blue-haired little old lady. Dixie Carter plays Julia as a graduate of the Beatrice Arthur-Elaine Stritch school of dripping sarcasm. Julia’s three partners are her man-hungry sister Suzanne (Delta Burke), whose alimony checks are filed alphabetically; the recently divorced Mary Jo (Annie Potts), who refused alimony, thinking capital punishment would be more appropriate, and dizzy but shrewd Charlene (Jean Smart), whose latest boyfriend is named Shadow and, for some unexplained reason, is walking around with a bullet hole in his pants.
This, then, is the basic mix, no less promising than any other in a season that continues to give white, middle-class parents to all sorts of minority children. Tonight, Suzanne discovers that her gynecologist is retiring. “Let him go,” advises Julia, “he’s paid his dues.” As it happens, Mary Jo’s former husband is a gynecologist. Suzanne visits his office and promptly returns with the news that they have fallen in love. Julia observes: “If sex were fast food, there’d be an arch over your bed.’” . . .
Ms. Bloodworth-Thomason is no Susan Harris, whose crackling humor keeps “The Golden Girls” popping steadily from week to week. On the other hand, “Designing Women” has a first-rate cast. . .
Now, it’s all a matter of figuring out where “Designing Women” goes from here. Mary Jo’s first husband, a major character this evening, isn’t even mentioned in next week’s episode, which revolves around not interior design but beauty pageants. And sure enough, Julia gets another scene in which she witheringly tells off another icky character. Already the show looks like four terrific actresses in search of a workable sitcom.
I was surprised to learn that none of the actresses auditioned for their roles. Bloodworth-Thomason had the four lead actresses in mind when she wrote the pilot. Smart was the only non-Southern native, having been raised in Seattle. Anthony was not intended to be a regular. He was supposed to have a one-time role but when asked to improvise with the lead characters, the producers were so impressed with the result that he was written into the show, becoming the first cast member to receive an Emmy nomination. All in all, the show would earn eighteen nominations.
The cast members’ real marriages intertwined with the character’s relationships. Hal Holbrook played Reese on the show, Julia’s beau, and the two were married in real life. Gerald McRaney beat out John Ritter for the role of Suzanne’s ex-husband Dash.
Although they were exes on the show, they married in real life. Richard Gilliland won the role of Mary Jo’s boyfriend J.D., but he won the heart of Jean Smart whom he married in 1987.
The show began its run on Monday nights on CBS, following Newhart, and it got decent ratings. For whatever reason, CBS began moving the show all over the place. The ratings went down when it was moved to Thursdays against Night Court and then Sundays up against the movie of the week on both ABC and NBC. CBS was planning on cancelling the show but a public letter-writing campaign saved it from its fate. After receiving 50,000 letters, the network returned it to the Monday night slot again. It was often in the top 20, and always in the top 30 through mid-1992. In late 1992, the network moved the show to Fridays where it again decreased its ratings. The network then cancelled the show in 1993.
It was hard to blame the network for its eventual cancellation though. The cast went through too many changes and the show lost its original charm and focus with so many replacements. In 1990, Delta Burke appeared on a Barbara Walters special and stated that the set was not a happy one. She accused the Thomasons of manipulating her. After that Burke began showing up late and sometimes not at all. The writers had to write two different scripts, one with her and one without her. Some people blamed it on McRaney’s influence, but whatever the reason, her co-stars took the brunt of her difficulties, having to learn two scripts while continuing to fulfill their contracts. They decided as a cast that they could not continue working with her, and she was let go. Julia Duffy, Jan Hooks, and Judith Ivey were all brought onto the show as possible characters, but they were not popular with the audience.
Burke and Carter had been close friends up to this point and the situation destroyed their friendship, at least temporarily. Later they were able to somewhat repair the strained relationship.
I know it sounds like déjà vu, but as I have to add in many blogs, there is a rumor of a revival of the show for 2020. This past August, CBS confirmed that the show will be debuting again next year.
Like most shows, Designing Women had its highs and lows. Once Burke became difficult to work with, the chemistry on the show was never recaptured. When it was good, it was very good.
While Julia was a proper southern lady, once her fiery rage was aroused, she could put anyone in their place and she did it well over the years. During season two, the firm is hired by a gay man who is dying of AIDS and wants help designing his funeral. The staff become close to him and learn a lot about HIV. A wealthy client of the firm tells Julia that AIDS is “killing all the right people” which earns him one of her most scathing put-downs. While episodes like this one are heart-breaking, many episodes are just hilarious. In a very funny moment in season three, it is not Julia’s tongue that gets the laughs, it is another body part. As she is participating in a charity fashion show, her dress gets caught in her pantyhose, and she ends up mooning 1200 of Atlanta’s most prestigious citizens, including the mayor. Not many series can excel with such a range of topics, emotions, and comedy skills.
If you find yourself with a free week-end or a night with no plans, take some time to watch this award-winning show. Just stick to the first four seasons, so you don’t have to watch its disappointing decline.