Designing Women first appeared to me as a tiny little blurb in TV Guide. Now, when I was a kid, there was something magical about the “special fall preview” edition of TV Guide. The magazine was just a digest then, and it looked like a shiny little bible containing shoulder pads and ten-gallon hats instead of arks and abominations. The fall preview would include sneak peeks at upcoming new shows, and previews of returning favorites. Seeing the Designing Women blurb, I remember thinking that it looked like a Golden Girls knockoff, with younger, sexier female protagonists. Still, I decided to give the new sitcom a shot. As we all know, Designing Women proved to be anything but a Golden Girls rip-off, and went on to become one of the best written and topical sitcoms in television history.
The cast was made up of seasoned television actresses, and their sparkling chemistry was immediately apparent. Linda Bloodworth-Thompson, the show’s creator and most prolific writer, was a TV veteran herself who had previously written for several well-known shows, including M*A*S*H. Thompson’s sassy and satirical dialogue sprang to life and gave voice to the Modern Southern Woman, making us rethink the classic stereotypes of the “Southern Belle.” America was a bit slow to catch on, though, as the show was bounced from timeslot to timeslot. However, one of the few successful fan-based letter-writing campaigns in television history brought the show back from cancellation for a second season (now available on DVDfor the first time).
The show’s sophomore season proved to be one of its strongest, tackling many controversial issues with a classy and often sophisticated southern humor. One episode revolves around Charlene (Jean Smart) at odds with her pastor over his refusal to allow women to preach. Another episode finds Julia (Dixie Carter) and Suzanne (Delta Burke) debating the merits of joining a country club that maintains exclusivity clauses. However, the most poignant episode of the season, especially to the GLBT community, is the episode entitled “Killing all the Right People.” I remember seeing this episode when it first aired. As a closeted gay teen at the height of the AIDS scare, it was one of the most powerful things I had ever seen on television. And it was in a sitcom no less!
A young gay man, portrayed by Tony Goldwyn (Ghost), asks the women of Sugarbakers to “design his funeral.” We learn that he has been diagnosed with AIDS, and what follows is an episode deftly written and frankly informative, especially for the time. The episode title comes from a guest character stating that this seemingly selective disease is “killing all the right people.” This statement is shot down in one of Julia’s brilliantly written and delivered diatribes, pointing out that: “If God was giving out sexually transmitted diseases to people as a punishment for sinning, then you would be at the free clinic all the time!”
Thompson’s own mother had died of AIDS, and this episode was written, in part, to inform and educate the public about the disease. The episode culminates with a PTA debate concerning sex education and the use of condoms among teenagers in which Mary Jo (Annie Potts) raises the point that in whatever sexual activity teens may or may not engage, they shouldn’t have to die as a consequence. Pope Benedict XVI could learn a lot from this episode.
Of course, what really matters in a sitcom is the laughs, and this season abounds with them. Many of the laughs can be attributed to the delightful Alice Ghostly (Esmeralda on Bewitched). Her portrayal of Bernice Clifton abounds with southern flavored dementia and an on again off again arterial flow which always hits a perfectly timed comedic mark.
After an initial strong run in syndication, Designing Women is finding less airplay on television. The release of entire seasons on DVD, after a “Best of” release (don’t you hate those) is a welcome gift for fans. Here’s hoping we get the entire series, or at least the first six seasons released on DVD. It has been a long time since we’ve seen such a well-written and topical sitcom on network television (or anywhere for that matter). The show is in a class all its own.
Long after the final notes of the ending credits have played, Georgia and its Designing Women are still on our mind.
The Actor Factor: A View from Both Sides of the Camera is by James Jaeger, Los Angeles based actor and resident television critic of Movie Dearest.