The Golden Girls made aging fabulous

The Golden Girls made aging fabulous

Nearly 30 years later, the Girls are still gold

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

Last month, on the sixth-season premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the contestants were asked to design a garment based on an iconic television show. RuPaul assigned eight shows to the eight competing drag queens, and alongside Dancing With The Stars, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, and Game Of Thrones lodged The Golden Girls, a decades-old sitcom about elderly women living in a house in Miami. It’s been almost 30 years since the sitcom premiered, but clearly something about The Golden Girls sticks.

Part of the show’s enduring legacy is that there really isn’t anything else like it. The pitch for the premise of the sitcom would probably be laughed out of every network exec’s office—and certainly wouldn’t see the light of day at today’s NBC. “Four old ladies living in a house in Miami” isn’t exactly a story, and there’s minimal material there for eye-catching set pieces, famous guest stars, or even what you might call an “operational narrative”—the day-to-day storytelling that fuels any given episode of a series.

Instead, The Golden Girls is, not so subtly, a comedy about death. Its main characters are hanging out in death’s waiting room, trying to figure out how to spend their time now that children, husbands, and work are more or less behind them. Most episodes, they don’t leave their house—a charming bungalow furnished with ’80s-era floral patterns and Floridian pastels. The furniture is past its prime; so are the characters. This is a show about aging.

So it’s odd that it’s become such a cult favorite—the show does very well in syndication on the Hallmark Channel, Lifetime, and, of course, Drag Race’s home network, Logo. (Also worth noting: BenDeLaCreme’s costume, inspired by a decades-old show about elderly ladies, ended up winning the first runway competition of the season. The highlight of her costume was a plate of cheesecake attached to a long train, which she held her in hand. As she smiled and winked at the judges, she brandished a fork and took a bite for the camera. Blanche Devereaux would have been proud.)

The show lives on because despite (or perhaps because of) its unconventionality; it was fresh and relevant while it aired. And in every way that matters, The Golden Girls is still quite modern. It’s still smart, still funny, and in its 177 episodes, it tackles complicated issues The Big Bang Theory would dare touch. The Golden Girls took on HIV/AIDS in 1990, employed a gay male cook in the pilot, and even grappled with the idea that a beloved brother and son was a cross-dresser, perhaps even transgender. And it employed more actresses over 60 than any other show on television now (American Horror Story, itself groundbreaking, matches it).

And most importantly, it introduced the notion that women didn’t just expire when they were past marriageable age. These are women who may have been forgotten by society; but that doesn’t mean they have to forget themselves, or one another. Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia approach aging with determined confidence, sarcasm, and an irrepressible attitude of making the most of their remaining years. 

Susan Harris created the show and wrote the pilot as a standard multi-camera sitcom, complete with a laugh track and enthusiastic strings scoring. The series’ theme song, “Thank You For Being A Friend,” sums up the appeal of the show, and though there’s some continuity, the show is only loosely serialized. It was a premise that could be dived into easily, and its unconventional cast of characters and surprising setting—Floridian palm trees framed the exterior shots of every episode—contributed to making it an instantly recognizable, always watchable show. Harris kept her creator credit for all 177 episodes, but the series saw dozens of writers and story editors come and go—including a young Mitchell Hurwitz, in the early ’90s.

But the success of the show rested, ultimately, in the hands of its actresses. The Golden Girls has the advantage of a regular cast that is nearly perfect; the actors are so well cast they seem to blend into their characters. Bea Arthur, by the time she was cast as Dorothy Zbornak, had already made a name for herself as the lead character in Maude, an All In The Family spin-off that established her as an Emmy-winning actress in a groundbreaking, feminist role. Arthur is an unconventional presence on screens, even today—the actress was 5-foot-10 and had a low, dry tenor to her voice that cut through laughter like a knife. As a result, she had a deadpan humor that is simply unparalleled; and when she wanted to, she could turn that voice into a moving, cathartic weapon of pathos.

As such, she was a natural foil for Betty White, who played the guileless and naïve Rose Nyland. Dorothy had a knowing cynicism to her that was easily attributable to her New York roots. Rose, meanwhile, hailed from a made-up town in Minnesota that is now all but synonymous with the show—St. Olaf, a rural farm village the audience experiences entirely in Rose’s pointless, boring stories. Despite rumored friction between the two actresses on the set, White and Arthur create the most fundamental comic dynamic in the show. There isn’t an episode that goes by that doesn’t include at least one back-and-forth between the two—Dorothy says something; Rose comes to the wrong conclusion; Dorothy responds with a near-poisonous retort. In the best gags, this is followed up by Rose trumping Dorothy with even more guilelessness—a mind so naïve that it works with a logic of its own. “I heard a fable when I was a little girl in St. Olaf that might help. Can I tell you?” While tucking into the show’s ubiquitous cheesecake, Dorothy responds icily: “That’s right, Rose. Wait until my defenses are down, then take advantage of me.” There’s a pause while the audience laughs. And then Rose responds cheerily, “Okie dokie!” And launches into her fable.

Rue McClanahan rounded out the trio that made up the original concept for the show. (According to legend, McClanahan and White were actually cast for each other’s roles, and switched so they wouldn’t be typecast.) Blanche was the character the show had the most trouble with—a Southern belle with a voracious appetite for men and an obsession with her own beauty. The character was written broadly, and McClanahan threw herself into the role wholeheartedly—she was never afraid of milking every line of innuendo for all it was worth or exuding passion and desire for anything male that moved. Just as Dorothy’s cynicism and Rose’s innocence are defense mechanisms of a sort, Blanche’s absorption with her own desirability is another kind of desperation—she’s afraid of getting older and dying, so she’s holding onto lust for as long as she can. As the years went on, and the show got a little lazy, The Golden Girls got nastier and nastier toward Blanche. It’s hard to make this much fun of a character who dates a lot of men and still demonstrate empathy for her; it’s easy to call that same character a whore. At her best, Blanche is a conflicted character who can be both hilarious, self-aware, and lustful. At her worst, some cast member or another calls her a slut, and the audience roars with laughter.

The last, and near-accidental, cast member is Estelle Getty’s Sophia Petrillo, who started out as Dorothy’s odd mom who was going to visit for a few days and ended up moving in. Ostensibly because she had a stroke, and possibly because she’s so old she just doesn’t care anymore, Sophia is inappropriate, rude, and even selfish. This meant that often, the show used her to say things that they otherwise wouldn’t really be able to get away with. She’s a punchline generator, and of all the characters, even Blanche, Sophia’s got the most easily acquired humor. A casual viewer might very well remember Sophia as the funniest character—akin to Kramer in Seinfeld—but a fan is more likely to see her as a loudmouthed distraction.

Actually, Seinfeld is not a bad comparison for The Golden Girls. In the end, it is kind of about nothing, except an enormous reality that is largely unspoken—these are women who are washed up. Dorothy is divorced; her husband of 38 years left her for a stewardess. Blanche, Sophia, and Rose are all widows. Dorothy occasionally teaches; Blanche is independently wealthy; and Rose takes up various jobs here or there, but they’re all mostly getting by on careful budgeting of their retirement savings. That leaves a lot of long hours in the Florida sun, contemplating how their lives brought them to their 60s so suddenly.

It’s a time that could be a source of despair. In between jokes, the lives these women lead speak of loneliness and emptiness. Friends and relatives are passing on; their children are grown up and married. Finding purpose and companionship is not always easy. Where The Golden Girls strikes a universal chord is when it shows these women choosing to be there for each other. And doing so with attitude and style. The world has gone on without them—but they have found a place to belong, and damn if they aren’t going to flaunt it. This is a story about friendship, but it’s also a story about mustering enough self-possession to be fabulous, in whatever way you can, even when everyone else has forgotten about you. These 10 episodes offer a glimpse into the “girls” that made up The Golden Girls, who demonstrated how to age with pizzazz.

Dorothy, Blanche, and Rose: “Pilot/The Engagement” (season one, episode one): As the one that started it all, this episode has to do some heavy lifting. Blanche’s sudden engagement is a weird way to be introduced to a cast of strangers, but Susan Harris’ script turns it into an opportunity to observe how the three women living in this house have grown to depend on each other, even as Blanche is trying to regain shreds of her former life. Scenes from the pilot episode make up most of the show’s opening credits for the rest of its run; and when Dorothy sits Rose and Blanche down and tells them that they’ll be each other’s family now, it’s an encapsulation of the show’s theme!

Dorothy: “Guess Who’s Coming To The Wedding?” (season one, episode two): Although it’s the episode immediately following the first, it’s still so good. Stan Zbornak, Dorothy’s ex-husband, shows up at the girls’ door several times throughout the course of the series, and most of the time, he weighs down the whole show. In this episode, it’s the first time Dorothy and Stan see each other since he walked out on her, and Bea Arthur’s righteously indignant Dorothy makes for a stirring scene in which she chastises him for not letting her say goodbye. It’s an episode that speaks to what the show could always rely on, regardless of the plot: its compelling lead actresses.

Blanche and Dorothy: “The Triangle” (season one, episode five): This is another early episode that sticks out for how well it sells the complicated dynamic among the three central women. A theme that comes up again and again is how men can come between the girls—especially Blanche and Dorothy, who both have domineering personalities and a lot of willpower. In this episode, a man Dorothy is dating makes a pass at Blanche, but Dorothy doesn’t believe it. The conflict and eventual resolution lay the foundation for a lot of what happens between Blanche and Dorothy over the course of the series—their friction, their grudging mutual respect. Rose’s sneaky do-gooding is not to be missed, either.

Rose: “A Little Romance” (season one, episode 13): Rose goes on a date with a little person, and legend has it this is Betty White’s favorite episode. It’s also an episode that is all about facial expressions: Dorothy’s, at the door; Blanche’s, when she thinks it’s all an elaborate joke; Rose, when she’s trying to convey to her friends that she is really intending to date this man. It’s a very Rose thing to do.

Dorothy, Rose, and Blanche: “The Way We Met” (season one, episode 25): The first-season finale introduces two very important devices to The Golden Girls: the nighttime conversation around the kitchen table, reminiscing about past times, and cheesecake. None of the girls can sleep after staying up to watch Psycho, so they pull a cheesecake out of the fridge and sit down to chat. Why not? They don’t have anywhere else to be. The episode also covers how the women met, making it a perfect conclusion to the first season. And Sophia’s prank at the end of the episode is one of her funniest gags on the show.

Blanche: “End Of The Curse” (season two, episode one): Blanche takes a pregnancy test that comes back positive, so she’s convinced she’s going to have a baby. Instead, it turns out she’s menopausal, and this unexpectedly throws her into a tailspin. Blanche so wholly defines herself by her sexuality that when she thinks she’s lost it, she’s devastated. She even goes to therapy in this episode, and her distracted, pensive monologue to the therapist is one of Rue McClanahan’s shining moments in the series. It’s also one of the most honest moments Blanche receives.

Rose: “Isn’t It Romantic?” (season two, episode five): Dorothy’s friend from college develops a crush on Rose. Dorothy’s friend is a lesbian. Rose does not know what a lesbian is. Hilarity ensues, except it’s hilarity that is both sharp and sweet. One of those groundbreaking episodes of The Golden Girls, it includes gay characters so intimately—and finds a way to make those stories funnier than an after-school special.

Blanche and Sophia: “Yes, We Have No Havanas” (season four, episode one): This unlikely episode is a fan favorite—in part because the gag in the episode keeps escalating, until it hits a funeral. It also pits Blanche and Sophia against each other, in their pursuit of a handsome man from Cuba who apparently is related to Fidel Castro. It’s rare for Sophia to get much character development, but the episode makes the most out of the juxtaposition.

Blanche: “Wham, Bam, Thank You, Mammy” (season six, episode five): Blanche’s father, Big Daddy, dies early in the series. In season six, though, Blanche discovers he had a long-running affair with her nanny, Viola Watkins. Blanche’s father left Viola a music box, and she comes by to claim it. Blanche, at first, refuses to see her. Race relations are hardly the easiest topic to tackle in a half-hour sitcom, but Blanche grows in this episode, which is one of the last times she really evolves in the show.

Sophia: “Ebbtide’s Revenge” (season six, episode 12): Some of Sophia’s strongest moments are at funerals. In “Ebbtide’s Revenge,” Sophia has to go to her son’s funeral—her son who, as they said quaintly, “cross-dressed.” Up until that episode, the series had tiptoed around Dorothy’s brother and Sophia’s son; but in “Ebbtide’s Revenge,” Sophia has to come to terms with her son as he was in life—and that he’s gone. Estelle Getty’s Sophia perfected a façade of acidity, but as the episode continues, it blows apart into grief and self-doubt.

And if you like those, here are 10 more: Blanche and Dorothy: “Journey To The Center Of Attention” (season seven, episode 19); Rose: “Before And After” (season two, episode 15); Blanche: “The One That Got Away” (season four, episode three); Blanche and Rose: “Scared Straight” (season four, episode nine); Blanche: “Ebb Tide” (season five, episode 11); Rose: “72 Hours” (season five, episode 19); Dorothy, Rose, and Blanche: “Job Hunting” (season one, episode 22); Dorothy: “Dorothy’s Prized Pupil” (season two, episode 21); Sophia: “The Sisters” (season two, episode 12); Burt Reynolds: “Ladies Of The Evening” (season two, episode two)

Availability: The complete run of the series is on DVD, and it also shows in frequent reruns on Logo, TV Land, and Hallmark. Several episodes are also available on YouTube.

Next time: On February 1, Robert David Sullivan was asked to pick his 10 most representative episodes of The Odd Couple. In two weeks, you’ll know his answer.

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