Even in 1986, Designing Women felt like a throwback. Though the CBS sitcom was shot on film, and featured nattily attired actresses moving around sets as lavish as anything on Dynasty, the rhythm of the show and its performances were more like something from the ’70s. At its core, Designing Women was a relaxed workplace comedy like Taxi and Barney Miller, crossed with a bristling social-issues comedy in the mold of All In The Family and Maude. And while Designing Women wasn’t a classic on the level of those shows, it was a standout in its time, and it still retains much of its snap.
Delta Burke, Dixie Carter, Annie Potts, and Jean Smart play the owner-employees of a small Atlanta interior-design firm. Each episode found them dealing with the persistent problems of professional women—balancing work and home lives, handling career setbacks, and meeting men—all while firing off the quick, punchy dialogue of creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. The majority of any given episode took place in the firm’s living room/office, as the four leads bickered, bonded, and advanced different versions of strong Southern womanhood. The ladies were collegial but feisty, and often unapologetically bitchy. (Their types are too rarely seen on TV today.)
What holds back the episodes on the Designing Women: The Complete First Season set is Bloodworth-Thomason’s preoccupation with big speeches and applause lines. Nearly every season-one installment builds to a moment where an apoplectic Carter speaks her mind about some injustice, and puts everyone who disagrees with her so firmly in their place that it weakens her own character a little. She becomes unlikeably invulnerable, not to mention self-righteous. But Carter’s stridency was always balanced by Burke’s vanity, Potts’ down-to-earth decency, and especially Smart’s chatty ebullience. The way these proudly outspoken Southern heroines grappled with controversial subjects like sexual harassment, racism, gay rights, and women’s health all set Designing Women apart in its own time, and make the show relevant—and often bracingly funny—even now. Though CBS started airing Designing Women in 1986, in some ways, the show feels like the first product of the Clinton era.
Key features: A recent roundtable discussion at The Paley Center with Bloodworth-Thomason and the cast.