A Celebration of Donna Summer: The Pioneering Queen of Dance

still from the video of “I Will Go With You (Con Te Partiró)”
(dir. Rocky Schenck) BMG Music Entertainment, 1999. Donna Summer YouTube Channel

Donna Summer would have been 73 today. The legendary pop diva died almost 10 years ago at the early age of 63 and left behind a tremendous legacy of music. Much of her work in the 1970s defined what popular music meant and she was a pioneer of dance music, creating a dance-pop template followed by great dance divas like Madonna, Janet Jackson, Jody Watley, Britney Spears. She was linked with fellow giants of early dance music including Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara, Pete Bellotte, and Bruce Sudano. Her early single “Love to Love You Baby” from 1975 is arguably the most important disco single of the genre. It celebrated the carnal sexuality of the club culture. As Summer’s airy, sensual vocals moaned erotically over the funky beat. The song was a glorious 17 minutes long -a symphonic epic of passion.

“Love to Love You Baby” wasn’t Summer’s first single but it was an explosive introduction to a novel and distinct artist who would change music forever. It hit the US top 10, peaking at number 2, the first of 14 top 10 hit singles. She ruled the pop and dance charts, becoming the gorgeous face of disco music. Though dance music was seen with wary snobbery by rock critics who damned the genre as “inauthentic” or prefabricated, Summer became the voice of a dominant pop music genre that centered the voices of Black and Latino queer people as well as women of color. Disco music was the music of queer culture – a joyous celebration of queer sexuality and queer identity. Gay bars would play dance music and so gay audiences became discerning consumers of the music. As with any sort of subversive, subculture, once the mainstream, moneyed capitalist institutions got their hands on disco music, the music was distorted and white washed, getting the inherent campness wrong and the resultant was the polyestered tackiness.

But artists like Donna Summer continued to make innovative and dynamic music. “I Feel Love,” her 1977 single, was a sonic marvel: a futuristic, space-age banger, scored by a Moog synthesizer. The song is arguably the most influential singles of dance music, its echoes heard in every disco song, dance-pop, New Wave, New Romantic, electronica, house, and techno. After “I Feel Love,” pop music was never the same.

Though Summer personified dance music, she wasn’t content with staying in just one genre: she also looked to rock, soul, gospel, becoming one of the most creative and unique voices of her time. Critics wanted to dismiss disco music as a producer-driven genre (and yes, the producers and songwriters of the disco era were unheralded musical geniuses), but Summer wasn’t a singing mannequin or a cipher. An accomplished songwriter and producer, Summer was integral to the creation of her sound and music. She also had a beautiful and distinct voice, one that was malleable and flexible, able to drift like a cloud over the thick, programmed beats or blast through the productions with a fiery, gospel-hewed fervor.

Because Donna Summer was more than just a gorgeous face fronting dance music, but an actual artist, she was one of the few disco artists who was able to extend her career beyond the 1970s, adapting successfully to the synth-driven dance-pop and urban soul-pop. She started working with other dance producers in the 1980s and 1990s, hooking up with the ubiquitous Stock Aitken Waterman, Quincy Jones, and C+C Music Factory and recorded more excellent dance music that would extend her career into the new millennium, consistently landing in the top 10 on the dance charts.

More than any other singer of the disco genre, Donna Summer possessed a free and exuberant voice that captured, at once, the joy and exhilaration of dance music. Her sound, her music, remains essential when assessing the impact of dance music. She was an original originator, a Founding Mother of dance music, who would become its most important practitioner.

Important Highlights of Donna Summer

Crayons (2008): Summer’s final studio LP released whilst she was alive, this is a solid collection of dance and pop tunes that bear the mark of its time. As always, Summers enlivens everything with that glorious, clear-as-a-bell clarion of a voice (that has not aged). This is a stylish record of contemporary urban-pop, impeccably produced and performed with characteristic zeal.

Crayons 1 by Summer, Donna (2004-05-31)
Crayons

“Power of Love” (2005): the death of Luther Vandross was a huge blow to the music community. Vandross was an inspired singer-songwriter and producer, lending his gargantuan talents to the likes of legendary divas like Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and Dionne Warwick. His voice was incredible – smooth, lyrical, expressive. He was the Mozart of romantic soul. On So Amazing: An All-Star Tribute to Luther Vandross, Summer reworks Vandross’ midtempo hit “Power of Love” into a hypnotic club tune.

“Love Is the Healer” (1999): an album track from a 1999 live album, this song is prime later-day Donna Summer. Written and produced with Nathan DiGesare and Thunderpuss, “Love Is the Healer” is high-tech house with great sonic accents, including the Gregorian chants (all the rage in the early 90s). Also, Summer laid down some of her best vocals on this dance hit.

Love Is The Healer
“Love Is the Healer”

“Carry On” (1997): the inaugural winner of the Best Dance Recording Grammy, this early 90s hit that became a dance staple in 1997 due to some fantastic remixes. It showed listeners that despite being in the business for more than two decades, both Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder were still able to make some great, vital dance music that still spoke to current audiences without pandering to current pop trends.

Carry on Pt.2 by Summer, Donna, Giorgio Moroder (1995-05-01)
“Carry On”

“Melody of Love (Wanna Be Loved)” (1994): the first single off a mid-90s compilation, this house-pop tune joined Summer with David Cole and Robert Clivillés of C+C Music Factory fame, and it’s no surprise that the union is inspired. Over the strutting, queer dance beat and pounding keyboards, Summer – at seeming vocal peak – joyfully belts over the bouncing percussion. Though her biggest hits were in the 1970s, songs like “Melody of Love” proved that in the 1990s, she was still as creative and vital a performer.

Melody of Love
“Melody of Love (Wanna Be Loved)”

“This Time I Know It’s for Real” (1989): Don’t call it a comeback because Summer wasn’t really gone. By the end of the 1980s, Summer’s impact on pop radio had dwindled, so she turned to the British outfit, Stock Aitken Waterman (arguably the commercial – though not artistic – successors of Giorgio Moroder), who created hits for Kylie Minogue. Summer collaborated with the trio on this sprightly, churning tune, which married SAW’s assembly-line dance-pop production with her distinct and heaven-sent vocals.

“Dinner with Gershwin” (1987): Originally written and recorded by Brenda Russell, “Dinner with Gershwin” is a strange, eccentric tune in which Summer warbles the names of the famous names she’d like to hang out with (i.e. Rembrandt, Curie, Picasso, Earhart, Mahalia Jackson). The production – courtesy of Russell and Richard Perry is somewhat dated now, but the angular, clipped arrangement is exciting to hear and the lyrics are fun and just odd enough to make this a winning highlight of Summer’s 80s output.

DONNA SUMMER / DINNER WITH GERSHWIN
“Dinner with Gershwin”

“She Works Hard for the Money” (1983): early 80s pop music flirted with proletariat anthems, most notably with Dolly Parton’s paean to the working gal, “9 to 5.” For “She Works Hard for the Money,” Summer joins CCM giant Michael Omartian for this New Wave-inspired rocker about a working-class female worker, toiling away. Summer’s empathetic performance and the high-octane production are high spots on this corker of a tune. It’s an important song in Summer’s oeuvre because it also proved that the stigma of disco wouldn’t have much of an effect on her career.

“Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)” (1982): Quincy Jones was the most in-demand producer of the early 1980s due to his iconic work with Michael Jackson. He turned to Donna Summer with this tight, funky tune that boasts some of Jones’ distinct characteristics of his 80s work – lots of gaudy synths, rumbling, mile-wide bass, sassy background vocals, vocoder-vocal samples. There’s also a hot sax solo and a whistle. It’s over the top and somewhat fussy and crowded, but it’s still a great, fun jam.

I’m a Rainbow (recorded in 1981; released in 1996): this record was shelved and in the ensuing years it became a legend among Donna Summer fans. Looking to dance-pop, synth-pop, and New Wave, the album was a concerted effort to move away subtly from her disco roots. Along with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, Summer also works with other top-shelf talent like Harold Faltermeyer, Bruce Sudano, and Silvester Levay, putting together a superb collection of pop songs. The bright, neon-spiked “Melanie” is a major highlight (and should have been a single) and despite it being arguably, one of the worst songs ever written, Summer manages to even make Andrew Lloyd Webber’s garbagey “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” moving and affecting. A shame that this album was shelved.

I'm a Rainbow (2014 Remaster)
I’m a Rainbow

“The Wanderer” (1980): Once Donna Summer entered the 1980s, she was facing an ever-shifting musical landscape. Though identified by disco, Summer always had designs on pop/rock, so this single is a fantastic indulgence. It’s a New Wave song with some post-punk inflections, crunchy guitars, and a bouncing beat. She affects a curling sneer of a voice when singing the song (there’s also a slightly rockabilly sound to some of Summer’s delivery). Like her other work of the 1980s, it showed a flexibility in her sound and abilities.

On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II (1979): Arguably one of the best greatest-hits collections released, this 16-track, double-LP compilation is a brilliant encapsulation of the most important artist of the disco ear and one of the most successful artists of the 1970s. The track list has the greatest disco music ever recorded. New tracks added to entice buyers do not sound like last minute additions, but are excellent songs in their own right: the title track is a classic and her duet with Barbra Streisand “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” is a camp classic.

On the Radio by Donna Summer (2012-08-08)
On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II

“On the Radio” (1979): The title track of her greatest hits album, “On the Radio” follows the format of a classic Donna Summer tune: a sweeping ballad that will turn into a booty-shaking jam. The chorus of the song is crazily catchy and belies the tension in the lyrics which are quite moving, despite the discotheque pacing.

“No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” (1979): The pairing of Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand is destined to be a camp classic and a kitsch standard. Summer and Streisand were both enjoying unprecedented success in the 1970s, scoring hit singles and selling millions of records. Both divas – icons and queens of gay male fans – were known for their large and expressive voices. A song like this pit the two against each other, culminating in an exciting – yet still hilarious – match. Written by dance great Paul Jabara and Bruce Roberts, the song is a delicious, over-the-top disco tune that embraces a silliness and queeny queerness.

Enough Is Enough / No More Tears (Enough Is Enough) [Vinyl Single 7'']
“No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)”

“Dim All the Lights” (1979): Donna Summer admitted that she originally wrote this song for Rod Stewart but was so in love with it, that she kept it for herself. The song is essentially two-in-one: it starts off as a bluesy ballad (I can hear Stewart singing this bit) before it boogies into a shuffling disco ditty.

“Bad Girls” (1979): One of Donna Summer’s most enduring hits is a sassy, saucy disco number which is a story song about prostitutes. Despite the subject matter, Summer imbues the song with a pointed, wary attitude. The backup vocalists add as much to the song’s appeal as Summer herself; they trade vocal licks with the diva, adding to the fun.

Bad Girls (1979): Arguably Donna Summer’s best studio LP which brings in a lot of her favorite sounds, including disco, rock, soul, and pop. It’s a diverse and wide-ranging record that allows for audiences to see just how masterful Summer is. The ballads show off Summer’s fantastic voice and the album’s innovative use of synthesizers and electronic instruments makes Bad Girls a seminal pop record of the 1970s. Producer Giorgio Moroder perfects 70s guitar-driven pop/rock as well as continue to develop the muscular, sweaty tech-driven dance music.

Bad Girls
Bad Girls

“Hot Stuff” (1979): Donna Summer’s embrace of rock sounds imply a second side career as a Tina Turner-esque rock goddess. Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte create a jumping, jangly disco-rock song that matches Summer’s rock star aspirations. There’s a fantastic undulating synthesizer as well as a crunchy rock guitar by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.

“Last Dance” (1978): Paul Jabara won a well-deserved Oscar for this song which was written for Thank God It’s Friday. The accompanying soundtrack is pretty brilliant with excellent disco tracks. Jabara is a master at writing dance music and captures the wistful, lilting mood of when the last song is called at the end of a night of dancing at a club. It encapsulates that kind of feeling of yearning and want as well as regret that comes up when a night winds down and romantic feelings are still left unspoken and unrequited. Donna Summer performs the song beautifully, finding the tone of Jabara’s lovelorn, reaching words.

“MacArthur Park” (1978): Summer’s cover of Jimmy Webb’s ballad is one of the most bewildering songs ever. Starting off as a slow, swinging, funk ballad with an urgent, piercing vocal performance before she unleashes a sneering laugh, as the strings and disco beat explode. Despite the quixotic lyrics, the production and arrangement adds a fiery earnestness which Summer matches with a passionate, committed performance (her snarling howls are great). The synth work is also brilliantly bonkers.

“I Feel Love” (1977): The mission of “I Feel Love” was straight forward: to change the face of dance music. Produced by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, the song is a deep, dark, space-age disco sci-fi number. Summer’s voice is a sensual force of a nature. Every dance song, every synth-pop song, every New Wave song owes its sound to “I Feel Love.”

Love to Love You Baby (1975): though the title track is the main draw (a 17-minute opus of funk and sex), the flip side of the album has been unfairly overwhelmed by the success of the song. Pete Bellotte and Giorgio Moroder craft a string of perfect soul-pop songs with spirited vocals by Summer. The gutsy “Pandora’s Box” is a fantastic slice of piano-driven pop and “Need-a-Man Blues” is a whirling, driving tune. The title track is a classic, but the other cuts showcase Summer’s versatility (as well as Moroder’s and Bellotte’s).

LOVE TO LOVE YOU BABY VINYL LP DONNA SUMMER 1976[GTLP008]
Love to Love You Baby

“Love to Love You Baby” (1975): One of Donna Summer’s earliest hits, this song is arguably the sexiest song in history. You can hear in its production and writing, the blueprint of Madonna’s “Erotica” and Janet Jackson’s “Throb.” Few mainstream pop songs celebrated female sexuality and “Love to Love You Baby” was at once a feminist manifesto of feminine sensuality and a celebration of the sexy power of dance.

In celebration of Marianne Faithfull: Rock’s Greatest Chanteuse

Still from the music video for “The Gypsy Faerie Queen”
(dir. John Maybury), Prettybird LTD, 2018. Marianne Faithfull YouTube Channel.

On what is her 75th birthday, A Seat in the Aisle is celebrating the work of rock legend Marianne Faithfull. The word ‘survivor’ is thrown around a lot in pop culture, but the word seems to be tailor-made for Faithfull, a woman who has weathered personal and career travails and obstacles. In the 1960s, her fresh, English rose beauty made her a precious star – she sang pretty folk songs with a lovely, ethereal voice. But life and art got in the way, and with 1979’s Broken English, she staged one of the most impressive comebacks in rock history. The Marianne Faithfull of Broken English was a rough, wary, world-weary songstress, no longer content trilling coffee house fare. Her pretty instrument was replaced by a gorgeously ravaged voice, splintered, blistered, and crumbling, like a ruin.

Marianne Faithfull became rock’s Marlene Dietrich. Rock’s Lotte Lenya. Rock’s Elaine Stritch. She was a singer that applied her destroyed voice to a catalog of songs that matched the ditch-deep voice and hard-won gravitas. She wrote songs that told stories of her storied life, writing from the perspective of a wise sage. She also looked to Brecht, Coward, Weill, creating a repertoire of a brilliant storyteller.

She is an original, one who in her nearly 60-year career still surprises her audiences. In 2021, after decades of music, she returns with an album of spoken-word poetry, proving that she is one of her generation’s greatest performing artists.

Marianne Faithfull’s Greatest Moments

She Walks in Beauty (2021): Faithfull collaborated with Warren Ellis and recorded a collection of spoken-word poetry, mining the great works of Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, and Tennyson. Ellis creates a lovely, lilting soundscape for Faithfull’s expressive readings. Recorded during the pandemic, during which Faithfull herself was struck by the disease, She Walks in Beauty is a poignant album – a possible swansong – for a career studded with idiosyncratic turns.

She Walks in Beauty (with Warren Ellis)
She Walks in Beauty

Negative Capability (2018): Faithfull’s talent as a song interpreter is unparalleled but she’s also a strong songwriter, herself. If this is Faithfull’s final album of music, then it’s a tremendous high note. At this point in her career, her voice is wizened and thickened, flecked with a sadness. The original tunes on the record are moving, but the highlight is a revisit of her iconic signature “As Tears Go By” which is immeasurably improved with a regal, tragic elegance.

Negative Capability (Deluxe Version)
Negative Capability

Horses and High Heels (2011): A fantastic album of covers in which Faithfull gives her inimitable stamp. The best part of the album is Faithfull’s affectionate nod towards her 60s past with her gravely – yet hopeful – take on Carole King’s elegiac “Goin’ Back.”

Horses And High Heels
Horses and High Heels

Easy Come, Easy Go (2008): Faithfull’s a singular artist but when paired with the right duet partner, she can create magic. On this album of covers which includes songs from Dolly Parton, Bessie Smith, Smokey Robinson, and even Leonard Bernstein, Faithfull is able to apply her particular brand of cabaret-rock to rock and pop-era tunes. She’s gives a gutsy take on Parton’s “Down from Dover” and a gloriously camp version of the Motown chestnut “Ooh Baby Baby” with queer rock icon ANOHNI. The album’s strangest but most entrancing moment is a jazzy duet with Jarvis Cocker on the Sondheim classic “Somewhere” from West Side Story.

Easy Come Easy Go by Marianne Faithfull (2008-11-14)
Easy Come, Easy Go

Before the Poison (2004): PJ Harvey invigorates Faithful in what could be best described as a late-career renaissance in which she collaborates with young, fresh producers and singer-songwriters. Producers Harvey, Nick Cave, Hal Willner, Rob Ellis are able to reacquaint listeners with Faithfull’s inner rock chick by giving her a platter of indie rock and jangly, guitar rock.

Before the Poison
Before the Poison

Kissin’ Time (2002): With Kissin’ Time, Faithfull sees her brand of rock filtered through thick, glossy, electronic rock. Hooking up with a diverse range of producers including Billy Corgan, Dave Stewart, Jarvis Cocker, and Étienne Daho, Faithfull’s inner New Wave diva is unearthed. Though she’s never sang on tracks as smooth as these, she still manages to pierce through the sheen with her heartache. Her tribute to Nico on “Song for Nico” is warm and lovely; and her homage to 60s Brill Building pop, “Something Good” is nostalgic and fun. The best track is her elegant hymn “I’m on Fire,” a brilliant collaboration with Corgan that is arguably her best song from her later career.

Kissin Time
Kissin’ Time

Vagabond Ways (1999): By 1999, Faithfull had dedicated most of her career to theatre hall songs, and this was another comeback for the singer. It’s a fine return-to-form with a collection of solid rock/pop songs that remind listeners that despite her exalted, lofty reputation, she’s still a masterful rock singer. Producer Daniel Lanois, most famous for his work with U2 and Emmylou Harris, brings his atmospheric sound to the record, but is far more restrained, allowing for the sturdy bone structure of the tunes to shine.

Vagabond Ways
Vagabond Ways

20th Century Blues (1996): As great a rock singer as Faithfull is, her strange and eccentric voice is a perfect match for art songs and cabaret. Her affinity for these songs – written by legendary tunesmiths like Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, Noël Coward – highlights her chanteuse persona. She’s a clear disciple of Marlene Dietrich and Lotte Lenya, using the deep tones and shades in her gritty voice to add new sounds to these classic songs. “Falling in Love” again is a swooning highlight and her take on “Mack the Knife” transports listeners to a piano bar in the Weimar Republic.

20th Century Blues
20th Century Blues

A Secret Life (1995): Faithfull is paired with the moody, dense Angelo Badalamenti (best known for his scoring work on Twin Peaks) for a gorgeous, lush album that finds a ponderous beauty in her voice. It’s a cinematic record, one that is large and expansive and includes some of her best singing. Aesthetically, it’s one of her most accessible albums, but there’s still a Gothic darkness to the songs.

A Secret Life
A Secret Life

Blazing Away (1990): Blazing Away works both as a greatest hits record and a chronicle of Faithfull’s talent as a life performer. Recorded in St Anne’s Cathedral in New York City, Faithfull seems inspired by the grandeur of the venue and imbues her performances with a faded regal queenly elegance. The set list is a testament to Faithfull’s legacy and mythic history. Songs from the 60s, 70s, and 80s populate the track listing, and Faithfull’s performances are evergreen.

Blazing Away-Live by Marianne Faithfull (2006-05-03)
Blazing Away

Strange Weather (1987): In a career marked by a series of comebacks, Strange Weather is one of her greatest. An important album in her career as it was the work that gave audiences a fully-realized glimpse at Faithfull’s talents – not only as a rock singer but a genius songstress. The songs on Strange Weather indulge in Faithfull’s love of German art songs, folk songs, and dance hall ballads. The instrumentation on this record is lush and full, supporting Faithfull’s voice (which possesses a surprising power). Though Broken English is the record that reset Marianne Faithfull’s career, Strange Weather is the record that established her genius.

Strange Weather
Strange Weather

Marianne Faithfull’s Greatest Hits (1987): Faithfull’s recording career before Broken English is difficult to sift through – there are some inspired moments, some real songs of beauty, but there are also a lot of cookie-cutter folk-pop songs that feel bland and anonymous. That is why this collection is a great distillation of her 60s work. It includes covers of 60s pop songs like “Yesterday,” “Monday, Monday,” and Brill Building stuff like “Something Better” and “With You in Mind.” Faithfull’s voice is shockingly different for those familiar with raspy machete of a voice. Not all of the tunes are lighter-than air, though: her early version of “As Tears Go By” has a mournful quality and “Sister Morphine” has a spunky power. For Faithfull completists, this is an important entry in her discography.

Greatest Hits by Marianne Faithfull (1990-05-03)
Marianne Faithfull’s Greatest Hits

Broken English (1979): Broken English is Faithfull’s magnum opus and her greatest work. It’s also a record that brought audiences to the ragged, tattered voice that would be a perfect vehicle for her particular brand of brilliance. Though a thoroughly British performer, Broken English‘s smarmy, dirty, 70s disco-rock brought the singer to a pre-Giuliani New York. It’s a punk-pop album with licks of New Wave, dance, and rock. Each song – even the tracks she didn’t have a hand in writing – is personal and Faithfull is able to inhabit the voice of the characters. As a singing actress, she does a dizzying job conveying the desperation and insanity of the titular narrator in “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan.” Despite the studio burnish, the album has an appealingly torn sound. This is an indispensable entry in the singer’s career.

Broken English
Broken English

Clueless: Social Stratification and Hierarchy in Amy Heckerling’s Beverly Hills

Still from Clueless (Paramount Pictures, 1995) l to r: Elisa Donovan, Stacey Dash, Alicia Silverstone

In Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, social stratification and hierarchy define the stylized wilderness of the fictional Bronson Alcott High School. There’s an adopted caste system of social groups that move throughout the school, rarely overlapping with each other, and supporting the tiered world in which the film’s heroine, Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) rules from the top. Cher uses her popularity for her own betterment, but she also has flashes of noblesse oblige, understanding that her place of privilege also has its responsibilities. Though some unfamiliar with the film would dismiss Cher as an archetypal “dumb blonde,” it’s clear that though Cher may not be scholastically inclined, she’s a sharp and shrewd player in her world – a masterful manipulator of her circumstance, who has been able to flourish socially because of a combination of wit, guile, and dashing. The movie – based on Jane Austen’s comedy Emma – tells the story of social mobility and class warfare in the context of an affluent Beverly Hills high school.

Part of what makes the film so successful is Heckerling’s ability to write teenagers. Though 40 when she wrote the film, Clueless features sparkling dialogue that simultaneously lampoons and honours teenage lingo. The phrase “As if!” has entered the popular vernacular, and the film’s stylized take on high school life resonated with audiences in spite of the conspicuous wealth depicted in the film. The film easily transcends the familiar “teen comedy” or “high school comedy” trope. Cher ultimately emerges from this film as a flawed but enjoyable protagonist, as she proves to be a perfect guide to the world in which she’s perched near the top. The success of the film and its ingenious way of telling the story is due, in large part, to the talents of Heckerling, a veteran of teen comedies, and an auteur who has proven to be a formidable chronicler of teenaged life.

Amy Heckerling is celebrated for being one of the most consistent comedic directors in the 1980s and 1990s, helming mainstream comedies like the Look Who’s Talking franchise, National Lampoon’s European Vacation, and arguably her most important work (save for Clueless), 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a film that could be seen as a precursor to Clueless. In Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Heckerling takes on Cameron Crowe’s script about the intertwining lives of high school teenagers. She gives audiences an almost Altman-esque look at the California high school, and as with she did with Silverstone in Clueless, she pulls an iconic, breakout, star-making performance from a then-rising star Sean Penn (Fast Times was only his second film) In the best of her work, Heckerling has an uncanny eye for telling funny, tart stories that manage to be clever and intellectual, and yet firmly mainstream. Clueless is ultimate Amy Heckerling film that combines the filmmaker’s intellectual vigor, commercial instincts, and satirical eye.

Clueless came out in the summer of 1995 in the midst of a minor trend of Jane Austen dramatizations. This Austen-boom, so to speak, saw big screen adaptations of Austen classics such as Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and a more faithful adaptation of Emma. In Clueless, Heckerling takes the story of Emma: a rich young girl who meddles in the lives of others, and moves the story from 1815 England to 1995 Beverly Hills. Austen’s titular heroine is a spoiled woman whose life is choked with privilege. Due to her wealth, Emma doesn’t have to be married to earn wealth and security; and because her mother died, Emma assumed the role of head of her household. As a result, she’s bored and as a distraction, she turns to her community. Because she’s smart and beautiful, Emma is also very conceited and believes she can do no wrong, which inspires her to become a matchmaker, as well as, to engineer some social mobility. Hecklerling’s adaptation is pretty faithful, particularly, in how she brings Austen’s issues of class consciousness and highlights how timeless some of these issues are.

In Clueless, Emma is now Cher, though her concerns are largely the same. She lives in a giant Beverly Hills mansion, with a distracted father and must contend with the regular scolding of an older brother-figure. In her high school, Cher with her best friend Dionne (Stacey Dash), go through the hallways, leaders of their social pack. With her skill and acumen, Cher can manipulate those around her, including her teachers, who are susceptible to her charms. And similarly to when Emma found Harriet Smith, and worked on making her into a society lady, Cher finds her Harriet in Tai (the late Brittany Murphy), a genial outcast who “benefits” from Cher’s makeover. Though writers like Nore Ephron and Carrie Fisher have been likened to Austen – primarily for their ability to craft well-constructed comedies with biting wit – but Heckerling was able to capture Austen’s devastatingly sharp sense of humour and recast it in a 1990s setting. There are wonderful sight gags – the sight of cellphones plastered on people’s faces was hilarious back in 1995 – and the costumes (by Mona May) are cartoonishly over the top. Heckerling coats everything in a shiny, glossy, candy shell. But more importantly, Heckerling gives Clueless a strong narrator, who reports the various school cliques back to the audience, with an exhaustive breadth of knowledge and an unerring eye for detail. These different cliques rely on socio-economic status, gender, sexuality, cultural identity, and race. Though there’s nothing inherently better/worse about these different cliques, it’s clear that in Cher’s social circle, there’s strict guidance on when, why, and how members of various cliques interact.

In Austen’s Emma, the title character’s ultimate downfall comes when she realizes that true social mobility is impossible (at least in 1815 England) When Emma tries to raise her friend Harriet to that of her own social equal, other societal and economic factors outside of Emma’s control intrude. Emma learns that she cannot control everything in her society, despite her arrogance. In Cher’s case, social mobility works on a different level because 1990s Beverly Hills society is slightly more porous than 1880s England. Tai is able to pass successfully in Cher’s social circle because much of what marks someone in a certain social milieu are consumer-driven markers, namely clothes, makeup, and cars. Like most “misfits” in teen comedies, Tai’s conventional beauty is hidden under a modicum of frumpy, unstylish clothing, but after a makeover, she is Cher’s physical equal. In the sequences when Cher is working on Tai, the text also recalls another great literary figure, George Bernard Shaw, and his Pygmalion. Cher’s downfall, like Emma’s, comes when Cher learns that her skills at social planning are limited – though Tai is reasonably successful at aping high society, she also is a source of rancor when she rebels against Cher’s self-serving advice.

Like traditional romantic comedies, Clueless ends on a happy note. Cher, suitably chastened and wiser now, understands the errors of her way and gets the guy she’s meant to be with: not the handsome and dashing Christian Stovitz (Justin Walker), who ends up being queer; nor does she respond positively to the overtures of Elton Tiscia (Jeremy Sisto), whom Cher was grooming for Tai. Instead, like Emma is paired with the sensible George Knightly, Cher is paired with serious Josh Lucas (Paul Rudd), who brings out the best in her. In their pairing, Heckerling steps away from the Austen model (in which the rich and powerful Emma marries the even more rich and powerful Knightly), and instead engineers some smart social mobility: Josh, a “misfit” of sorts (which is why it makes sense that he and Tai found each other somewhat compatible) finds himself in love with the quintessential queen bee, who appears to be the antithesis of his self-serious and intellectual ideals; and Cher finds herself in love with Josh, a social introvert who rejects her way of life as shallow and unsubstantial. Both understand that they have “layers” – this is beautifully played out when Cher corrects Josh’s snobby girlfriend on a detail about Shakespeare’s Hamlet (though Cher’s point of reference is from Mel Gibson’s rendition of the play – a delicious, Heckerlingian way of braiding high and low art)

An important part of the lore in Clueless is the setting. Beverly Hills connotes wealth and affluence – but it can also mean nouveau riche and tacky. Heckerling’s characters constantly skirt and play with the boundaries that separate these concepts. Though the denizens of Beverly Hills are popularly seen as having access to high society, Heckerling does view these people with a tart eye. Cher and Dionne themselves seem impeachable – they understand the ins and outs of social grace and are therefore presented as the ideal, but the people around them, create a loud and colourful array of personalities that continuously push the boundaries of taste, elegance, and class, regardless of economic status. Young girls roam the hallways of Bronson Alcott High School, sporting bandages after nose jobs gifted to them for birthdays. A ladies’ restroom is awakened to a symphony of ringtones, as the collected group of young ladies each checks to see if it’s her phone that’s ringing. And the villain of the film, Amber Mariens (Elisa Donovan) eschews social niceties, openly mocking and bullying those she feels are social inferiors – the latter is especially important because though Cher also harbours snobbery, she isn’t as cruel when engaging with other cliques.

When Heckerling shows these lapses in the social rules, she’s highlighting just how superficial and arbitrary these restrictions are. These moments are meant to be funny and inject the film with much of its humour – especially when members of the cliques have to interact with each other (that is why the moments in the classrooms are so priceless) but also important because Heckerling is not only skewering a hierarchal system that is at base, unfair and without merit, but also, this is a sly case of Heckerling skewering her members of her own industry. The film would not work as it does if it was set in another setting. For example, Mark Water’s Mean Girls (2005) deals with many of the same themes as Clueless but the satirical edge is less cartoony, less camp, and less fabulous because instead of being set in the ridiculous Beverly Hills, it’s set in the more sensible Midwest. Heckerling is not only playing with a relatable subject – being under the bottom rung of the social ladder in high school – but she’s also playing with a recognizable subject: the stupidly rich people of Beverly Hills. She knows that audiences of Clueless were also raised on a steady diet of Beverly Hills 90210, and are very familiar with the tropes that come with a locale that is almost solely defined by the wealth of its residents.

Once Clueless was released, it was met with a warm reception by critics and achieved cult classic status. Its promotional material encapsulates what was thought of as “decadent, silly, rich” in 1995: The film’s main stars, Silverstone, Dash, and Murphy, standing on a grand, neo-classical staircase, covered in purple carpet, each with a cellphone near her face. The clothing is costumey and stylized, that is reminiscent of Patricia Field’s work (I was surprised that she wasn’t the stylist for the film) and the image is the kind of cartoony, rich Beverly Hills caricature that viewers immediately hang their expectations on; the gaudy trashiness of the staircase (I can’t tell what’s uglier – the black bannister or the gold fleur-de-lis) coupled with Silverstone’s absurd ensemble (she’s wearing a red mini dress and a feather boa – she’s dressed like a drag queen), clues us in that this movie is a giant goose to the posterior of Beverly Hills rich self-absorption.

Living Vicariously Through Characters Living Vicariously: Only Murders in the Building

Still from Only Murders in the Building, l to r: Selena Gomez, Steve Martin, Martin Short (20th Television)

Like many viewers and listeners, I’ve become obsessed with true-crime stories. Though true-crime podcasts are very popular, I’ve been focused on longform true-crime journalism or true-crime documentaries. I find these stories compelling, particularly if the hero of the piece is an intrepid amateur sleuth who outsmarts the authorities, solving the mystery herself after piecing together the clues. I admit, true-crime as a genre is often gruesome and exploitative; despite its verisimilitude, it can render real tragedies as entertainment, but seeing a crime deconstructed with its different components spread out like pieces of a puzzle on a tabletop makes for compelling viewing because I can bring something dangerous and frightening to my safe world without putting myself in actual danger. It’s the distance afforded by the television that makes true-crime feel safe.

In her excellent book, Savage Appetites: True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, author Rachel Monroe looks at the popularity of true-crime narratives among female audiences. In the book – which I finished in merely three settings due to its engrossing prose – Monroe looks at four essential roles in true-crime: the detective, the victim, the defender, and the killer. In each case, the author develops the archetype by using real-world examples of women who have engaged with crime. I was particularly interested in the part of the book in which Monroe writes about Alisa Statman, a woman who found herself drawn into the tragic story of the Tate-LaBianca murders by unknowingly renting a room on the doomed property, which was the setting for the notorious killings, that included actress Sharon Tate. I found Statman’s increasing participation in that sad world, which resulted in her eventual befriending of Tate’s surviving relatives to be fascinating because it highlighted just how magnetic a tragedy can be, particularly if it’s a high-profile tragedy that attracts attention.

Of course, the troublesome aspect of true-crime as a genre is that it takes a human tragedy and through expert packaging, editing, and narration, creates a fascinating story that ends up becoming escapist television. Quickly, true-crime makes victims into characters – and the more stylish, slick, and stylized the work, be it film, television, or podcast, the easier it is to disassociate the victim from her reality. I say ‘her’ reality because the genre – like much of crime/thriller entertainment – has a particular vested interest in representing female victimhood. True-crime has replaced prime time cop shows as a source of representation of women who are victims of domestic violence, rape, or murder. Though there are notable examples of true-crime that feature a male victim, the most compelling examples are ones that focus on a female victim, usually young, pretty, and white. The inherent danger in consuming true-crime entertainment is allowing oneself to become desensitized to this common theme and to consume the genre without critically thinking about a) what sort of narrative it helps create and b) what is effect does the constant representation of female victimhood have on its viewers?

True-crime entertainment can be problematic when audiences enjoy the genre without thoughtful analysis of what they’re watching. The audience feels at once a safety because what they’re witnessing is a television show or film; but there’s also a strange kinship because, despite the television trappings, audiences do understand that what they’re watching is real. It’s an uneasy, oft-fraught balance that is pulled, stretched, and played for gallows humor on Hulu’s comedy-mystery, Only Murders in the Building, which is created by Steve Martin and John Hoffman. Martin stars with Martin Short and Selena Gomez as three neighbors who live in the Dakota-style apartment building in New York City, the Arconia. They are drawn into a murder mystery when the three decide to investigate a death in the building which they believe was a murder, despite the police judging it suicide. What links the three amateur sleuths is their shared obsession with a true-crime podcast.

What attracted me to the show – besides the casting of Short and Martin – is that it closely resembles the plot, the atmosphere, and the tone of Woody Allen’s 1993 comedy-mystery, Manhattan Murder Mystery, in which a middle-aged couple investigates a death they believe is a murder. Like Only Murders in the Building, Allen’s film dealt with very ordinary people who found themselves ensnared in a murder plot, due in part, to their own interest in sleuthing that is inspired by a sense of ennui or dissatisfaction in their lives. In Martin’s and Hoffman’s tale, the three leads each live lives in which they are struggling against profound weariness and languor, and the injection of excitement that a murder brings shades any compunctions of danger or prurience. I sought out Only Murders in the Building because it captured the same wry, oft-daffy approach to crime, whilst simultaneously creating a beautiful valentine to New York City.

Because Only Murders in the Building is a television show and not a 90-minute film, there is time for the show to develop its characters as well as for the many layers of cinematic influences to shine through. Though the show is ostensibly a murder-mystery and comedy, it’s also a film that laces threads of subplots. Familial backstories are hinted throughout the episodes as are satiric takes on petty bureaucracy, as well as a healthy skepticism of celebrity culture and showbiz.

When first reading about the show, I was drawn by the casting of the male leads: Martin and Short are fantastic comedians who did fine work together in the fluff Father of the Bride, and individually are wonderful performers. Selena Gomez gave me pause because I link her to her Disney Channel past. It’s another way in which this show finds a link with Woody Allen. Allen, in his ill-fated Amazon show, A Crisis in Six Acts, cast former teen star, Miley Cyrus. Despite the show’s critical failure, Cyrus held her own against Allen and his costar, comedy genius Elaine May. Similarly, Gomez transcends any hokeyness of her Disney Channel past and does a very good job of playing with her more experienced comedy costars. The three stars’ acting styles are quite disparate: for the most part, Martin and Gomez are naturalistic but Short is predictably broad and extravagant in his work. But it works well. Gomez brings a bemused, almost Bacall-like slyness and insouciance to the more establishment comedy stylings of Martin and Short.

Though Only Murders in the Building is about a murder mystery, the subplots that define each character are just as compelling. When we’re introduced to Oliver (Short), Charles-Haden (Martin), and Mabel (Gomez), we’re given an ‘in’ to their individual lives, each of which is somewhat sad and dispiriting. Charles-Haden is seen as a has-been actor who is living with dwindling fame, Oliver is a struggling theater director who has to hit his adult kid up for a loan, and Mabel turns out to have had a personal relationship with the dead man who acts as a catalyst for our trio. Sadness is important because in a lot of narrative fiction about amateur sleuths, the reason why ordinary people are drawn into solving murders is to either fill voids in seemingly empty lives or to act as distractions to personal tragedies. That is the draw of true-crime, as well. As audiences engage with true-crime, they receive a jolt, but in a wholly safe way. As criminology professor Scott Bonn notes, “People also receive a jolt of adrenaline as a reward for witnessing terrible deeds. Adrenaline is a hormone that produces a powerful, stimulating and even addictive effect on the human brain.”

In Only Murders in the Building, our leads are obsessed with the podcast, All Is Not OK in Oklahoma hosted by Cinda Canning (Tina Fey). It’s a clear nod to Serial hosted by Sarah Koenig, a popular podcast that was seemingly the first true-crime podcast to capture mainstream interest (even warranting a spoof on Saturday Night Live) Once inserted into a real-life murder mystery, it’s predictable that their response to their Sherlock Holmesing by putting together a podcast of their own entitled, Only Murders in the Building. It’s a fascinating collapsing of walls of reality that allows for different aspects of reality and fiction to be folded within each other: Only Murders in the Building is part of a larger trend in popular entertainment of true-crime narratives as well as the popularity of podcasts. Within the diegesis of the show, the characters relate to each other because of a podcast that they love, which demonstrates the uniting power of pop culture, a power that has been diminished significantly since the ‘death’ of the monoculture. And again, within the reality of the show, the characters respond to their extraordinary predicament by wanting to create a podcast of their own. It’s very much a story that exists in 2021 and it couldn’t be a more 2021 story.

During the pandemic and its accompanying lockdown, I spent much of time my time consuming popular culture as an escape from the real world which was proving to be chaotic and unstable. Interestingly enough, like many viewers, true-crime documentaries, true-crime docuseries, and true-crime podcasts offered a break from the volatility that the real world was providing whilst governments were trying to reign in a deadly pandemic; in most true-crime stories, the killer is caught. The victim is vindicated. Justice wins. And order is restored. The premise of true-crime narratives is a gross disruption of order: murder, kidnapping, embezzlement, fraud. As audiences, we watch these terrible abuses of power in outrage every day on the news. But news stories rarely have endings. True-crime stories usually do. Watching stories that offer a resolution to the tragic act of indecency is one of the reasons why they offer some comfort and escapism, particularly in a time of great turmoil.

And that is why Only Murders in the Building makes for such compelling viewing. Because we don’t get the pat, nice ending in which justice and order is restored. Though the main mystery of the piece is solved, a new one pops up just after, ending the series with a teasing cliffhanger that begs for more story. It is in this respect, that we see the main difference between fiction and true-crime. True-crime entertainment is heavily produced, but it still hews to the story it’s depicting; with fiction, the writers are essentially god of their universe and can keep the story going.

So much of the comedic power the drives the show comes from the absurd and escalating situations the three lead characters find themselves in; leavened with the absurd is the mundane which offers another layer of mirth. There are many scenes that are gems but one that stands out is a memorial scene in the second episode, “Who Is Tim Kono?”.

The reason the scene is so stellar is because it not only provides viewers with hilarity, but it quickly establishes the hierarchal world of a New York City cooperative building (which mimics the hierarchal world outside a New York City cooperative building). The memorial commences with the assertive board member of the Arconia, Bunny (Jayne Houdyshell doing scene-stealing work), calling the meeting to order with a fiery, “Why the fuck is everyone standing?” She gestures at the rows of seats and asks, condescendingly, “You see these chairs? What do you think they might be for?” Clapping and herding the other tenants into submission, Bunny is established in a very brief time as an archetype at once mesmerizing and recognizable. As Bunny chairs the memorial with a flinty dispassion and indifference, Charles, Oliver, and Mabel are ‘on the case’, planted in the back row of seats, hoping they’ll be able to gather some important clues. Instead of being a touching memorial to a deceased neighbor, though, the memorial simply limps into yet another coop meeting in which tenants hash out grievances, including the use of fireplaces because the deceased apparently didn’t like his neighbors availing themselves of the units’ fireplaces. As the neighbors grouse over their dead neighbor, audiences get to see a warped and funhouse image of what metropolitan city living is about. When Charles arrives at the memorial, the first thing he notes is that he doesn’t know anyone: an important detail about urban living. Very few people know their neighbors, particularly when living in a large apartment building. The paradoxical isolation that can occur despite a large number of people sharing a common space is being heavily satirized in the scene.

But something else is happening in this scene, as well, something important that becomes emblematic of the show as a whole. We see a self-absorption on the part of the tenants, some of whom take this opportunity not only to complain about petty issues like the use of fireplaces, but also to plug their business interests, including the therapist who takes advantage of the tragedy to disingenuously offer his support (making sure to note that he accepts Venmo payments) or the deli owner who makes sure that his company’s name is obvious on the buffet he provided. Despite it being a response to tragedy, the meeting is spiked with people dragging the deceased and eyeing his apartment (another funny poke at Manhattan culture). The scene – written by Kirker Butler – establishes another important theme: one of urban jadedness. Though it’s pitched at a comedic level, the cynicism exhibited among the other tenants is meant to play as a microcosm of the dangerously indifferent world which allows for murders to happen. Again, that the three lead characters found each other on the strength of their mutual interest in a podcast highlights an almost fateful importance to their friendship.

Often mysteries sacrifice character development to intricate plots. But in Only Murders in the Building, the lead characters’ relationship is the dominant force that makes the show so interesting. Gomez’s Mabel is quickly established as an enigma of sorts. A 21st Century take on the femme fatale, we are immediately informed that she has a connection with the deceased and that the two share a past. Both Charles and Oliver deftly fall into a double act, of sorts, in part guided by the performances of Short and Martin. It’s endlessly fascinating to watch the intergenerational play between Short and Martin and Gomez, given that at times, Gomez feels as if she were inserted into the narrative at last minute. But that slight jarring effect of her presence works because she isn’t supposed to of the Arconia world. Unlike Charles or Oliver, she’s not a full-time tenant, but supposedly a renovator. The Arconia connotes a Manhattan of Zabar’s, Elaine’s, and Bobby Short. Charles and Oliver seem at home in this narrow type of Manhattan, due to their age. As an outsider, Mabel offers a rip or a tear into this world, almost like she’s allowing for another dimension to spill into this mustier, more genteel one. (Flashbacks to Mabel’s past only reinforce this feeling of disparity). Though she matches her costars note-for-note, it’s important that Gomez’ acting style is different than that of Martin’s or Short’s; had a young comedienne been cast, the effect and balance would have been quite altered as she might not have stood out as much.

But as great as Gomez is, I had the most fun watching Short as the mercurial and somewhat sad Oliver. Short is an interesting performer because though he’s a generation after the broad, almost borscht belt showbiz style of comedy of legends like Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, or Dick Van Dyke, he had internalized a lot of their essence into his work. Short, a veteran of both SCTV and Saturday Night Live, is an extravagant and generous performer – both physical and intellectual in his approach. When he’s pitched too far in his style, he devolves into a cartoon, as seen in his work with Steve Martin in the Father of the Bride films. But in Only Murders in the Building, he scores a great balancing act – he’s broad enough to score comedic points, particularly when he’s playing off his costar (who is his best friend in real life), but he can also create some moving moments, as well, as evident in his scenes with Ryan Broussard, who plays Will, Oliver’s perennially disappointed adult son. Some of Short’s creations – Jiminy Glick, Ed Grimley, Franck Eggelhoffer, Jackie Rogers Jr – feel almost alien, but with Oliver, Short pulls together a scattered and hyperactive portrayal that is at once real and absurd.

When watching this show as a true-crime fan and a murder mystery enthusiast, Only Murders in the Building comes off as more substantial and intellectual than the usual murder mystery shows. The ambition that Steve Martin and John Hoffman exhibit in their creation is admirable. The two aren’t just content in putting together a funny murder mystery – after all, that’s been done before (I’ve watched Clue enough times to memorize most of the film’s dialogue; and again, Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery is one of my favorite films), but by including the darker, more intriguing plot with Mabel’s past, it’s clear that Martin and Hoffman are going for something more than just a Sunday night hour of fluff.

As someone who’s watched every episode of The Father Dowling Mysteries, Diagnosis Murder, Poirot, Miss Marple, and Murder, She Wrote, I found that by including the barbed humor and social commentary, plus the inclusion of something as timely to 2021 as true-crime podcasts, the show achieves an arch wittiness that the other shows lacked. Shows like Murder, She Wrote relied heavily on a formula or template: the amateur sleuth is introduced, she’s invited to a dinner party, someone dies, suspects appear, she figures it out, the end. But there’s the added urban quality to Only Murders in the Building, as well. Though it feels a bit inane to type this out, Manhattan and the Arconia feel as if they are living characters in the plot, too. Though murder mystery shows often take place in the city (even Murder, She Wrote took Jessica Fletcher out of cozy Cabot Cove and into exciting New York City in its later seasons), the cities often act as mere settings or backdrop to the plot. Only Murders in the Building, the city and what it stands for: the crime, the population density, the expense, celebrity culture, urban blight, the isolation, all inform the show’s premise. But more importantly, it takes those topics and uses them to create high comedy, as well.

The Golden Girls chronciles: The Pilot (“The Engagement”)

TV pilots are a tough watch sometimes. Often they’re filmed months before the actual show and if they’re picked up, we see major differences between the pilot and the show, and those differences can be jarring. Sometimes it’s the sets or characters that don’t land. The other thing about pilots is that writers are tasked to introduce new characters to audiences and they have to do it in such a way that it feels organic but detailed enough so that viewers get to know the characters. Because The Golden Girls has a fairly straightforward premise: four older women share a house in Miami, there isn’t a whole lot ‘nation building’ needed. Work sitcoms often start with a ‘first day’ setup with a new employee joining a company. On the pilot of The Golden Girls, we aren’t introduced to the premise, we’re merely dropped into an episode as if the show had already been on. Very tricky, but it worked.

So, The Golden Girls starts its 7-year run with the establishment shot of the Golden Girls house that has become iconic in its own right (though don’t try to make architectural sense of that house – it doesn’t work, unless the house’s architect was M.C. Escher). That opening shot would become synonymous with the show and opened nearly every show. We also learn that the episode is written by Susan Harris.

Susan Harris is the show creator. She was a TV veteran having worked most notably on the cult classic sitcom Soap (which starred future Empty Nesters Richard Mulligan and Dinah Manoff) She was approached by her husband producer Paul Junger Witt who was tooling with the idea of launching a show about older women. According to Harris, Witt came to Harris after another writer backed out of the project and convinced her to return to television after she heard the premise of writing show around older women. Though Harris’ concept of older was different than the networks:

What I thought was older women, the network and I were not on the same page at the time. I thought older women — 60, 70, 80. Older to the network seemed to mean 40-50. We casted the way we did, and we never discussed age.

So, it appears as if Harris got her way because the show’s final cast: Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Betty White were all between 50 and 65 when the show began. And what a cast. Arthur and White were both TV sitcom legends. Arthur had spent the 70s starring as the liberal feminist title character in Normal Lear’s Maude (which Harris wrote the iconic abortion episode for) and White was a TV pioneer from back in the medium’s early days, eventually becoming a comedy icon in the 70s for her spicy turn as Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Both Arthur and White were Emmy winners and Arthur was a Tony-winning singer-actress to boot.

Rue McClanahan was a TV veteran, as well, paying her dues on a variety of sitcoms before landing a regular role on Maude as the scatter-brained Vivian. A respected stage actress, McClanahan was a fixture on 70s television, appearing in a series of TV movies and becoming a seemingly professional guest star. She and White were paired for the Vicki Lawrence sitcom Mama’s Family before they worked together on The Golden Girls.

The only television neophyte was Estelle Getty, a wonderful stage actress who was celebrated for her great work in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy. A New York working actress, Getty was a stand-up comic, as well (which may explain her facility with the one-liners she was given). Though Getty was roughly the same ages as her costars, through aging makeup and clothing, she was cast as Arthur’s mother Sophia Petrillo.

Now, on to the pilot. We’re immediately introduced to the lead character, Dorothy Zbornak (Arthur) who barrels her way through the living room set and into the kitchen. Without introduction or preamble, Dorothy launches into her line, “I taught a class today,” quickly establishing that she’s a teacher. With a pissed off weariness, she grouses, “The finest school in Dade County. Two girls had shaved heads and three boys had green hair.”

l to r: Bea Arthur and James Levin

Golden Girls fans will immediately notice something odd. The person stirring a pot at the stove isn’t a Golden Girl but a younger man. This character is the main part of the pilot that is jettisoned with the show is continues. Charles Levin stars as a gay housekeeper, Coco. It would be the only appearance by Levin, whose character wasn’t a good fit for the show (it’s not Levin’s fault – he’s very good in this episode). It’s the only off note in the episode. Much of Coco’s role in the household would eventually be taken over by Sophia, anyways.

But more important than the temporary Coco is the quick and efficient way in which Harris and Arthur capture just what kind of character Dorothy is. She calls her students “too ugly to look at” and conveys the kind of perpetually burned out demeanor of a lot of hardworking (well, overworked) public school educators. Some of Dorothy’s objections: nose rings, dyed hair, shaved heads don’t work as jokes, really anymore as these things wouldn’t feel so out of place in a public school, nor would it signal class or temperament, but the early 80s still had some holdover of the generation gap of the 1960s and 1970s. Men with earrings would still be a punchline as would be tattoos. These minor details do date but not so much that we don’t understand Dorothy’s issues.

We are then introduced to another character, Rose Nylund (White), who comes into the kitchen from another entrance (possibly the garage – again, the floor plan of the house is science fiction). Her occupation is quickly noted as a grief counselor when Dorothy cracks a sarcastic retort to Rose’s weary sigh, “What a day, one sad person after another.” Dorothy snipes back, “you work at grief counseling, what do you expect comedians?”

In the midst of this exchange, we get the third Golden Girl, Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan), who sidles into the kitchen wrapped in a mink stole. Sharp-eared fans will note that McClanahan hasn’t yet adopted the lyrical – though totally hokey – Southern accent at this point. She’s still speaking closer to her natural Oklahoma accent.

As Blanche saunters across the kitchen to the kitchen, Rose naively asks if Blanche is going out, and yet again, Dorothy swoops in with another sharp barb, “No, she’s going to sit here, where it’s 112° and eat enchiladas.”

It’s important to note that in just over a minute, Harris does a lot with the writing, not only giving each actress her entrance, but she does a solid job in establishing the comic rhythms of the characters. It’s remarkable work – so much is packed into so brief a sequence but we already know who these characters are. A lot of the credit is due to the actresses as well. Bea Arthur’s perpetually disgusted bark and stingy delivery lets us know that Dorothy’s the wisecracking heavy; Betty White’s wholesome, chipper demeanor clues us into Rose’s sunniness; and McClanahan has already been able to establish her character’s sauciness by simply mincing with sass across the set.

l to r: Rue McClanahan, Bea Arthur, Betty White

The other great thing about the way Harris opens up the show is that we immediately enter the episode’s main plot: without any superfluous trimming, we’re smack dab in the middle of the story: Blanche is dating a guy named Harry. That may seem like a very lean plot, but The Golden Girls manages to be quite subversive in its day by representing older women with vital and vibrant love lives (this is particularly true of Blanche).

Because the episode is a pilot, Harris has garnished the script with a lot of quips, giving most of them to Dorothy. It’s a little joke-heavy and Dorothy’s character comes off as a bit of a churl, but even if it’s a tad too much, the jokes are still very funny (“Oh it is wonderful dating in Miami. All the single men under 80 are cocaine smugglers).

But Harris isn’t contented to just make this a sitcom without some feeling or depth. Part of what makes The Golden Girls so special is that it was a show from a new and novel perspective. Rarely has television presented audiences with the POV of older, yet still vibrant women. In that regard, the show was groundbreaking. Because of the ages of the ladies, Harris is able to pen some very good, very candid ruminations of aging that wouldn’t normally be found on network sitcoms. The characters are very honest about aging and its pitfalls, particularly in a society that prizes youth among its women.

As the plot moves forward, we get more details. The main detail being that Blanche is expecting a marriage proposal which then leads to the question of what will the other girls do once Blanche is married. It’s here that we get more insight into how the girls found each other and more importantly, what this living situation means for them. Part of the issues these women face is being single and in late middle-age means that society has narrowed the variety of options for them. These women found a situation that works: a lovely home in Miami, roommates that will be there for you, and a gay cook (who disappears after the first episode). Rose spins a bit out of control in existential dread when she realizes that it’ll all go away when Blanche is married, thereby threatening her safe existence that she seemingly and luckily stumbled upon.

About 7 minutes into the show’s pilot, and Harris has done a lot for us. She’s explained the premise of the show, introduced all of the characters, and if that wasn’t enough, she also opened up the plot for the week. As an addition to the mix, we get the final Golden Girl, Estelle Getty as Sophia Petrillo. Sophia is Dorothy’s mother and we learn that she’s been living in a retirement home, Shady Pines (another bit of Golden Girls trivia that becomes a recurring joke and a catchphrase). Getty is a consummate comic pro and completely immerses herself in the character. Though she’s playing a woman in her 80s, she was only 62 years old at this point, a year younger than her onscreen daughter.

Getty’s Sophia Petrillo is a joke machine with an arsenal of one-liners which informs the relationship between she and Dorothy. Arthur once enthused that the comic duo of Dorothy and Sophia is one of the greatest in TV history. She’s not wrong: just the visuals: the redwood-tall Dorothy towering over the lilliputian Sophia. Sophia’s irascible attitude is explained away in the pilot as a resultant of a stroke which debilitated the part of her brain that filters her thoughts (an explanation that smacks of bullshit, a bit, if I’m honest) But Sophia is mean. Upon seeing Blanche done up for the evening, Sophia declares that she “looks like a prostitute.” And her verdict of Harry? “He’s a scuzzball.” Much of the show’s most popular moments in the show are Sophia’s cutting put downs.

Estelle Getty

Once Sophia enters the group’s dynamic, we then get the rest of the plot which culminates in an almost-wedding. You see, the conflict Harris has set up for her characters is Rose’s continued angst about the wedding. She’s not only unhappy about potentially losing her home but she also harbors some misgivings about Harry which she cannot explain. In Blanche’s bedroom (with the iconic banana leaves wallpaper), Rose repeatedly tries to warn Blanche from marrying Harry but is thwarted by Dorothy in a series of brilliantly-choreographed physical attacks, which include Dorothy swiftly flinging a protesting Rose into a closet.

Of course, we expect the wedding not to go forward because this is only the first episode. And the resolution is simple: Harry is a bigamist wanted in a number of states (the cop who has to break the news to a heartbroken Blanche is a pre-Designing Women Mesach Taylor). Blanche sequesters herself in her bedroom in grief. Harris gifts McClanahan with some lovely lines, including the distressing, “I feel like such an old fool, not just a fool, but an old fool.” The old bit is important because it foreshadows a series-long obsession Blanche has with aging. Of the characters, she’s the most vain and vulnerable about her age, despite being the youngest.

The final act of the show is set on the lanai (another integral part of Golden Girls lore). The girls are worried about the isolated Blanche who finally makes an appearance after hiding for some time. It’s here that Harris brings in another important theme of the show: family. The Golden Girls is a family, domestic sitcom but one that queers the idea of families, by creating an alternative family of friends. Golden Girls wouldn’t be the first to do this: I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show were shows that presented viewers with families of friends. When Harris introduces this notion of friends-as-family, it’s a very sweet moment, one that is recurring throughout the rest of the show’s history. Blanche assumed she would be devastated and unable to move beyond her pain, but then she stumbled upon happiness, unexpectedly. She opens up to her housemates, admitting that she suddenly discovered she was happy because of them. “You’re my family,” she says, reaching out and gripping Rose’s and Dorothy’s hands, “And you make me happy to be alive.” It’s an open moment that is beautifully performed by McClanahan and the others.

l to r: McClanahan, White, Arthur –
in a scene that would appear in the opening credits

Harris wraps up the pilot by having the girls celebrate their friendship by leaving for lunch at Coconut Grove. This sort of ending would be repeated throughout the series: the girls fall into each other’s arms happily as the episode winds to an end. The pilot also establishes a rhythm that becomes familiar for the show: the ladies are presented with some kind of problem, they come up with a solution, they will tease and make fun of each other, and before long, they will hug and profess themselves best friends.

Thank you for being a friend: The Golden Girls chronicles: a deep dive into the four ladies from Miami

The group hug, a staple on The Golden Girls (Buena Vista Television)

Alongside with my Friends project (which I will pick up in the new year) I’m introducing The Golden Girls chronicles. It’s a weekly look at The Golden Girls, going through each episode, starting from its 1st season onto the final season, its seventh. For those who are deep into Golden Girls lore, you’ll know that there are three spin-offs from The Golden Girls: The Golden Palace, Empty Nest, and Nurses. None of the shows is as great as The Golden Girls, though Empty Nest was charming with great performances from Soap star Richard Mulligan, Park Overall, and Kirsty McNichol. None of the spin-offs is easy to access, so I’ll probably focus on The Golden Girls itself – which is fine because in the seven seasons, it produced 180 episodes.

This project is a valentine to The Golden Girls because I love the show. It’s a funny programme with an excellent cast of comediennes. Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty make up one of the greatest sitcom ensembles in TV history (honest, these four ladies kill it in each episode). It’s a very good show with on of the best pilots, which did a great job of introducing the show. It’s also surprisingly consistent, maintaining a level of quality for most of its seven years, with maybe some solid-if-not great episodes sprinkled throughout.

The Golden Girls is an interesting show in that it debuted in the 1980s when the sitcom was struggling to make a come back after being declared dead. Another NBC show was credited to reviving the genre is The Cosby Show, but The Golden Girls was just as instrumental in making sitcoms popular again. The numbers the show got feel insane now – some 30 million people tuned in weekly to watch the shenanigans of these four middle-aged women who made a life for themselves in Miami.

What makes The Golden Girls such a strong show is that it’s very well written and the cast is wonderful. The group of writers attached to the show – which included a young, pre-Desperate Housewives Marc Cherry – knew how to create four distinctive voices, simultaneously going ‘broad’ but still remaining realistic. The characters were often silly and leaned into almost-cartoony slapstick, the writers would always make sure that the episodes – regardless of the loony convolutions – still have a kernel of credulity and credibility. It’s a show that doesn’t reinvent or pioneer the sitcom genre: aesthetically, it looks like every standard multi-cam sitcom, with sets spread out vertically like a stage. The characters come on, announce their lines with punchy punchlines to the merriment of the studio audiences. Like a lot of 80s sitcoms, there are catchphrases, but they’re not obnoxious catchphrases that reduce the characters into a quotable line, but instead, they are quirks of the idiosyncratic characters.

The Golden Girls debuted in September of 1985 and ran on NBC for seven years, ending in May of 1992. As a show that went through the 1980s and into the 1990s, the scripts covered some topical issues like AIDS, queerness, nuclear war (yes, The Golden Girls tackled nuclear war), homelessness, and because the show centered on older women, issues about the elderly and healthcare were also introduced into the episodes. Were all of these ‘very special’ episodes handled with grace? No – some of them were a bit heavy-handed (there’s an episode about homelessness that has a particularly mawkish sequence scored to “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”) but for the most part, the writers were able to make their scripts strike that great balance of funny and thoughtful.

When the show debuted, its first season landed in the top 10 and stayed there for six of it seven seasons. It won 11 Emmys (including a trophy for each of its stars), along with other industry awards like 4 Golden Globes, and 5 American Comedy Awards (I wish those came back). It spun off three shows:

  • The sequel The Golden Palace that continued the show after Golden Girls ended with Bea Arthur’s departure; instead of the comfy rattan living room, we were transported to a trendy Miami hotel.
  • Empty Nest which started off as a failed backdoor pilot (with EGOT Rita Moreno), that focused on Richard Mulligan who plays a pediatrician pal of the four ladies.
  • Nurses which spun off from Empty Nest.

The characters made appearances on Nurses and Empty Nest and after The Golden Palace‘s one season, Estelle Getty joined the cast for its last two series.

The first episode I’ll review is the pilot, which does an excellent job of introducing the show with a minimum of extraneous exposition. It’s actually one of the best pilots that basically started the show with both feet running.

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