My sister was amazing! She had an incredible life.
Jackie Collins became synonymous with glossy, titillating pop-pulp romance fiction. Like Danielle Steele, Barbara Cartland, or Judith Krantz, Collins used her his literary gifts to tell salacious sex romps. But she was more than just a phenomenally successful author, she was also a media figure, a woman who became a brand, an entity onto herself. In the 1980s, she was a ubiquitous figure in pop culture, her quick wit and intellect making her a very popular presence as a professional chat show guest. Initially known as “Joan Collins’ younger sister,” when she abandoned her indifferent dreams of movie stardom for herself and found her own niche as a writer, she transcended that limiting sobriquet and became a superstar in her own right. In Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story, Laura Fairrie tells the fascinating tale of a woman who created a persona that helped her sell over 500 million copies of her books.
Collins’ story starts in the UK, in London. She was the younger sister of the blindingly beautiful and talented Joan Collins. Born to a tyrannical and abusive father, Joe Collins, an agent who hid his brutish personality beneath a charming polish. Jackie was mistreated by her father who didn’t see much potential in her. Unlike the Elizabeth Taylor-like Joan, Jackie Collins wasn’t glamorous in the same way and as a result, she struggled to find her place. When Joan went to Hollywood and became a starlet, Jackie followed, a hanger-on, more than anything, someone who joined the glitzy showbiz parties, casting her sharp eye and making internal notes, absorbing the very specific life of mid-century Hollywood. These forays into celebrity social life would eventually become Jackie Collins a romance novel colossus.
The film does a fantastic job of presenting two Jackie Collinses: the slick, rehearsed public figure who can fling around tart one-liners with the aplomb of a stand-up comedian; and through friends and family, we see the private Jackie Collins, a damaged and ambitious woman who shouldered quite a bit of adversity in her life. The film’s structure is straight forward, largely chronological, as Collins’ story is charted from her humble origins in London to her glossy superstardom in Los Angeles. We see home video clips of Sidney Poitier, Michael Caine, Sandra Bullock all palling around with Collins. Fairrie also uses archival material of her subject appearing on television shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show exhibiting Collins’ enterprising way of hustling. Few authors were able to sell books the way she did because she was just as interested in the marketing side of books, actually selling her books, than most authors.
Though Jackie Collins’ stories told tales of ultra-feminine women, Fairrie finds the feminism in her life story. A self-identified feminist, Collins’ mantra was “girls can do anything” and she applied that slogan to her professional life, decrying sexist double standards that damned women who embraced their sexuality. Smarmy gross male talk show hosts and uptight prudes misunderstood her prescience and in one particularly disturbing sequence, Collins was forced to face young feminists who repeatedly and boorishly dragged her, accusing her of being a turncoat and a traitor to feminism.
The sequence that shows Collins pitted against younger feminists is important because it shines a spotlight on the tension and the contradiction in Collins’ public persona: though, Collins created a life and a career for herself, some argued that by using explicit sex (which bordered on erotica), she was merely doing what male authors have been doing to women for years: reducing them to sexual objects.
One thing that Fairrie does well is show the toil and calculation in took to create Jackie Collins. Though she gamely weathered the slings by her critics, privately they stung. Instead of allowing herself to be overwhelmed by the hate, Collins did something proactive and creative, she constructed a persona: Jackie Collins. It was a glossy, shellacked armor: the plastic surgery, the heavy makeup, the big hair, the linebacker shoulder pads, the leopard print (one of her daughters aptly described the visual spectacle as “quite startling”) – it was all a protective crust to deflect the nasty dings she weathered. The seemingly cosmopolitan and urbane Collins who easily glided through TV spots and talk shows was architecture. It was a smart creation, one that admittedly leaned into the campy somewhat vulgar aesthetic of 1980s romance pop fiction. As if to acknowledge this good-natured trashiness, Fairrie sprinkles throughout the film, scenes from a kitschy TV movie adaptation of Collins’ work, starring a bewigged Nicolette Sheridan.
It’s a testament to Fairrie’s interest in Collins as well as the subject’s own celebrity and place in pop history, that Joan Collins is relegated to a supporting role and doesn’t dominate the film’s story. Whilst it was fun for the press to play up the supposed rivalry between Joan and Jackie, the complicated relationship is treated far more interestingly in the film. Joan appears in the film to add context and history but she’s somewhat subdued (well, as subdued as Joan Collins can be). Their relationship was prickly but ultimately it came off as surprisingly normal – well, as normal as possible when you’re talking about Joan Collins and Jackie Collins. What Lady Boss exposed was a very normal and essentially loving relationship between the sisters that is speckled with rivalry that had been spiked with egos, money, and celebrity. (there’s a mordantly funny moment courtesy of a vintage TV spot with an oblivious Jane Pauley mistakenly introducing Jackie Collins as Joan Collins). But it’s refreshing to see that Fairrie doesn’t indulge reductive cartoony bitchy cat fighting. When Joan Collins parlayed her fame into writing some junky romance novels herself, the two women were pitted against each other, though in a far more direct way. Still, the tension doesn’t balloon into some War of the Roses-style tug of war.
Even if people aren’t a fan of Jackie Collins’ work, Lady Boss is a compelling watch. The Jackie Collins who emerges from this film is a very interesting and cool lady. The shiny wit, the overblown, drag-like persona, all of it was part of a fascinating woman. A woman who enjoyed unimaginable privilege but also a woman who worked hard and created everything for herself. It also showed a woman who created an empire but was still riddled with self-doubts, trauma, and vulnerability.
When I decided to do this feature for my blog, it was before Betty White’s passing. Part of the inspiration came from the magazines and blogs trumpeting White’s impending 100th birthday. I love The Golden Girls and was hoping for some kind of tie-in to her birthday. But her passing proved just how beloved she was – her popularity looked to be universal. Hardly anyone had a bad thing to say about her. With her death, people pointed out that the main case of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls are all gone. It’s a sad thing, but White’s life and career has been so full and accomplished that it’s hard to be sad for too long. So, because White has been in the news and I just started The Golden Girls chronicles, it feels as A Seat in the Aisle is pretty Betty White-heavy. But given how hilarious she was, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.
My last entry of The Golden Girls chronicles was a recap of the pilot. As I mentioned in that post, that pilot in particular, did a wonderful job of introducing the premise of the show. We knew the girls after only about 10 minutes. The only thing that didn’t work was the queer cook, Coco (James Levin), a character that was quickly jettisoned with no explanation.
The writer credited on this episode is the fabulous Winifred Hervey, an Emmy-winning TV vet who would go on to write, produce, and run shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In the House, The Steve Harvey Show, Half & Half. She also worked on the Soap spin-off Benson. Hervey is an important figure in The Golden Girls history, writing and heading some of the best episodes in the show’s run.
Like the pilot, “Guess Who’s Coming to the Wedding?” is an excellent episode that establishes some important recurring themes on the show and introduces a key recurring character, Stan Zbornak (Herb Edelman), Dorothy’s cheating ex-husband. We also get the contentious relationship between Stan and Dorothy – a great repeating joke in the series, particularly because it gives Bea Arthur to throw some really mean jabs (few actresses could toss off a cruel, withering insult like Bea Arthur).
The episode opens with Dorothy getting the house ready for her daughter, Kate’s arrival. As mentioned, Hervey quickly includes aspects of the show very early – and visiting relatives is huge for The Golden Girls. Except Kate’s visit isn’t merely to say hello, but she’s also introducing her mother and grandmother to her fiance, Dennis. The plot moves forward with Dorothy’s decree that Kate and Dennis will be married at the house (two episodes in, and we’re already seeing two weddings at the house)
When we’re introduced to Stan, it’s done in a way that’s immediately classic: Dorothy answers his ringing the doorbell and slams the door in his face before he can finish his sentence. He rings the bell again and when Dorothy answers it, he asks if she recognized him, to which Dorothy replied pleasantly, “Of course I recognized you. That’s why I slammed the door in your face.” She then zeroes in on his toupée, calling it a joke (Again, Stan’s vain attempt at hiding his baldness would be a endless source of humor for the rest of the show’s run).
Another element of the show that Hervey introduces in her script is Sophia’s hostility towards Stan. Their relationship is defined by her resentment of his leaving her daughter. On her good days, Sophia’s pretty mean biting, but her instincts get even worse when she’s angry; Estelle Getty does such a good job playing Sophia – her comedic timing and delivery is marvelous. When Stan suggests that they reminisce about old times, she shoots back, “No we can’t. I had a stroke. Luckily my memories of you were wiped out.”
Though the marriage is ostensibly the main plot, Hervey does something very smart with the script because the simmering subtext of the episode is Dorothy’s anger at not having closure after her marriage failed. It’s especially poignant because she’s hosting her daughter’s wedding, and the promise of a happy future can’t help but bring up bittersweet feelings. That’s what’s so great about The Golden Girls: there are layers to the characters’ feelings and emotions. Though Dorothy is thrilled that her daughter is getting married (to a doctor, no less!), the wedding has brought up feelings of hurt and anger.
In the midst of all these feelings, Hervey gifts Bea Arthur with a monologue. I was always on the fence about my reaction to the monologue. Facing Stan on the lanai, Dorothy brings up all these feelings of hurt and betrayal by summoning up memories of their troubled marriage, from their impoverished beginnings to when they struggled raising a family. Despite the pastel-colored environs, the monologue dips into kitchen sing drama territory, as Dorothy dramatically intones about the “lean years” when the two faced financial hardships. Arthur delivers this speech with flair and real emotion but I’ve always felt it too showboaty, stagey, and it feels out of place (almost like it’s trying to ape Arthur Miller).
Thankfully, Hervey ends the episode on a funny note, though: when an emotionally overwhelmed Dorothy admits that Stan will always be part of her life, Rose kindly agrees, pointing out their long, shared history. That’s not what Dorothy meant, as she lifts her hand to show off the toupee she yanked off his head.
Though all of the Golden Girls had their moments on this episode, this was a very Bea Arthur-focused episode. Usually, the show’s structure would pair the girls off: usually Dorothy with Sophia and Blanche with Rose, or if the show focused on a character, the other three would be the straight men. That’s what’s so great about a comedy ensemble, each person gets her turn to be the funny one. It’s quite remarkable that even though it’s only the second episode, “Guess Who’s Coming to the Wedding?” feels like a later season episode, given who quickly we learn to love the characters and get acclimated to the specific comic rhythms. In particular, Herb Edelman does a great job playing Stan (he would earn two Emmy nominations for his role), playing up craven, selfish impulses of the character.
Betty White was in television for so long, that she would often joke that she started out in silent television. Betty White was a leading lady of television, essentially becoming the epitome of the network sitcom. A wonderful and hilarious comedienne, White was a pioneer in the genre, creating iconic characters that were welcomed in homes of millions of viewers and innovating television production. There never seemed to have been a moment on television comedy that did not include Betty White. From her start in starring vehicle, 1953’s Life with Elizabeth (which White produced) to her last major regular role in TV Land’s comedy, 2010’s Hot in Clevland, White was a major figure on television, bringing joy and laughter to her devoted fans. Of course, the roles that made her iconic were her Emmy-winning turns as Sue Ann Niven in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rose Nylund in The Golden Girls. It’s Sue Ann and Rose that would make White a permanent presence in the canon of brilliant comedy acting.
Though born in the Midwest, White was a California girl. She had Los Angeles baked into her bones. That is why she is also television personified. She was there for the medium’s early days when it was still finding its footing and she was there when television posed a major threat to Hollywood and cinema. As television became ubiquitous, White became ubiquitous. She was an important thread in the fabric of American pop culture. She has not only been a giant in television comedy, but her sharp wit and fast mind made her a favorite on talk shows and game shows. Her sense of comedy made her a professional chat show guest, sending audiences and TV hosts into stitches with her barbed droll shtick.
To understand Betty White’s comedy is to first look at her. She was very pretty -wholesomely pretty. She had those sparkling blue eyes. Those adorable dimples. That halo of blond hair. That wide, friendly smile. When she entered a scene she exuded friendliness and warmth. But it’s that stiletto-sharp wit that undercuts that overwhelming adorableness; she’s sweet, but there’s a simmering edge underneath that angelic outer exterior. In talk shows, she was delightfully devilish in the way that she would play with double entendres and her continued subverting of her persona.
On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she played the acid-tongued Sue Ann Nivens, a foil for the sunny and happy Mary Richards. The writers struck gold when creating this villainous role in which White excelled. Stealing scenes, she reveled in being a nasty fly in Mary’s ointment. Sue Ann was a man eater, too, setting her sights on the male members of the fictional WJM station. In White’s hands, Sue Ann was a complex, yet riotous monster of comedy. She was able to drop one-liners and mean put-downs with a surgeon’s precision. That open, friendly, smiling visage was a perfect mask for her jealousies, pettiness, and contempt. It’s the contradiction that made Sue Ann work: though she looked like the angel from the top of the Christmas tree, she would cut people down with a delighted sadism that made her cruelty hilarious.
And as awful and terrifying as Sue Ann was, Rose Nylund was her polar opposite. The perennially naive and goofy Rose was often the brightest and funniest part of The Golden Girls (a gigantic accomplishment, given the level of talent in that genius cast) When playing Rose, White leaned hard into her comedic persona and made the character simultaneously a darling cartoon and believably human. Her monologues of St Olaf are stuff of legend and should be studied by aspiring comedic actors. When Rose launched into one of her St Olaf stories, regaling her best friends of the improbably absurd tales of her home, White was able to convince audiences that there was really such a place. And key to the success behind Rose is the warmth and kindness White was able to convey in her work.
In the last 20 years or so, White seemed to have been busier than ever, putting in recurring roles, stealing scenes in shows like Boston Legal or The Bold and the Beautiful, and triumphing at sketch comedy in her Emmy-winning hosting gig on Saturday Night Live. She earned new audiences, her legend growing with the aid of social media which crowned her America’s Favorite Grandma. Well into her 70s and 80s, she still appeared bright and sharp, her timing undimmed, as she traded barbs and quick jabs with the likes of Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Kimmel, or Jimmy Fallon. Audience delighted in the hilarious surprise of having a sweet, angelic, grandmotherly woman like Betty White throw off funny jokes that were naughty enough to entertain her fans but just tasteful enough to still maintain her dignity.
In an interview, Betty White professed her love of situation comedy acting, saying,
I love to work and I love to do series, situation comedy series…You go to work at 10 o’clock in the morning, you do what you love to do best, you rehearse all week, and then you play to an audience the end of the week.
Betty White wasn’t a stage actress or a movie star. Her specific talents were a perfect fit for television. Through her great work, she became an icon, the personification of television comedy.
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.
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:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Alongside with myFriends 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.