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.
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.