Celebrate 30th Anniversary of DESIGNING WOMEN on getTV
Television situation comedies typically fall into two categories: those set primarily in a workplace and those focusing on a family unit. A few have merged the two, but it’s extremely difficult to do. Designing Women, the 1986-1993 comedy set at an interior design firm in Atlanta, pulls off this storytelling hybrid as well as any show in the medium’s history. Created by Emmy nominee Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the show stars actress and singer Dixie Carter as Julia Sugarbaker, fiercely outspoken founder of Sugarbaker and Associates. Delta Burke plays her younger sister Suzanne, who is also Julia’s petulant silent partner and chief antagonist.
Julia – nicknamed “The Terminator” because of her impatience with sexists and bigots and tendency to give them all an earful – is a widow in her late 40s with a college-aged son. She’s classy, smart and, despite coming from a privileged “Old South” family, remarkably down-to-earth. Suzanne is thirty-ish (she’d say 29), frequently divorced, and childless. A former beauty queen with a taste for older wealthy men, Suzanne is self-involved, irresponsible, and unabashedly politically incorrect. The siblings lock professional and familial horns in an office that also happens to be Julia’s elegant Victorian home, further blurring the lines between “workplace” and “family."
Two other women partner with the sisters and become “Sugarbakers” themselves. Annie Potts plays Mary Jo Shively, a recently divorced designer with a teen daughter and young son. The fourth member of the quartet is Jean Smart as Charlene Frazier, the adorably naïve office manager from Poplar Bluff, Missouri (also the birthplace of Bloodworth-Thomason). The lone male working with them is deliveryman Anthony Bouvier (Meshach Taylor), whose “unfortunate incarceration” during his teen years is the subject of many a tale. Julia refers to Suzanne and Antony as “Lucy and Ethel” early in the series, and the disparate duo’s frequent misadventures and prickly banter are a series highpoint. And in an Emmy-nominated performance, Alice Ghostley recurs throughout the seasons as flighty family friend Bernice, the closest Designing Women gets to a “wacky neighbor.”
Though the series celebrates strong women, there are plenty of formidable men on hand for the occasional battle of the sexes. Rounding out the ensemble are Hal Holbrook as Julia’s wily “gentlemen caller” Reese Watson, Gerald McRaney as Suzanne’s ex-husband Dash (usually referred to as “Dash Goff, the writer”), Richard Gilliland as Mary Jo’s boyfriend J.D., and Douglas Barr as Charlene’s soldier boyfriend (and later, fiancé) Bill Stillfield. In an unusual case of life imitating art, Holbrook and Carter were a couple off-screen (married in 1984). In addition, McRaney and Burke and Gilliland and Smart became couples in real life, thanks to meeting on the show.
Designing Women was occasionally dismissed during its original run as a middle-aged variation on The Golden Girls, but it was so much more. The Women broke ground with frank stories about mature sexuality, extra-marital relationships, birth control, body image, and illness. A Season Two episode even features a HIV-positive character at a time when the disease was still taboo in mainstream entertainment. Because of this, Designing Women was unlike most other sitcoms of the era. A number of episodes may make you cry, but I mean that in the best of ways.
Sure, it’s an ‘80s sitcom with all the big hair, shoulder pads, and absurd situations you’d expect (like Suzanne’s pet pig), but there’s a commitment to storytelling and truth in Designing Women that transcends punchlines. Most of the credit for that goes to Bloodworth-Thomason, who wrote half of the 160+ episodes (including all 22 installments in season two), a level of output that’s mostly unmatched in TV today. With that authorship came a singular, consistent, creative voice. Character development is front and center as we’re introduced to these women, watch them recover from death and divorce, meet new spouses, raise children, and start new lives. Designing Women is as much a continuing, ensemble drama with witty scripts as it is a sitcom. Repeated viewing pays off as we follow beloved characters on a journey that has a beginning and an end. In that regard, the series feels far more contemporary that other, sillier sitcoms of the era. It has a remarkable legacy as well - without Designing Women, there would be no Sex and the City and no Girls.
What works about Designing Women now is what worked in 1986: a talented ensemble of actors delivering funny, deeply resonant lines. It helps that the show was extraordinarily well-cast, even in one-shot roles. Comedian and author Lewis Grizzard plays Clayton, Julie and Suzanne’s half-brother, in an unforgettable performance (especially by a non-actor). Drag legend Charles Pierce shows up doing Bette Davis impersonations on a singles cruise. And almost every other minor role is thoughtfully cast, including guest stars like Scott Bakula and a young Tony Goldwyn. But at the core of Designing Women is a group of disparate women, believably and sympathetically written, portrayed with all the strengths and flaws of a real family.
Whether you remember the series fondly from your younger days or have always meant to check it out, getTV is the place to be! Designing Women now airs Monday through Friday late nights, with two episodes back-to-back starting at 3a ET. Set your DVR, VCR, or alarm clock! Or just stay up late with the Sugarbakers.
As Julia Sugarbaker might say, this Fall will be the season the lights went on in Georgia, thanks to getTV!
For more information, visit the getTV schedule.