It might be hard to fathom that a show detailing the daily lives of the elderly could be racy and envelope pushing. When we think of older people, many of us are apt to imagine hearty, wholesome, grandparent-like characters. We don't, generally speaking, think of promiscuous 50-something Southern belles and wisecracking Sicilian grannies. It's just not in the repertoire.
When it premiered in the mid-80s, The Golden Girls was like of the Sex and the City of senior citizenry. Granted, it was preachier than SATC, particularly in later seasons, but they always padded those movie-of-the-week themed episodes with enough good laughs to keep us watching. It was edgy and controversial, portraying older women in a light not usually cast on them by popular media. They were the ultimate hip grannies. They were up on all the issues, the popular crazes, fashion--well, 80s and early 90s fashion. You have to give them a pass on that one, it was a dark time for the fashion industry, a desolate landscape littered with shoulder pads and oversized sweaters.
While this would be pretty tame for SATC, this type of thing was all but unheard of in the 80s and early 90s
This is probably as good a point as any to offer a caveat to my readers: I am something of a Golden Girls fanatic. I mean, I wrote an angry letter to Lifetime after they sold the syndicated reruns to WE and Oxygen, asking why they couldn't keep my favorite show on a channel I get on the TV in my bedroom? That's borderline cat-lady behavior, I know, but I just need to get my fix. I've seen every episode dozens of times, I could probably recite the jokes right along with Dorothy, Blanche, Sophia, and Rose. There's a sort of timeless quality about the humor that can draw you in again and again, even if it may not be enough to impel you to write an angry letter to the proprietors of a popular women's TV network. That's reserved for the loyalest of us Goldies.
That's not to say the show wasn't without its pitfalls. Golden Girls, throughout its 7-year run, was chock-full of cheap tricks. I've never seen a program with more clip shows. It's almost as if at the laziest point of a season, the writers would spin the giant wheel o' arbitrary themes, dig up archive footage, and throw together a half-assed episode with all of seven minutes of new material. There were even two-part clip shows, which really was pushing it. How long can Blanche deliberate over selling her house to a Japanese businessman before they run out of wistful household memories to reminisce over? Apparently an entire hour, which in TV time is equivalent to something like a month.
Really, the light premises of these clip shows are borderline absurd
And like any good comic writers, Golden Girls' staff never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Continuity was at best an afterthought and at worst completely abandoned. The principals all had pretty shaky backstories subject to change for the sake of a particularly potent joke. Their children, ex-husbands, and current beaus were generally interchangeable. The major components of their life stories usually remained intact, but these secondary characters were often portrayed by different actors in different episodes.
Worse yet was the recycling of the same actors to play two completely different roles, as was the case with Harold Gould, who played both an early-season date to Rose named Arnie and her later long-term boyfriend Miles. We can only assume there are only so many old people with a sense of humor out there, we had to keep cycling the same ones through to get a laugh.
The characters were simultaneously multifaceted and cartoony. Each with their specific stereotyped character traits and everyone played the butt of a joke as a one-note player, but each got a fair amount of additional development that still allowed us to feel empathy for them. Yes, we had the dumb blonde, the smart sarcastic one, the maneater, and the wise old firecracker, yet we often got to see other sides of each character. For the most part, though, they were at their funniest when they played it straight in their preassigned roles. Our major players are:
Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur), a divorced substitute teacher with a biting wit and penchant for sarcastic humor. Growing up, she was my humor icon. She's quick-witted, sharp, and has impeccable timing. Even with all this stacked in her favor, she doesn't quite have it all together. She got pregnant out of wedlock after her prom and married the guy, Stan, who her mother Sophia appropriately dubbed a yutz. He cheated on her, they got divorced, and she works as a substitute teacher. It's not exactly the stuff childhood dreams are made of. You have to admit though, she has the best one liners:
Rose Nylund (Betty White), a proud St. Olaf native and recent widow. She's the epitome of the dumb blonde, with charming naivete and gullibility. Rose is the queen of long-winded, non-sensical stories brimming with Nordic charm, or as it's known to all you non-Minnesotans out there, craziness. She's good-hearted and relentlessly upbeat, which is almost enough to make you forgive her for the god-awful stories. Almost.
Blanche Devereux (Rue McClanahan), an Atlanta transplant who, ahem, enjoys the company of men. Or, as Sophia might say, she's a total slut. Blanche is the original Samantha. She's a sex-crazed older woman generally uninterested in being tied down. Well, not in that way. In one episode, I heard she's got handcuffs. By the way, if you've never read McLanahan's My First Five Husbands and the One That Got Away, I highly recommend it. You can borrow my copy.
Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty), Dorothy's elderly mother who previously suffered a stroke and managed to escape her "imprisonment" in the Shady Pines retirement home to come and live with her daughter and friends. Sophia is full of old-world charm, a Sicilian with all sorts of cockamamie stories that begin with, "Picture it: Sicily." Her Italian language skills are pretty suspect for someone who allegedly grew up in the old country, but it all boils down the tried-and-true Hollywood formula of treating real-life Jews and Italians as interchangeable casting-wise.
The show initially blamed her lack of filter to her stroke, but it was obviously just an excuse to let an 80-year old get away with absolute ridiculousness. Granted, Getty was actually younger than Arthur, who played her daughter on the show, but they made her up fairly convincingly. In the later seasons, at least.
The show had scandalousness and hilarious wit, so its no surprise two of its writers went on to create Desperate Housewives (Marc Cherry) and Arrested Development (Mitchell Hurwitz). More than that, though, it wasn't afraid to tackle issues. Golden Girls took on HIV, the importance of safe sex, sexual harassment, drug abuse, homelessness, teenage pregnancy, and when they ran out of high-caliber issues, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
It all sounds pretty heavy for a comedy, and it was. The show hit that unique balance of humorous irreverence and substantive issue exploration that made it a pioneering comedy for its time. I can almost guarantee that if you saw it as a child, most of the jokes went totally over your head. Lucky for you, it remains on constant rerun. Or, you could come over and watch the episodes my DVR is currently 74% full of. Take your pick.