TV Rewind: When Designing Women Put Georgia on Everyone’s Mind
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Ensemble casts that are predominantly made up of women are certainly rare, and while The Golden Girls reigned supreme for much of the ‘80s, four more sassy ladies down in Atlanta arrived around the same time to give the Miami mothers a run for their money.
Airing on CBS from 1986 to 1993, Designing Women was a workplace sitcom centered around interior decorating firm Sugarbaker & Associates, led by the no-nonsense Julia Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter), whose lengthy speeches that cut to the bone as she was telling someone off earned her a fitting nickname, “The Terminator.” Along for the ride was her former beauty queen sister-come-salesperson Suzanne (Delta Burke), along with mild-mannered (for a while, anyway) designer Mary Jo Shively (Annie Potts), quirky office manager Charlene Frazier (Jean Smart), and the lone man in the hen house, deliveryman (later partner), Anthony Bouvier (Meshach Taylor). Sugarbaker family friend Bernice Clifton (Alice Ghostley) also pops up from time to time, known for—as the show frequently quips and according to Designing Women Online—her “arterial flow problem above the neck.” But the South itself, and certainly Georgia in particular, were in many ways just as important.
Thanks to its producers, the husband-and-wife team of Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason, countless references to all things Southern crept up in almost every single episode, adding just as much color and texture as a chintz throw pillow or an antique vase. Loaded with plenty of references that only someone innately familiar with the region would get, Designing Women made it a point to not only highlight stereotypical notions, but to poke fun at them. In addition, jabs were also made at the expense of their non-Southern counterparts, usually as a snappy retort to those categorizations. Much of the cast were native Southerners, with the exception of the Seattle born-and-bred Smart, so it was a refreshing taste of life imitating art. In fact, bringing attention to those Southern stereotypes was the primary plotline of the Season 3 episode, “Getting Married and Eating Dirt.” In it, Julia gets on her soapbox when the New York Times publishes an article salaciously claiming that Southerners were competing in dirt-eating competitions, and leaves one of her classic speeches with the Features desk referencing the plethora of dishes one would happily munch on down there.
As the show progressed, the characters’ development certainly evolved. Tough-as-nails Julia’s reputation as “The Terminator” would come out as a result of a personal affront to her liberal or moral sensibility, but overall she was kind and maternal, loving and protective; Mary Jo went from rather meek in her status as a recent porcée in the beginning of the series to a more assertive woman—even if she can’t hold her liquor too well; Charlene’s naivete, her large family, upbringing in rural Poplar Bluff, Missouri (Bloodworth-Thomason’s actual hometown) and humorously poor choice in men eventually evolve to lead her to a wonderful husband and child; Anthony’s desire to better himself as a former convict (always referred to as his “unfortunate incarceration”) not only brought him a partnership in the business, but a college degree. As for Suzanne, while she was certainly hilarious, she was self-absorbed, somewhat snobbish, immature and a bit inept, she was also known to rally when the situation warranted. In the Season 2 episode “Heart Attacks,” as Julia is agonizing over her longtime boyfriend’s hospitalization, Suzanne masterfully takes over—to the genuine surprise of the others. Charlene points this out to Mary Jo, making a comparison to one of the foremost Southern heroines in pop culture: “It’s amazing, isn’t it? Most of the time she goes around without the sense God gave a goose. Look at her. I mean, one crisis, and she’s Scarlett O’Hara.” They were embroiled in each other’s daily lives, and were so much closer than mere friends and coworkers.
Premiering only a year after The Golden Girls , the characters on Designing Women may have been significantly younger than their Floridian equivalents, but the overlap between the two comedies pops up frequently. Like The Golden Girls , the show tackled important topical issues, including domestic violence, sexual harassment, pornography, obscenity, AIDS, homophobia, and fatphobia, with the latter three the focus in the acclaimed episodes “Killing All the Right People” in Season 2 and “They Shoot Fat Women Don’t They?” in Season 4. The Golden Girls took a potshot at the series in its Season 3 episode “Three on a Couch,” through Sophia Petrillo’s dig at Atlanta’s very own Blanche Devereaux in the following quote: “You know what I can’t stand anymore? That phony accent of yours. What is this, Designing Women?” (Ghostley would also guest star in one episode as Stan Zbornak’s mother.)
But the best example of how the show created indelible pop culture moments is in the Season 1 episode, “The Beauty Contest.” Known as “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” speech, Julia’s storied reputation for not mincing words gets the spotlight while she’s backstage at a preteen beauty pageant, which was hosted by the current Miss Georgia World. When she overhears the host’s disparaging remarks about Suzanne, who previously held the title, Julia rips into her for not only ridiculing her sister, but fires off a succinct, forceful dossier of Suzanne’s accomplishments during that competition. While Julia is known for taking her duties as the elder sister very seriously, and continuously calls Suzanne out on her juvenile, selfish tendencies throughout the series’ run, come after anyone or any cause she cares about and she’ll get the last word—and tear you to bits doing it.
Following the departure of Delta Burke and Jean Smart at the end of Season 5 (Smart would guest star in the two-part premiere episode of Season 6) new characters were added. Jan Hooks was brought in as Charlene’s equally ditzy sister Carlene Dobber, Julia Duffy arrived as Sugarbaker cousin Allison (who proved to be extremely unpopular and was only on for that single season), and Judith Ivey was cast as Bonnie Jean “B.J.” Poteet, a Texas widow who is this close to winning Sugarbaker’s in a card game. Still, having been attached to the former characters, I feel that the show simply didn’t retain that magic that was evident whenever the original five were on screen.
While the two-part series finale paid full homage to Gone with the Wind , like Scarlett it tried very hard to deny that life as they knew it had come to an end. With the passing of several key and recurring characters, (Carter died in 2010, both Taylor and Hooks in 2014, and Ghostley in 2007) there is, sadly, no hope for a true continuation of this show. As long as time and syndication rights allow, for this native Northerner, Designing Women will always stand as a love letter to the South; its charm, its soul, its humor, its zest for life. It’s one of the ways I cut my teeth on Southern culture, many years before I got to visit the region. It simply enhances the South for me and is well worth a watch. To once again quote Julia Sugarbaker’s famous speech in “The Beauty Contest:” “just so you will know, and your children will someday know.”
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A Massachusetts native and ‘80s kid through and through, Katy Kostakis writes about Arts and Entertainment, Lifestyle, Food and Beverage, Consumer and Culture. Her work has appeared in Turner Classic Movies, Film Inquiry, YourTango, Wicked Local, and Patch. Check out her quips and rants on Twitter @KatyKostakis on Instagram @katykostakis, and on her website, katykostakis.com.
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