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Designing Women: Season Two

(CBS; US DVD: 11 Aug 2009)

Charlene: Those are Julia’s tickets to the art exhibit. She’s taking your mama.


Suzanne: (to Julia) Why didn’t you ask me?


Julia: Because you don’t like art.


Suzanne: I don’t like art. I don’t like history. I don’t know where y’all get this stuff.


Julia: Perhaps you have forgotten that time we were at the Louvre and you said, and I quote “I have no intention of being dragged to one more museum just to look at a bunch of pictures of small-busted, naked women with large butts lying around outdoors eating fruit.”


Mary Jo: Y’all ever feel like we’re playing fast and loose with our sanity?


Coming on the heels of the May release of the first season of Designing Women, Shout! Factory has quickly put out the series’ second season and here is where the show really gets going. This season finds the series becoming a ratings hit and offers more consistent, fleshed out characterizations that make for a more engaging show. 


Airing in the 1987/1988 television season, the series is very much of its time in all its ‘80s glory. Known for its snappy one-liners, liberal politics, and Julia Sugarbaker’s (Dixie Carter) eviscerating monologues, Designing Women was a series that focused on strong, albeit sometimes ridiculously over-the-top, women who were unafraid to make bold and sometimes unpopular decisions. 


The setting of the series in an Atlanta design business helps to separate the series from other somewhat similar premises, such as Golden Girls or even Sex and the City.  On the surface, all three of these shows have a core set of four female characters, all representative of different female archetypes.


But one of the things that sets the Designing Women ladies apart is their strong ties to the South. Oftentimes, the struggle between reconciling the Old South with the New South plays a large part in individual episodes, as well as serves as a larger theme throughout the series. 


Julia and Suzanne Sugarbaker (Delta Burke) are the owners of the design firm that employs Mary Jo Shively (Annie Potts) as a designer, Charlene Frazier (Jean Smart) as the office manager, and Anthony Bouvier (Meshach Taylor) as their delivery man. Julia and Suzanne are polar opposites in almost every way – Julia is intellectual and principaled while Suzanne is a shallow ex-beauty queen with a slew of ex-husbands. Mary Jo is sweet and smart and Julia’s frequent partner-in-crime when it comes to standing up for various social issues. Charlene rounds out the female foursome as the naïve romantic with a penchant for telling long, rambling stories. 


The four leads have an enviable chemistry and complement one another well.  Smart, in particular, is a standout. Her portrayal of Charlene’s naivete and her unending optimism could have quickly grown tiresome, but Smart plays her with more silliness than dumbness and she rarely plays the fool.


Issues with men play a large role this season, particularly since three of the four are in some stage of a serious relationship. Both Julia and Mary Jo had begun their relationships with Reese and J.D., respectively, in the first season and they continue to be a presence, if not always seen. 


Charlene’s new romance with Bill gets the most attention, especially as they quickly fall in love and then have to deal with his guilt in starting a relationship after the death of his wife. Suzanne’s relationship with her ex-husband, Dash Goff, is the focus of an early episode in the season. Burke gets the opportunity to portray Suzanne with more vulnerability than she usually shows and the episode is one of the season’s best.


In addition to the work and personal dramas that are at the center of the series, creator and writer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason was interested in spotlighting important social issues of the time, such as AIDS, interracial dating, and the role of women in religion, among others.


The episode on AIDS focuses on a young gay friend of the women who enlists their help in planning his funeral, while Mary Jo struggles with the issue of contraceptives in the schools at one of her PTA meetings. The episode goes out of its way to make the point that AIDS is not solely a threat to the gay community, but that anyone could be at risk, prompting Mary Jo to make that very case before the PTA. Bloodworth-Thomason’s own mother died of AIDS after becoming infected from a blood transfusion and she wrote and dedicated the episode to her memory. 


The role of the South in Designing Women involves balancing old stereotypes with more modern sensibilities. For instance, there is repeated mention of and disdain towards rednecks and hicks, while at the same time Charlene regularly regales the others with stories of eating possum and raccoon during her childhood in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. 


In one episode, Julia and Mary Jo lament the fact that they’re always the responsible ones and for a moment decide to leave work and go fishing, instead. The fact that ultra proper Julia and Mary Jo readily discuss the joys of baiting their own hooks is exactly the kind of glimpse into the world of modern women and southern tradition that the series did so well. 


Unfortunately, the DVD comes with no special features. However, the series’ blend of humor and drama, filtered through a modern southern lens makes for a highly enjoyable show. 


Carter, Burke, Smart, and Potts brought life to characters that could have easily been one-dimensional stereotypes. Bloodworth-Thomason wrote all the episodes in the second season, a feat almost unheard of today. Quick, smart, and frank, the writing offered the women the opportunities to let loose and create the kinds of characters that, 20 years later, still seem vibrant and alive.

Rating:

J.M. Suarez has been a contributing writer at PopMatters since 2008. She's happy to talk about TV any time, any place. Really.


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11 Jun 2009
A delightful combination of a fresh breath of feminism and the last gasp of the “New South”.
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