[11 June 2009]
Designing Women is a show that profoundly changed my life. After a series of misadventures, I had just boomeranged from Washington D.C. to Montgomery, Alabama where my unfortunate parents were stationed. In an effort to bring me out of a massive, self-pitying, sulk fest, the likes of which only 20-something’s can muster, my father suggested we watch a great new show.
As I sat watching, various thoughts entered my mind. “These ladies are old.” “My God, this is funny.” “Julia Sugarbaker is hot as hell!” I was hooked and I continued to watch the show throughout its run.
A year and a half later, I met a stunning and sophisticated actor at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. She was older than me but beautiful, intelligent and kind. She was also so fierce that grown men wept at the thought of her wrath. She was like someone who might have walked off the set of Designing Women. I was fascinated, and two decades later, I’m still happily married to her. Much as I’d like to claim full credit for the smartest move I ever made in my life, I have to admit that I owe Dixie Carter and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason a profound debt.
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the creator of Designing Women, came up with the idea as a result of being fed up with the Hollywood stereotypes of Southern women. They are, in Bloodworth-Thomason’s words, “oversexed romance novel queens, ignorant country bumpkins and good-hearted whores.” (Southern women fare far better in literature, a field in which southerners have considerable clout.) Taking her idea to CBS, Bloodworth-Thomason not only got a meeting, she got a series and a free hand in running her show.
The result is the best television show of the ‘80s and early-‘90s. Brilliantly cast, the show centers around the ladies of Sugarbakers, an interior design firm in Atlanta, Georgia. Dixie Carter plays Julia Sugarbaker, a sophisticated widow from old money. Delta Burke is her younger sister, Suzanne, an ex- beauty queen and ex-wife of many pageants and several husbands. Annie Potts plays Mary Jo Shively, a divorced mother of two and suburban everywoman, while Jean Smart plays Charlene Frazier, a poor girl from Arkansas who’s moving up in the world.
The show benefits from the great intimacy that immediately sprung up amid the cast and between the cast and the writer. Rarely is such a great symbiosis between the creator and the performer achieved. The result is that each episode is more than an episode of a sitcom, but a drama in its own right. So every week the lucky viewer had southern drama, peppered with sitcom humor—not unlike Steel Magnolias—but condensed down to 22-minutes.
Designing Women has a quality that enables Jean Smart to tell stories and speak with an enthusiastic yet diffuse nebulousness that isn’t encountered north of the Ohio River. Since she grew up in Seattle, Smart not only deserved an Emmy for her role as Charlene, she deserved an honorary degree in linguistics. This quality also allowed Bloodworth-Thomason to craft the page long monologues, which Carter would use to such devastating effect.
Originally written for one episode, the one page monologue was something Carter initially wasn’t sure she could pull off. Her “And that’s the Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia!” speech in the first show was so successful (it spread through the gay bars like wildfire) that such monologues became a fixture of the show.
This is really good stuff, made better by the frankness with which the show deals with various issues affecting women’s lives. The “Beauty Myth” is examined. The difficulties of getting laid when you are divorced with children are thoroughly discussed. A disturbingly funny discussion on the economics of prostitution versus marriage occurs. All of the various aspects of being a southern woman are examined from all sorts of angles.
Written by women, the show is able to expand the scope of the drama by illustrating the vulnerabilities of each of the cast members. This brings a rare fullness to the viewers experience in that while we say we love people for their good qualities, sometimes we love them more for their weaknesses. Charlene trusts everyone that she meets. Mary Jo can’t bear to displease anyone. Suzanne dreads the day that she isn’t desired and the weaknesses of Julia’s complex psyche are a true delight.
“Delightful” is the word that best describes Designing Women. Somehow this show manages to be simultaneously a fresh breath of feminism and the last gasp of the New South. For who can fail to take delight in a show that is as tough, smart and warm hearted as the women that it portrays?
For those who are weary of Desperate Housewives or Real Housewives, this DVD set is a welcome sanctuary. The special feature is a cast reunion from 2006, which is quite good especially when the actors start ignoring the moderator and head off on their own conversation. Season Two will be on DVD in August. I eagerly await.