This past July, the original cast members of Designing Women were reunited by Lifetime Television, which is currently airing the popular situation comedy that ran on CBS for seven seasons (1986-1993). Meshach Taylor hosted the special, in which he and his former co-stars — Delta Burke, Dixie Carter, Annie Potts, and Jean Smart — reminisced, shared behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and revealed their favorite on-screen moments. The reunion was followed by five standout episodes, which Columbia TriStar has now released on a single DVD.
The collection highlights some of the show’s funniest and most touching episodes, courtesy of its talented cast and the witty scripting by creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. Following the examples set by Norman Lear (All in the Family and Maude), who used the sitcom to address sociopolitical issues, and Susan Harris, whose Golden Girls celebrated female friendship, Bloodworth-Thomason’s comic style blends social commentary and feminist humor. Using her four female characters as her mouthpiece, she addresses topical issues (such as AIDS), as well as the daily challenges women face in a patriarchal society.
Designing Women focuses on the interior design firm of Sugarbaker & Associates, headquartered in the home of the smart, classy, liberal-minded, and outspoken Julia Sugarbaker (Carter). Helping Julia “make over” some of Atlanta’s finest homes are her younger sister, Suzanne (Burke), a vain, self-centered ex-beauty queen who lives off the alimony of her three ex-husbands; Mary Jo (Potts), a divorcee whose energy makes up for what she lacks in self-confidence; and Charlene (Smart), the firm’s sweet and somewhat naïve office manager. Rounding out the ensemble is Anthony (Taylor), the only regular male cast member, an ex-con who serves as the Sugarbaker’s courier and right-hand man.
The series pilot, in which Suzanne dates Mary Jo’s philandering ex-husband Ted (Scott Bakula), established Designing Women‘s differences from other sitcoms. Instead of generic plot twists or physical humor that dominated female buddy series like I Love Lucy and Laverne & Shirley, the characters here express their opinions on everything from current events to how much they hate men’s chattering in bed (or as Julia puts it, “discussing the whys and wherefores of who is going to be doing what to whom and for how long”).
As the series developed, the situation introduced at the start of each episode (Mary Jo contemplating breast enlargement in “Big Haas and Little Falsie,” Suzanne dealing with her weight gain in “They Shoot Fat People, Don’t They?) served as a catalyst for the women’s discussions about issues that mattered to them, namely, their bodies, sex, and men.
In “Reservation for Eight,” the women and their respective male companions have plenty to say about the opposite sex, when an avalanche disrupts their weekend ski trip and they find themselves with nothing to do but play cards, watch TV, and bicker. An episode of Oprah devoted to the differences between the sexes sparks a fierce debate among the characters: the women observe that men don’t listen, aren’t sensitive enough, and are ego-driven; the men say women are manipulative and overanalyze everything.
As always, outspoken Julia has the last word. Tired of women being blamed for all of the world’s ills, she reminds the men that they are the ones who “have done the raping and the robbing and the killing and the war-mongering for the last two thousand years… So, if the world isn’t quite what you had in mind, you have only yourselves to thank!!” As much as Bloodworth-Thomason is a feminist, she is also a realist who knows that the war between the sexes is a no-win situation (and not resolvable in a half-hour program). The episode concludes with a scene in which the men and women call a truce. No one speaks as the couples make their way to the dance floor.
The show was also the first sitcom to take on homophobia and AIDS (“Killing All the Right People”). AIDS hit close to home for Bloodworth-Thomason, whose mother died after contracting AIDS from a blood transfusion. During her mother’s illness, she witnessed firsthand the public’s prejudice against people, particularly gay men, battling the disease. Her experience was the motivation for this touching episode, in which the women are asked by a friend and fellow designer, Kendall Dobbs (Tony Goldwyn), who is dying of AIDS, to “design” his funeral.
The episode also addresses a related subject — condom distribution in public schools — when Mary Jo publicly defends the practice during a PTA debate. She’s inspired by Julia; when her snooty friend, Alma Jean (Camilla Carr), tells Kendall pointblank that AIDS is “God’s punishment” of gays, Julia responds, without hesitation, “Killing all the right people.” It’s a gut-wrenching moment brought to a satisfactory conclusion when Julia kicks Alma Jean out of her house, but not before calling her a hypocrite and telling her that if “God was giving out sexually transmitted disease to people as punishment for sinning, then you would be at the free clinic all the time! And so would the rest of us!”
Although some may fee Julia (and Bloodworth-Thomason’s) politics lean a little to far to the left and their weekly tirades are a tad too preachy, The Best of Designing Women affirms that when the right elements are in place, a sitcom can make us laugh while serving slices of social commentary on the world-at-large. Sex and the City is perhaps the only show on the air that comes close. But compared to the women of Designing Women, Carrie Bradshaw and company are far too self-involved, even by Suzanne Sugarbaker standards, to put down their martini glasses and take notice of what’s really going on.