In a recent New York Times article, The Golden Girls creator Susan Harris said she “just always preferred to write about older people. They have stories to tell, and the young ones don’t” (“Comedy’s Golden Training Ground,” 2 January 2005). While Harris has written and produced more than her share of sitcom classics (Soap, Benson, Empty Nest), it’s easy to disagree with her on this one. The Golden Girls is not about “older people,” but about all of us.
Featuring a quartet of indelible women characters in a Miami share house in the mid-1980s — forthright New Yorker Dorothy (Beatrice Arthur), Southern belle Blanche (Rue McClanahan), dopey Midwesterner Rose (Betty White) and Dorothy’s sassy Italian mom, Sophia (Estelle Getty) — the series addresses multiple issues. During the first season, just out on DVD, only a few episodes focus specifically on older women’s concerns. That said, these episodes are absolutely the season’s most affecting, going for drama over comedy as they develop the four leads well beyond the limits of most sitcom “types” and underlining the series’ “universal” appeals.
Consider Rose’s troubles in the episode, “Job Hunting.” Unable to find work, she experiences a real fear that, at 55, she may in fact be useless in the fast-paced 1980s. If her concern that she’ll be unable to support herself into old age is age-specific, her basic desire to find decent and challenging work isn’t. In “Second Motherhood,” Blanche chooses to end a relationship with a father of two young children, because she feels that now, at her age, she should be living for herself, not raising children. Again, this is a situation hardly unique to older women. The series, too, often makes a point of challenging age barriers, with 80-year-old Sophia at times finding herself in similar situations — anxious about men, feeling trapped by the limits of her age — as Dorothy, who is 20-some years younger.
So many of these early episodes feature funny (if slightly familiar) and often poignant plots: in “Adult Education,” Blanche’s morality is tested when a teacher (Jerry Hardin) hits on her, promising good grades in exchange for sex. In “That Was No Lady,” Dorothy is tested when a man with whom she falls deeply in love (Glen, played by Alex Rocco) turns out to be married. And then in “The Triangle,” Dorothy’s hot new doctor boyfriend, Elliott (Peter Hansen), makes a pass at Blanche. Each of these episodes is handled reasonably predictably with everyone hugging before the end credits — but it’s what happens before the hug that makes the show remarkable.
In the “The Triangle,” Blanche’s revelation that Elliott is a snake ends with Dorothy labeling her friend self-centered and amoral. The tension during Dorothy’s jealousy-induced rage is unexpected and uncomfortable: “You could never be a real friend to another woman,” she tells Blanche, “You know why? Because you’re a slut.” Such misunderstanding between friends is typical for a sitcom, but the drama here — in Winifred Henry’s excellent script and magnificent performances by Arthur and McClanahan, is unexpected and uncomfortable. Of course, the truth comes out, apologies are exchanged and normalcy is restored, but not without the viewer getting a peek beneath their usual, comedic relationship.
With The Golden Girls, it’s all about authority. Whereas sitcom women of the era were more often than not standard wives and mothers (or, in a frightening number of cases, maids), these “girls” bring a bit of everything to the table. They’re wives, ex-wives, daughters, mothers, and aunts, and as such have specific, wise views on womanhood. Though they make common mistakes, they are also experts at life. When Dorothy lectures conservative Rose on her decision to keep seeing married Glen, in “That Was No Lady,” she’s speaking from her own experience with lasting pain. Dorothy’s usually strong demeanor lapses in this episode, and she goes against her better judgment out of a need to escape her depression over her husband’s leaving her for a younger woman after 38 years of marriage (Rose and Blanche are both widows). When Rose criticizes her for even considering carrying on the relationship, Dorothy tells her: “I tried to do the right thing, but the right thing was not for me.”
It’s in this moment, too, that Blanche reveals her own understanding of Dorothy’s decision. She asserts, “[I’m] not passing judgment. Rose, sometimes life doesn’t work out the way we’d like it to. Sometimes we have to grab our happiness where we can get it.” Suddenly, the laughter is over and viewers are reminded that though the women come across as independent and even stubborn, most everything they do is based on this idea, that they understand regret as well as joy. They are not always sprightly as they enter old age, but they’re steadfastly making sure they do whatever they can to hold on to what they’ve got — especially their friendships with each other.
Their sense of loss and desire speaks to Harris’ point about the particular “stories” older women can tell. It’s not that Blanche, Dorothy, Rose, and Sophia have experiences that are more interesting than those of younger women. It’s that their perspectives are different. Their advice — dished out to each other or the seemingly endless numbers of relatives and friends parading through their home in this first season — reveals dignity and shrewdness. They’ve still got a lot to learn, but as Sophia mocks Dorothy, “You kids. You reach middle age and you think you know everything.” Well, almost everything.