The second season of The Golden Girls, just out on DVD, has the same biting humor of the first. It has the same adults-only storylines, rapid-fire comedy, set-ups and punchlines all over the place. Blanche is still super-sexy, Rose is still a ditz, Sophia is as caustic as ever, and Dorothy, all grace and majesty, is still the brains in the Miami shared house. Even the frightful outfits remain, so bad they make the girls look as though they’re wearing pajamas day and night. Still, something’s missing. The same writers are putting words in the girls’ mouths, but this season, those words aren’t nearly as exciting as before.
The season’s first episode centers on Blanche, who is concerned that menopause will result in a loss of her sex drive and appeal. “I’m not dying,” she tells Rose, “but I might as well be… as far as I’m concerned, this is the end of my life.” There is discussion throughout of “the change,” driving home the various reasons that Blanche should not concern herself with something Dorothy, Rose and Sophia assure her is natural and, for the most part, a relatively uncomplicated process.
Written by series creator Susan Harris (credited on this episode as Susan Harris Witt), this first episode, entitled “End of the Curse,” is an example of the best moments in season one. A character is given a genuine problem and sets about solving it, thus doing so for viewers of similar vintage and opinion who may be experiencing the same. But, it doesn’t just school viewers on a specific women’s issue — it also develops the character around which the storyline is based. Blanche fears seeing her mother’s face every time she looks into a mirror, she fears losing her attractiveness, thus risking her chances of finding a companion (“Now my only hope is to become an intellectual and find a retired Jew,” she tells her doctor). Most of all, she fears losing her identity, which she has managed to wrap so tightly to her sexuality that, in her mind, one can’t exist without the other.
This kind of direct confrontation with differing ideas about women aging dwindles after this episode, making way instead for a barrage of convoluted situations in which the girls make jokes at each other’s expense. What was an innovative and challenging premiere ends up a series of repeated jokes and forced one-liners.
In a show like The Golden Girls, which can be exceedingly smart, this kind of writing just feels lazy. The show’s principal scribes are the same as the first year (Harris, Winifred Hervey, Barry Fanaro, Kathy Speer, Mort Nathan, Terry Grossman), and yet they seem to have lost the grip they had on their characters. In fact, just three of the season’s 26 episodes call to mind that excellent first episode and first season. “The Stan who Came to Dinner,” “Whose Face is This, Anyway?”, and “Son-in-Law Dearest” feature plots that affect Dorothy, Rose and Blanche as they would most women in their 50s, and do it with sensitivity and style. “Whose Face is This, Anyway?” sees Blanche again querying her sex appeal as she grows older, this time as she considers plastic surgery to keep up with the tucked and toned friends from her past with whom she meets up at a reunion: “I don’t mind growing older,” she tells her plastic surgeon, “just as long as I always look the same.”
It’s similar in theme to the season opener, and again does everything right. It blends high tension with belly laughs, and the sentiment suits the show’s focus. “The Stan Who Came to Dinner” does the same thing, with Dorothy once and for all discovering the level of her ex-husband’s (Herb Edelman as Stan) infidelities. “Son-In-Law Dearest” goes even further with its drama as Dorothy attempts to resist an inclination to compare Stan to her son-in-law, Dennis (Jonathan Perpich), when she discovers Dennis has been unfaithful to her daughter, Kate (Deena Freeman). “I can live with his apology,” Kate tells Dorothy. “I don’t want to end my marriage over this.” Dorothy disagrees emphatically, causing Kate to regret bringing her problem to her mother in the first place.
The writers, for the most part, have opted to steer well clear of lesson-filled repartee for most of the season, substituting silly sitcom gaggery for smartness. The girls find themselves in all manner of ridiculous situations this season — they wind up stranded on an island in “Vacation,” all dating the same man unbeknownst to each other in “The Actor,” and even acting as participants in a police stakeout in “To Catch a Neighbor.”
Even some of the more serious attempts at groundbreaking TV fail due to the tendency to go for the joke. In “Isn’t it Romantic?” Dorothy becomes concerned when her gay friend Jean (Lois Nettleton) falls for Rose. The stage is set here for deliberation on late-life-lesbianism, and how Jean faces the same problems of moving on when a relationship ends as Dorothy and her friends. No matter how by-the-book the outcome of such a situation (it’s a sitcom after all), the attempt alone is remarkable. Still, Rose’s involvement lessens the impact of the episode, which goes no further in exploring the complexity of the situation from Rose’s standpoint beyond her confessing to “not understand[ing] these kinds of feelings.”
Such uninspiring handling of a potentially powerful issue is very un-Golden Girls — at least the first season Golden Girls. It could be argued, though, that this is a comedy show, and is ultimately about laughs. But these laughs aren’t the knowing, wink-wink chuckles that made the show so great. They’re about piano-playing chickens and mistaking the word “lesbian” for “Lebanese.” It’s disappointing that the writers substitute the show’s highbrow comedy, derived from experience, for such triteness.