There’s a moment in that old body-switching classic, Like Father, Like Son when Kirk Cameron’s character, Chris, is on a date with the hottest girl in school. She takes him to a dingy club, complete with punks, skanks, and Autograph loud and live on stage. Chris — with his 50-year-old doctor dad’s brain in his body — is horrified. At one point, he turns to his date and shouts over the din, “These chords are all very similar.”
That exchange kept repeating itself in my head throughout much of the The Golden Girls‘ third season DVD (including still more superfluous highlights-as-extras “bonus” features). Though still bitingly funny, this season further highlights the quality deterioration following the show’s first season. Jokes and storylines have been recycled to the point of embarrassing. The girls falling for the same man in “The Artist” — been there done that last season in “The Actor”; Dorothy’s (Beatrice Arthur) not thrilled her son’s dating partner in “Mixed Blessings” — did that last season, too, in “Family Affair”. “Mixed Blessings” also recycles Blanche’s (Rue McClanahan) dilemmas in last season’s “Big Daddy’s Little Girl” except, this time, instead of an older man (Blanche’s dad) with a younger woman, it’s Dorothy’s son dating an older woman. The list goes on.
The worst of these repetitions concerns Dorothy and her ex-husband Stan (Herb Edelman). In “The Audit” and “My Brother, My Father”, Dorothy is reunited with Stan through various comical situations (Stan’s tax fraud, faking their marriage to keep an old priest happy). In both episodes, Dorothy begins to reconsider her feelings for him. Of course, by the end of each, her freedom from Stan is validated: he might not be as big a cad now, but he’s a cad nonetheless. Dorothy hops aboard that very same roller coaster in “The Return of Dorothy’s Ex” in Season One, and “The Stan Who Came to Dinner” and “Take Him, He’s Mine” in Season Two. Why does she persist in putting herself through it? More importantly, why do the writers?
It’s hard to believe the well of aging women stories is so dry that Golden Girls writers are forced to rip themselves off. Dorothy’s change of heart over Stan was affecting the first time we saw it. Now, it makes Dorothy look desperate, or, at least, forgetful that Stan’s visits and their misguided attempts at rekindling their romance always end badly. That the same scenario occurs again in Season Four’s “Stan Takes a Wife” — and “Born Again” in Season Five; “There Goes the Bride” in Season Six; “Mother Load” and “The Monkey Show” in Season Seven — suggests the writers repeated intentionally. Just as each season closes with an episode of reminiscing, maybe the Stan Returns thing is a series staple. If that’s so, it’s disappointing.
Maybe it’s too much to ask for the show to remain as meaty as in its debut season. First Season Golden Girls is one of the greatest examples of the possibilities of the half-hour sitcom. It was irreverent, original, and raised important issues about its aging women characters. The show is a comedy, but those earlier episodes proved there is humor in the toughest of situations. By Season Three, the drama is almost nonexistent. Take the episode, “Strange Bedfellows”, for instance. In it, Blanche is accused of sleeping with a married man. She didn’t, of course, and denies doing so to Dorothy and Rose. They don’t believe her, even though her past suggests no reason not to. Dorothy and Rose turn their back on Blanche, who is left to weather a publicity storm over the alleged affair as the man in question is running for office. When the lie is exposed, instead of railing on her treacherous best friends, Blanche forgives them, blaming herself and her previous bad judgments for the call they made.
There’s something particularly un-Golden Girls about that development. Dorothy and Rose question a woman they’re supposed to trust and support — it’s the premise of their companionship. At the slightest whiff of an “issue”, they turn on Blanche no questions asked, no attempts made at understanding and explanation if, in fact, she was in the wrong. And for Blanche to turn around and blame herself? First Season Blanche would not have been so lenient with her hypercritical friends, especially, Dorothy. Or have we all forgotten her escapade with a married man in the first season? Thank you for being a friend, indeed.
What has happened to the first ladies of ’80s TV? These disappointing episodes force me to wonder if the show, through seven seasons, was ever as good as its debut. I’d wonder if the lack of creator Susan Harris’s direct involvement is responsible for the drop in quality, but that’s hard to argue when the writers for Season One are back for Season Three. These are the people who shaped four marvelous characters and broke barriers, giving older women a deserved place on TV to discuss their varied problems: divorce, loneliness, financial stresses, dating at 50, parenting at 50, menopause. In this collection, aside from one episode focused on Alzheimer’s disease, there’s rarely a line delivered on what it genuinely means to be an aging woman in 1980s America.
Still, I can’t help but enjoy watching the charming lead actresses as they bicker and fight and make up and break up. The women are genuinely warm. They’re charismatic and dead-on in their comic timing, especially Bea Arthur, who could very well be television’s all-time coolest woman. The quips, the long-winded stories, and Dorothy’s sarcasm really do get funnier as the seasons progress. But it’s frustrating to witness other strengths go by the wayside.