The best thing you can have is good memories.
— Rue McClanahan, audio commentary, “The Accurate Conception”
Oh, the writing, the writing, the writing!
— Bea Arthur, audio commentary, “Clinton Avenue Memoirs”
The girls are back. And, as demonstrated in The Golden Girls: The Complete Fifth Season, the series’ original sophistication has come back with them. After four seasons of varying quality — the first was brilliant, the second okay, the third pitiful, and the fourth gone bananas, with crazy jokes and hilarious plots — the fifth returns to form.
In the seasons’ opening double episode, “Sick and Tired”, Dorothy (Bea Arthur) struggles with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The impetus for the program, we learn from Rue McClanahan’s commentary, was creator Susan Harris’ own experience with the ailment. (This is the first Girls DVD set to feature audio commentaries from the show’s stars). Never does the episode only take Dorothy’s perspective. Perhaps she is going insane, or getting lazy.
Harris’ original concept for the series held that nothing is clear-cut, but a half-hour (or an hour for “special issues”) was fair time to expose difficult issues, and at least gesture toward their complexity. Although “Sick and Tired” is Harris’s only writing credit for this season, it certainly sets the tone for what follows. From here on, the show considers fertility and artificial insemination, health care costs, assisted suicide, dementia, and HIV. Bea Arthur notes on her commentary for “The Accurate Conception”: “It’s so amazing that we touched in so many social issues and not made sense of them, but talked them through.”
At the same time, the season again features the series’ signature comedy, nutty and character-based: Rose still tells her bizarre St. Olaf stories, Blanche still primps 24-7, and Dorothy still looks just one stupid comment from Blanche away from punching everyone. The humor continues to be a means to frame other concerns. Dorothy expands her concerns beyond her career and divorce, Rose experiences her first long-term relationship since her husband’s death, Blanche’s slutty reputation and interests fade, and Sophia faces major challenges, not least being the fear of onset dementia.
Thankfully, Dorothy barely mentions Stan (Herb Edelman). He shows up occasionally, but unlike in previous seasons, doesn’t tempt Dorothy to rekindle their relationship. This is a major shift for her. In “Cheaters”, she very nearly gets herself involved with the divorced Glenn (Jerry Orbach), but rethinks when he reveals he’s not yet over his ex-wife, then concludes that finding comfort in a man shouldn’t mean overlooking his flaws. Whereas in previous years, Glenn’s revelation would cause Dorothy emotional havoc, her decision-making here is matter-of-fact. The Dorothy who previously held it all together so well, only to crack at signs of romance, is proud to leave Glenn behind. (She even looks different this season, with a new haircut that makes her look like a former beauty queen rather than Phyllis Diller, as in previous years).
Blanche is similarly altered. A man-slump overtakes her usual after-five life. Her libido is no less hyperactive, but her uncanny ability to secure dates nearly disappears. She finds other interests. In “Sick and Tired”, she opts to become a famous novelist, staying up all hours and decrying the writer’s life in attempt to become a female Hemingway. She joins Rose in campaigning to save the dolphins, and even uses her knowledge of all things men to assist Rose with her relationships. Men, this season, just aren’t thrilling her like they used to. She meets a potential suitor at the hardware store and turns him down: “Something about him turned me off,” she says. “I think it was the way he cleaned his ears with his keys.”
This is hardly the undiscriminating Blanche we’ve come to know. When she finally does get herself a date, it’s with her late husband’s brother, Jamie (George Grizzard). This ends badly when Jamie learns Blanche is with him because of his similarities to her husband. All this comes to a head in “Great Expectations”. Blanche finds herself another boyfriend (Steven, played by Robert Mandan) — this one in hospital following a heart attack. Dorothy is forced to call Blanche on her recent strange choices in men, and we learn for the first time that Blanche is intensely afraid of commitment. As much as she doesn’t want to admit it, she’s not as together as she wants her friends (and dates) to believe. Her self-awareness here, though, during her discussion with Dorothy is wonderfully indicative of how three-dimensional these characters are.
Rose and Sophia undergo less overt changes, but their plotlines remain effective. Rose finds herself with a season-long boyfriend in Miles (Harold Gould). He’s a university professor, which presents an array of trials for uneducated Rose. She handles herself well, though, and Miles helps to demonstrate just how little her naiveté affects her desirability when the right (very patient) man comes along. In “An Illegitimate Concern”, Sophia’s sick friend asks her to help her commit suicide, in “Clinton Avenue Memoirs”, she returns to her New York home in an effort not to lose her memory of it, and in “Twice in a Lifetime”, she begins staying out late, leading Dorothy to act like a concerned parent.
With such a range of plots, GG appeals to all audiences. It also provided work for a range of experienced and up-and-coming writers, including Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry. In her commentary on “An Illegitimate Concern”, McClanahan says one of the young writers told her the team was able to imagine the characters because they all had “older women in their lives”. We all do.