Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Rule of Four

With the premiere of the second season of Hot in Cleveland looming (January 19th), I’ve been thinking a little about cool as ice female quartets. In 1985, when the Golden Girls hit the scene, audiences were treated to older females who could give any youngster a run for their money. The formula stuck and since then, several shows have tried their hand (and quite successfully) at the brassy and sassy mature female blueprint and I thought I’d take a look back at my favorite foxes.

The Golden Girls (1985 – 1992): Nothing will ever come close to the timeless hilarity of The Golden Girls. We have four women ranging in personality, Rose (Betty White) was the lightheaded but sweet one, Dorothy (Bea Arthur) was the smart as a whip one, Blanche (Rue McClanahan) was the oversexed one and Sophia (Estelle Getty) was the old one. The women were either widowed or divorced and were learning to make their way through the singles scene of the 1980s. Not only was the show absolutely brilliant, but it gave lots and lots of mature actors good work. The guest stars included everyone from Anne Francis to Leslie Nielsen (sadly, both actors have passed away recently). Even super famous people like Burt Reynolds and Bob Hope stopped by the hottest address in Florida. The Golden Girls worked not only because it was well written and superbly acted, but it also reached an audience that wasn’t being spoken to (and is even less spoken to now). The show was all about being older and vital. It wanted you to know you could be sexy and fun at any age. It said women didn’t have to be their own worst enemies and it also said cheesecake soothes the soul.

Bea Arthur left after seven seasons and the show was retooled as Golden Palace. There were some misfires here, but overall, making Cheech Marin the new Dorothy wasn’t such a bad idea. The show only lasted one season but was pretty fun. Sure it wasn’t the original, but the ideas and themes still ran through it.

One of the things I adore about this show, but didn’t really understand it until later, was that these women looked like real women. I mean, Betty White has always been pretty smokin’ hot, but in general, these women looked like people any of us would know in our real lives. As I got older I began to appreciate this little detail. It makes me feel like I don’t have to constantly pluck and starve. I will probably always dye my hair, but you know, two out of three ain’t bad! The shows that followed slowly lost this little physically relatable thing, and that’s pretty sad.

Designing Women (1966 – 1993): Hot to follow the success of The Golden Girls, the premise was retooled with four younger (but still mature) women who worked together at an interior design business. The company was owned by Julia Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter), and she was brash and not always likable. She did however, have an always lovable sister named Suzanne (the sublime Delta Burke). OK, she wasn’t very likable at all, she was bratty and spoiled, but that is what made me gravitate to her. She was so well written and I loved her little beauty pageant bubble. There was also Mary Jo Shively (Annie Potts), who was an adorable single mom with impeccable taste and great fluffy hair. And then there was Charlene (Jean Smart), who was the bubbly and sometimes illogical secretary. Basically Julia was Dorothy, Suzanne was Blanche, Charlene was Rose and Mary Jo was, uh, Sophia… well, OK, so that one doesn’t fit, but you get where I’m going with this.

Designing Women was a very good show, although I don’t think it has aged nearly as well. It’s still enjoyable, but it doesn’t resonate with me the way The Golden Girls did. However, before the show fell apart when Delta left, Suzanne became a really poignant character. Delta, who had battled eating disorders, was having a hard time keeping her weight down. The writing became rather insulting but it somehow made Suzanne this complex creature. In the end, the only ones who truly suffered were the people left on the fledgling sitcom, because without Suzanne, they were nothing (Jean Smart also left the show at this point). Julia Duffy and Jan Hooks spent some time at Sugarbakers, but it was actually during the last season when Judith Ivey joined the cast, that it got back any of the magic the earlier Suzanne seasons had. Too little too late, the show was cancelled.

I often found Julia really frustrating at times. I’m all for brash southern belles, but she really took non-issues and made them even lamer than before. I think I remember an episode where Julia reads an article about how southern people eat dirt and she called the author and one of her 'Julia Monologues' or something like that. I was like, “Really, Julia? Don’t you have a business to run?” And don’t even get me started on the episode with the magazine vendor who sold a Playboy type magazine! Aargh! But otherwise, the show was a lot of fun and their ages, which ranged from early 30s to middle aged 40s felt like an afterthought. They were dignified and independent and they shared a real camaraderie. Also, I would kill for a lot of the stuff Annie Potts wore. Incredible!

I should probably also add that re-tooling the show meant adding a male character played by Meshach Taylor. Granted, The Golden Girls did have a gay cook in the premiere episode, so perhaps it wasn’t all that re-tooled at all…

Sex and the City (1998 – 2004): I’ll be honest, I didn’t really watch this show. I’ve maybe seen it twice and thought it was amusing but not my cup o’ tea. I would say essentially they are all Blanche, because this show seemed to be about sex more than anything else. Again, we’ve got four independent friends who are searching for love in the city that never sleeps. What I remember most is that again, although I’m beginning to see a homogenization of not only the physical female form but also the overtly sexual attitude of women (in television especially), this show did still handle the “older” women with some sort of dignity and thought. Kim Cattrall stood out to me because she was just so gorgeous and still doing nudity into her forties. Older women doing nudity was something that always came across as a rarity, but she seemed to be nekkid an awful lot, and I loved the idea of it. Not only did it reinvigorate her career but in essence it remained true to the Golden Girls’ formula that aging didn’t have to mean losing the sexual part of yourself. Maybe it could even flourish. That’s a great message.

Hot in Cleveland (2010 - ): Wow, did things just come full circle or what? Betty White returned to the female foursome sitcom last year and let me tell you, Hot in Cleveland is dynamite! And I mean Jimmy Walker Dyyyy-nnnnnooooo-mite! Valerie Bertinelli is Melanie, a recently divorced author who is planning a trip to France with her friends Victoria Chase (Wendie Malick), a self-absorbed soap actress and Joy (Jane Leeves), an in demand beautician. But their plane needs to make an emergency landing in Cleveland. The first thing they notice is that men look at them. I mean, look at them… you know, with desire. The second thing they notice is that people are eating without shame. After some serious thought (and some seriously awesome nookie with John Schneider!), Melanie decides to get a house. That house comes with Elka (Betty White), the cantankerous caretaker who rounds out the dynamic quartet.

Filmed in front of an actual audience, Hot in Cleveland is legitimately funny and often warm. The three main friends have wonderful chemistry. Elka is there to be snarky and in essence, Betty has become the Sophia of the group. I would say Melanie is Rose, Victoria is Blanche and Joy is Dorothy. This combo has proved to be a sure sale, and the actresses here are fantastic in their parts. My only quibble would be that while every cast member is over 50 (well, Jane actually turns 50 this year!), none of them look like a real 50 something would. Hell, they don’t even really look like a 40 something. It’s amazing how lovely all the actresses have remained, but I find I miss 50 year old women who look 50. Betty looks fantastic too, but of course, looks a bit older than the rest of the crew. I think making the women LA natives really helps. I lived in tinsel town for over 10 years and I can tell you, women are overly obsessed with their image there. I mean, I think women anywhere can be really vain, but in California there is a real sense of panic looming over the over 30 set. The characters are ridiculously endearing, especially Betty White, and Malick shows off a great knack for physical comedy. I personally can’t wait for January 19th to roll around the corner!

Here’s the official website for Hot in Cleveland, now go set your DV-Rs!

By the way, I thought I was being all ingenious when I wrote this article, but after a quick search I came upon this fun piece on TV Squad that has even more awesome foursomes!

Here are the Designing Women at their Lifetime reunion show in 2003. Fab!


phairhead said...

not to be a picky pants but you wrote Valerie Harper & I believe you meant to say Valerie Bertanelli

RIP Bea Arthur!

Amanda By Night said...

Fixed. Thank you so much for catching that. The funny thing was, I double checked the spelling of most of the actresses names and totally glided over her! It was late.

Bea was my favorite Golden Girl and definitely one of my favorite actresses of all time. I saw her one woman show three times and met her once. She was so sweet and I will love her forever.

Thanks so much phairhead for stopping by and playing copy editor! I appreciate it!

Cinema Du Meep said...

Excellent, really observant article. The rule of four is genius!

aunt john said...

Sure they had Mrs. Garrett breathing down their necks and forcing them to work at Edna's Edibles, but I think Blair, Tootie, Natalie & Jo were the original four square team to be reckoned with (not counting the first season with Molly Ringwald and the cast of 5 or so other girls.)

Pam said...

Great things come in four (Beatles!) and I agree with you about Sex and the City - I've only seen a couple of episodes and don't consider it an accurate portrayal at all of single women in general (yes, I realize it's entertainment.) I will always love The Golden Girls and have yet to see Hot in Cleveland because I don't get the cable channel it airs on, but maybe I'll catch it on DVD.

Amanda By Night said...

Michael, thanks for commenting. I really enjoyed writing this. The Rule of 4 has been on my mind.

John, the article I linked to also mentioned Facts of Life. I think I just consider Mrs. Garrett to be one of the gggggiiiiiirrrrrrllllls! Also, I totally forgot to mention Living Single. I think I might a little post on them eventually. Kim Fields 4ever!

Pam, I agree, four is awesome! And I totally know what you mean about Sex and the City, it's like the women were defined by sex rather than it just being an element. I think that's what turned me off.

Definitely check out Hot in Cleveland if you can one day. It's truly funny. Betty White is fantastic!