22 August 2012

The Golden Girls - Thank You For Being A Friend...

Starring Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, Betty White and Estelle Getty, American comedy series The Golden Girls began in 1985, and made its way to our Channel 4 in 1986. The creator was Susan Harris, who had previously given us Soap, the hilarious spoof soap opera, and its excellent spin-off, Benson

The initial idea came from an NBC skit in August 1984 of that brand new cop show, Miami Vice. The skit was called Miami Nice and centred on some, well, let's be PC and say "mature" people living in Miami. From that tiny acorn grew the mighty oak tree of a sitcom called The Golden Girls. The show, it was said, broke new ground, portraying older women as something other than housewives, battleaxes or husband poisoners. There is a Feminist subtext to much of what has been said about the show, which always portrays women as being 'done down'.

The show was also highly topical - featuring story-lines on such "taboo" subjects as HIV, homosexuality and sperm banks. 

Susan Harris commented in the late 1980s: "At 82, Cary Grant could still have been a romantic lead, but a woman over 50 was cast as an axe-murderer. I had to write Golden Girls. It shows women can be attractive and have romances after 50."

Hmmm... a romantic lead at 82? An axe murderer? Easily disproven. Once again, Feminist posturing here, but the show's strength is that it took ordinary-looking people (apart from Blanche, of course, who was devastatingly gorgeous. I hope the cheque's in the post, Blanche) and showed that life doesn't have to stop at fifty.

The Golden Girls was the story of Southern belle Blanche Devereux, who let rooms in her home to three other women - grief counsellor Rose Nylund, school teacher Dorothy Zbornak and Dorothy's mother, Sophia Petrillo - previously of the Shady Pines Retirement Home.  

According to the background story, Sophia had spent a year at Shady Pines before the series began, it had suffered a fire in 1985, and she had arrived to set up home with Dorothy, Blanche and Rose at the time of the pilot episode. Although Shady Pines was never seen on screen, it was mentioned in most episodes and Sophia never let her daughter forget that she had "put her away" there.

The four main characters had widely contrasting personalities: Blanche "liked the men" and was as vain as could be; Rose was loving, dim-witted and occasionally prissy; Dorothy, a not-so-gay divorcee (and not quite free of her ex-husband, Stan), was champion of the witty (but crushing) remark; Sophia was sharp tongued and wasn't above robbing her daughter's handbag. Not a very likeable bunch? Wrong - excellent writing and absolutely brilliant acting turned these creations into four of the best loved TV characters ever. For a start, the girls cared about each other, and underneath the surface bitchery warm friendships flourished - in fact, here we had an alternative family set up.

 TV Times, 1988.

Sophia and Dorothy, mother and daughter, cared deeply for each other, but their relationship was spiky. Sophia called Dorothy "Pussycat", and once told her she had given her the nickname because she loved pussycats. And also because Dorothy was the only one of her children who could catch mice. Sophia sometimes despaired of Dorothy's dateless state, and Blanche often made fun of her, but ultimately Dorothy was the only Golden Girl who found a new life partner, marriage and happiness.
Sharp wit, health and social issues, cheesecake and, above all, the friendship between the four main characters powered the story-lines.

 The girls have a night in with the TV in 1987. It was in 1987 that they nearly went their separate ways, seeking group therapy as they were getting on each others' nerves so much. It was Sophia, famous for her tall tales of herself in years gone by (beginning each tale with something along the lines of "Picture it, Sicily, 1922...") who came to the rescue with some up-to-date pearls of wisdom:

Sophia: Picture it. Miami, 1987. A house. The only one in the neighbourhood without a pool. But I digress. Four women, friends. They laugh, they cry, they eat. They love, they hate, they eat. They dream, they hope, they eat. Every time you turn around they eat.   

Rose: Sophia, are those four women us? 

Sophia: Look in the mirror, blubber butt. The point I'm trying to make is what's going on here is living. Just because you have some rough times doesn't mean you throw in the towel. You go on living. And eating. 

Rose: I'll get the cheesecake. 

Blanche: I'll get the whipped cream. 

Dorothy: I'll get the chocolate syrup. 

As it turned out, Blanche was going to fetch the whipped cream from her bedroom, so this culinary treat did not appeal to the others, but, whilst on the surface Blanche was sometimes selfish and always sex hungry, the character had hidden depths. She deeply mourned her husband, George, who had been killed in an accident in the early 1980s, and whilst she genuinely adored sex, she was also searching for another George amongst her many gentlemen friends. Sadly, she never found one.

 The show became a comedy legend and is often repeated to this day. It was originally broadcast on Friday evenings when I was usually out, but I caught one or two episodes and became so hooked I finally rented a video recorder!

Rose, of course, hailed from a certain small town in Minnesota and her stories of that place, often beginning with the words "Back in St Olaf..." usually bored or puzzled the others rigid whilst becoming a favourite feature of the show for viewers (any one for herring juggling?). Here's my favourite St Olaf story, as told by Rose, with interruptions from Dorothy, in 1989:
Rose: Gunilla Olfstatter was a nurse at Cedars of St. Olaf Hospital. One night she was taking care of Sven Bjornsen, and he asked her if she would get him some more mouth moisteners and then kill him. Gunilla brought the mouth moisteners right away, but the killing thing, it seemed to go against everything she'd been taught!

Dorothy: You're doing beautifully, Rose. 

Rose: He begged and he begged and by her coffee break she couldn't stand it anymore, so she pulled the plug and he died. Well, she was wracked with guilt that night. Not only had she parked her car in a doctor's spot, but she was never sure whether Sven's pleading was the pain talking or the medication talking or the guy in the next bed talking. You see, the guy in the next bed was Ingmar Von Bergman, St. Olaf's meanest ventriloquist. 

Dorothy: Rose, we are going somewhere with this, aren't we? I mean, if not, I'm gonna cut out your tongue. 

Rose: Yes! Sven came back to haunt Gunilla. Since then, every Tuesday night at ten - nine Central -  

[Dorothy bangs on the table with frustration] 

Rose: ...she hears noises. Some say it's the wind, but some say it's Sven's voice whispering back from the other side, saying: "Turn around, quick! His lips are moving!"


Anonymous said...

Oh, brilliant! Loved the St Olaf stories - especially the herring juggling with the "tiny little ginsu knives". So weird! And Shady Pines! I don't think it ever appeared, but heaven knows how often it was mentioned from the start of the show in 1985 right up to the end in 1992. A real golden series!

Drew said...

"Shady Pines, Ma!" - LOL!

Anonymous said...

Shady Pines, having had a radical makeover, was seen in the Golden Girls spin-off The Golden Palace.

Drew said...

I never saw that series. Think I prefer to leave Shady Pines as an off-screen presence! :))

Cliff said...

I'm interested in this show, but I haven't viewed it because I don't want to invest my time in feminist/misandrist claptrap. I mean, have you ever heard of 4 women living together for that long? I work with a large group of women and it's purgatory. A lot of them literally hate each other and seem to get off on making atmospheres and fighting. And the way men are portrayed on TV is completely evil - they're demonised.