Centered around the working and personal lives of four Southern women in an interior design firm.
163 episodes of 30 minute duration. 1986 - 93.
There are words to describe this opinionated workplace comedy of the 1980's and early 1990's: Sweet, sassy, sexy, and unabashedly feminist. Despite a rocky start and near cancellation; not to mention a much-publicized feud surrounding one of its stars, Designing Women became a hit in part because of the talent of its original ensemble cast, and partly due to the sharp writing of its creator. Linda Bloodworth.
A former newspaper reporter and teacher, Bloodworth became a free-lance scriptwriter and turned out episodes of such comedies as Rhoda, M*A*S*H and One Day at a Time in the 1970's before she became an independent television producer. Her first series, Filthy Rich-a mediocre 1982 spoof on the then-popular nighttime soap Dallas-didn't last long. But it was on Filthy Rich that Bloodworth brought together actresses Dixie Carter and Delta Burke, who starred in the short-lived show.
In 1983, Bloodworth married fellow TV producer Harry Thomason and created their own production company, "Mozark" (a combination of Bloodworth's home state of Missouri and Thomason's upbringing in Arkansas). Three years later, Bloodworth quickly sold the Designing Women concept to CBS.
Although Designing Women had some elements in common with NBC's smash hit The Golden Girls (which premiered the year before), the two shows were quite different. For one thing, the "Women", who ran an interior design firm in Atlanta, Georgia, were younger and more outspoken about the outside world. Also, most of "Women's" action was set in the workplace, while the lives of the "Girls" revolved around their suburban Miami, Florida home.
"Sugarbaker and Associates" was a successful interior design firm in the Atlanta area. Julia Sugarbaker, (Carter) was a widow, the business' founder and probably the sharpest of the four ladies. She was also the most opinionated of the group. Not so her younger sister Suzanne (Burke), a former beauty queen whose life centered on her ex-husbands, dating rich men and spending money. Also working for the firm was Mary Jo Shively (Anne Potts), a divorced mom whose ex-husband often didn't pay his child support, leaving her to use her considerable decorating talents to support herself and her two children. Last but not least was the receptionist and office manager Charlene Frazier (Jean Smart), a single gal who loved the tabloids and always seemed to date the wrong men. The fifth and unofficial "Woman" of the show was actually a man. African-American deliveryman Anthony Bouvier was originally meant to be an occasional character, as an ex-con wrongly imprisoned for a crime he didn't do. Actor Meshach Taylor's performances impressed the cast and crew so much that Anthony became a regular character during the show's first season.
But Designing Women almost never made it to a second year. CBS aired the series on Monday nights, where it gained respectable ratings. But the show was shifted to different timeslots during its first season, and by early 1987, faced cancellation after doing very poorly against NBC's top ten comedy Night Court on Thursday nights. CBS then put the "Women" on hiatus-usually the first step toward oblivion. But the group "Viewers for Quality Television" (which saved the female-oriented police drama Cagney & Lacey a few years earlier) began writing letters, demanding the reinstatement of the ladies from Georgia. CBS Entertainment chief Bud Grant finally put up a white flag in his Los Angeles office, and surrendered to the fans. Designing Women was put back on the Monday night schedule, where it built an audience and eventually became a top ten hit.
By its second season, Designing Women began dealing with topics not usually handled on situation comedies of the period-prostitution, AIDS, pornography, domestic violence-and managed to do it with both intelligence and laughter. There were some additions to the cast. Carter's real-life husband Hal Holbrook played Reese Watson, Julia's longtime boyfriend; Resse's character died of a heart attack in 1991, leaving Julia devastated. Veteran comic Alice Ghostley appeared as Bernice Clifton, a rather eccentric elderly woman who became friendly with the Sugarbaker crew. Mary Jo's ex, J.D. Shackelford, was portrayed by actor Richard Gilliliand-Jean Smart's real-life husband. Charlene's bad luck with men turned around when she met Air Force Captain Bill Stillfield; the two were married in 1989 and Charlene gave birth to a baby girl, Olivia, a year later. And Suzanne's former husband, author Dash Goff, appeared in a few episodes. (Actor Gerald McRaney, who played Dash, eventually married Delta Burke in real life.)
By 1990, Designing Women and the show it followed on Monday nights, Murphy Brown, became a potent top-ten anchor for CBS. But there were major problems brewing behind the scenes. By this time, Burke was suffering from panic attacks, which made her afraid to attend the episode filmings; she eventually found help through therapy and medication. But she also gained a noticeable amount of weight, and the producers wanted her to diet. The behind-the-scenes fights between Burke, Bloodworth and Thomason became tabloid fodder. By the end of the 1990-91 season, Delta Burke was let go from the ensemble cast.
And hers was not the only departure. Jean Smart decided to leave the show to spend more time with her family. So the sixth season of Designing Women saw major changes. Charlene eventually moved to England where husband Bill was stationed; her younger sister Carlene Dobber (played by former Saturday Night Live regular Jan Hooks) became Sugarbaker's new receptionist. Meanwhile, Suzanne's character was written out (she had moved to Japan but not before selling her portion of the business to her equally pushy and arrogant cousin Allison Sugarbaker.) To play Allison, the producers turned to Julia Duffy, who had won praise for her portrayal of snobby rich girl-turned-maid Stephanie on Newhart. Initial ratings were good for the revised "Women", but longtime fans could not accept Duffy's character as Delta Burke's replacement, and the show began losing viewers.
In an attempt to remedy the problem, Duffy was shown the door (Allison left after selling her portion of Sugarbakers to buy a Victoria's Secret franchise). Veteran actress Judith Ivey was brought in B.J. Poteet, an eccentric, wealthy widow whose funding helped save the now-floundering design business. But for all of Ivey's talents, she could not save Designing Women itself. By this time, the remaining original characters were shadows of their former selves, as the writers made them sillier and less intelligent.
Bloodworth-Thomason, who wrote most of the scripts in the show's first several seasons, had stepped back from the production. She and husband Thomason were creating other series for CBS, including Evening Shade and Hearts Afire; a new producer and staff of writers were now responsible for Designing Women. Plus, the couple also kept busy in the political field as media consultants for their friend, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton-who became president of the United States in 1992.
In an effort to boost ratings, CBS moved Designing Women to Friday nights; it didn't work. An hour-long season finale with the principal characters each imagining herself as "Gone With The Wind's" Scarlett O'Hara" became the series' swan song in May 1993.
By early 1995, the Thomasons had made up with Delta Burke-and the trio decided to co-produce what became a spin-off of Designing Women. Burke brought her Suzanne Sugarbaker character to the new political comedy, Women of the House. The premise had Suzanne marrying husband number five, a 71-year-old United States Congressman who died in office. Suzanne was appointed by Georgia's governor to serve the remainder of her husband's term until the next election. Teri Garr played Suzanne's press secretary, Sissy Emerson, whose drinking led to her firing from "The Washington Post". There was also Natalie Hollingsworth, the administrative assistant who had a relationship with an imprisoned, married Congressman. (Hollingsworth was played by Patricia Heaton, who would later find considerable success as Debra Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond.)
Then there was Jennifer Malone, the receptionist whose husband ran off with a football cheerleader. She was first played by actress Valerie Mahaffey, then was replaced by Julie Haggerty of "Airplane!" fame; Haggerty quit the series after two episodes and Mahaffey was brought back.
But Women of the House was nowhere near as popular as Designing Women; it was cancelled after a flap over an episode that dealt with the brutal treatment of some women in the film industry. CBS had cut a graphic one-minute piece depicting the violence; Blood worth-Thomason denounced the network's decision, sealing the show's fate.
The entire Women of the House episode (along with several unaired shows) later aired on the women's cable network Lifetime. It also became home to reruns of Designing Women, which grew into one of Lifetime's most popular offerings. So popular that on July 28th, 2003, the original cast of "Women" and Bloodworth-Thomason reassembled for a 90-minute reunion special on Lifetime, featuring clips from much-loved episodes and frank talk--minus Jan Hooks, Julia Duffy and Judith Ivey.
Designing Women's theme song, "Georgia On My Mind" was performed by the Doc Severnson Orchestra for the first few years; Ray Charles sang it (both on and off-screen) for the remainder of the show's run.
Some critics denounced Designing Women as a show with a political agenda. Perhaps that was true (and certainly star Dixie Carter was uncomfortable with some of the liberal causes her character supported. Carter agreed to read Bloodworth-Thomason's scripts, and the producer occasionally gave Carter a chance to show off her singing and dancing talents, an agreement that satisfied both women.)
Politics aside, Designing Women was a very funny series (in its first five seasons) with one of the best ensemble casts ever in a US comedy, and a far cry from the domestic bliss of such females as Harriet Nelson, Donna Stone and June Cleaver. As one guest character correctly pointed out, "We ain't what we should be, we ain't what we're gonna be, but at least we ain't what we were."
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