In these uncertain times, we need to take solace in the arts more than ever – and so in a new series of essays, writers reflect on particular pieces of culture that bring them joy – beginning with Arwa Haider on the classic sitcom that’s still loved 35 years after it first aired.
Miami, 1985 – the starting point for arguably one of the greatest TV shows of all time. The Golden Girls ran for seven seasons, spanning 180 episodes from that original NBC transmission 35 years ago, seizing numerous awards including Golden Globes and Emmys, and broadcasting all over the world (besides inspiring international versions, including Spain, Russia and The Philippines). The original premise, and its star quartet, still feels exceptional: here was a prime-time sitcom that revelled in its focus on four female senior-citizen housemates. The Golden Girls was fiercely funny, unashamedly soppy, brazenly glamorous (with an abundance of ‘80s shoulder pads and hairspray), and bravely outspoken – and there has never been a better time to treasure its legacy.
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In real life as well as the entertainment business, we’re regularly given the impression that being elderly devalues us; The Golden Girls has always been a vivacious antidote to that: seniority reigns supreme here, and its four seasoned women live, love and laugh to the fullest. There is statuesque, acerbic academic Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur, whose raised-eyebrow expressions deserved star billing in their own right); wide-eyed yet sharp-tongued Scandi-American Rose Nylund (Betty White); flirtatious Southern peach Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan) and Dorothy’s wizened, wisecracking Sicilian-Brooklynite mother Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty, who was, in reality, a year younger than her screen daughter). The fact that Arthur, McClanahan and Getty are no longer with us somehow intensifies the chemistry of this on-screen bond; White, now 98, has continued to prove a sparkling presence, across roles from contemporary sitcom Hot In Cleveland to voice acting in Toy Story 4.
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Various much younger characters, and many men (including fleeting cameos from a young George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino), move through The Golden Girls’ world, but none of them detract from the main event. Show creator Susan Harris explained in a 2010 interview: “I think everybody – including younger people when they reach an age when they feel alienated – the thought of being alone, and spending your life alone, is terrifying. These women were at an age where they were alone and were likely to stay alone until they found each other… They encouraged each other and had a life together. It showed that you didn’t need the customary, traditional relationship to be happy. It paints a picture of all the possibilities for family. I also think young people like Sophia because she says whatever pops into her head!”
While there’s a glut of nostalgia about other retro sitcoms, nothing comes close to the emotional punch of The Golden Girls, right from its unmistakably heart-stirring intro theme, Thank You for Being a Friend (originally a 1978 single by US singer Andrew Gold; covered for the sitcom by Cynthia Fee). When I approached young adulthood in the mid-‘90s, smash hit shows like Friends were much closer to ‘my generation’, but while I certainly requested a ‘Rachel’ (Jennifer Aniston) cut at the hairdressers back then, I never warmed to its NYC twentysomethings in the same way that I still do to Dorothy, Rose, Blanche and Sophia.
These sassy old broads are the toughest ladies around! When the chips are down, you want The Golden Girls in your corner! – Teen Titans Go!
It never mattered that most of the ‘action’ unfolded in just two interior sets: the lounge with that floral-print sofa and Floridian rattan, and the kitchen (where filming logistics meant that there were only technically three chairs around the table, yet there was always room for everyone). The Golden Girls effortlessly connected across cultures – even in late ‘80s Saudi Arabia, when I recall it was transmitted on the Aramco (Arab-American petroleum company) channel, and where most of the splendid double-entendres escaped the strict state censors, while Blanche’s skimpier outfits did not. Much more recently, I was intrigued to find my young son watching an episode of superhero cartoon caper Teen Titans Go! where Cyborg magically summons The Golden Girls as the ultimate weapon (“These sassy old broads are the toughest ladies around! When the chips are down, you want The Golden Girls in your corner!” booms Cyborg, reasonably).
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“The idea of taking four woman, particularly four older women at that, and giving them a voice – a voice that wasn’t afraid to be sassy, sexual and above all funny – was pretty ground-breaking for TV at the time,” says pop culture commentator and award-winning British journalist Adam Mattera, former editor of gay lifestyle magazine Attitude.
Mattera describes The Golden Girls as “a bit of a wolf in pastel print”, also highlighting the ultra-sharp lines penned by series writer/producer Marc Cherry, who would surely draw from this creative experience when he later developed the 21st-Century TV hit Desperate Housewives: “I remember there were episodes that dealt with subjects most network shows had shied away from – same-sex marriage, menopause, even Aids at a time when Reagan wouldn’t even say the word in public,” says Mattera.
“But I think central to the appeal was the idea of female friendship – that was the heartbeat of the show: the idea that whatever life threw at you, you could get through with the support of good friends and a slice of cheesecake. It’s no wonder a generation of women and gay men so related to it. The thing is, you can put those episodes on now and they still pop, the performances are so great. Those women were all seasoned pros. That’s why it keeps hoovering up new fans.”
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The Golden Girls embodied inclusivity along with comedy gems. The approach might now sometimes seem a tad clunky – the ‘80s mainstream was not a particularly enlightened place – but these 30-minute episodes projected an array of progressive attitudes into the prime-time spotlight, from HIV testing (in one episode, it seems that Rose might test positive) to ‘illegal’ immigration and LGBT equality. When Blanche’s brother Clayton comes out as gay, and later marries his boyfriend, it is the usually spiky Sophia who observes: “Everyone wants someone to grow old with, and shouldn’t everyone have that chance?” Show creator Harris (who had previously brought a fearless touch to sitcoms including Maude and Soap) also reflected her own experience of chronic fatigue syndrome in an episode entitled Sick And Tired (1989), where we see Dorothy struggle with the symptoms, and later publicly call out the misogynistic doctor who dismissed her illness.
Life is a cabaret in The Golden Girls; there are highs, lows, and plenty of high-camp delights. Its award-winning stars had a musical theatre grounding (although at their UK live stage showcase, as part of the 1988 Royal Variety Show, the quartet seemed slightly nervous about playing to the Queen). They were always strongest together (spin-off show The Golden Palace simply wasn’t the same without Arthur), and they were surprisingly future-proof. There’s a wealth of quotable lines and memes in their seven series, as well as a surreal range of tie-ins, from tiki cocktail cups to a themed café (Rue La Rue, in New York rather than Miami, sadly closed in 2017). Whether it’s Dorothy’s cutting put-downs (“Go hug a landmine”), Sophia’s surreal retorts (“Jealousy is a very ugly thing, Dorothy… and so are you, in anything backless”), Blanche’s irrepressible swish (“Damn, I’m good!”), or Rose naively ordering a cake shaped like Florida state, The Golden Girls remains the ultimate pop culture goodie: more naughty-but-nice than a late-night slice of double fudge amaretto cheesecake.
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