The Golden Girls' Most Lasting Legacy

Golden Girls Forever

The Golden Girls defined a generation’s view of older women, and single-handedly resurrected comedy during primetime on Saturday night.  But perhaps the show’s most lasting innovation is the comedy formula it pioneered. Call it the Golden Rule of Four.

“Four points on a compass,” as Betty White aptly describes them, the characters of Dorothy, Blanche, Rose and Sophia match up to four classic comedic types:  respectively, the Brain, the Slut, the Ditz and the Big Mouth.  Comedy duos are a classic tradition, but a completely different animal.  And while it’s certainly true that three women can work, especially in film – think 9 to 5 – having three lead characters in a sitcom might leave one character having to carry the B plot on her own. 

But four leaves us with infinite possibilities.  Rose takes Dorothy’s night school class in order to earn her diploma, while Blanche and Sophia compete for a suave Latin lover.  Or Blanche and Rose try out for the road show of Cats while Dorothy tries to prove that her mother is faking her injury. 

Having popularized The Golden Rule of Four, The Golden Girls is the thematic ancestor of many shows that followed.  Only one year after The Golden Girls’ premiere, along came the Southern version (Designing Women), followed in the 1990s by the Black version (Living Single) and the Urban (Sex and the City.)  In recent years, the formula has shown a resurgence in popularity, spawning a suburban version (Desperate Housewives), a middle-aged version (Hot in Cleveland), a Latina version (Devious Maids) and, inevitably, more than one gay version (Noah’s Arc and Looking.)

In Designing Women, which launched in 1986, vain Southern beauty queen Suzanne Sugarbaker would certainly sense sisterhood with Blanche.  And apart from the difference in accents, Charlene Frazier’s hometown of Poplar Bluff, Missouri could easily be mistaken for Rose’s birthplace of St. Olaf, Minnesota.  Suzanne’s older sister Julia is clearly the Dorothy of the group – smart, opinionated and prone to speak her mind.  Only Annie Potts’ character of Mary Jo Shively is no easy match to a Golden Girl, perhaps because at the start, Mary Jo was the show’s least defined character.  Over seven seasons, Mary Jo essentially became a mini-Julia, another Dorothy.  So it’s no surprise that, after his initial appearance in an early first season episode (and also after actor Meshach Taylor’s small role in the Golden Girls pilot), Designing Women quickly promoted African-American delivery man Anthony Bouvier to regular status; like Sophia, he provides needed commentary from an outsider’s perspective (this time due to race and gender rather than age).

Starting in 1993 on FOX, Living Single was almost a direct copy of The Golden Girls – and in fact, as Golden Girls writer Kevin Abbott explains, the show’s creator Yvette Lee Bowser even asked him for a copy of the Golden Girls pilot script, to use as a template.  Living Single’s characters of Khadijah and Synclaire James and Regine Hunter fit perfectly into the molds established by Dorothy, Rose and Blanche, respectively.  Again, only the Sophia role seems hard to fill, perhaps because when creating a show about young black women, there’s no obvious parallel for an old lady.  But Erika Alexander’s character Maxine Shaw comes pretty close; in her flirtatious banter with upstairs neighbor Kyle, she can be the most outrageous and outspoken of the four friends.

In HBO’s hit Sex and the City, it’s obvious which of the characters is “the slut” and which one is a little bit naïve.  And while both Miranda Hobbes and Carrie Bradshaw have moments of Dorothy-like cynicism, it’s Miranda who is the true master of the form.  Although not a perfect fit in the Sophia role, obviously younger and sexier Carrie does share some of the old woman’s characteristics; in “diner scenes” (the show’s equivalent of “cheesecake scenes”) Carrie is often the character to sum up the situation, even at her friends’ expense.  And just as Sophia recaps her roommates’ problems with pithy one-liners, Carrie literally narrates the travails of her friends, typing them on her laptop screen.

Inevitably, in 2005 came the first gay take on the formula, LOGO’s Noah’s Arc.  “I didn’t set out to make a Golden Girls,” says the show’s creator, Patrik-Ian Polk.  For one thing, instead of a multi-camera sitcom about women, Noah’s Arc was a single-camera, serialized drama about men.  “But I did want to do a show about four black gay men, and so there are obvious parallels” to the Girls with his characters:  sweet, naïve Noah, sexually-voracious Ricky, sarcastic Chance and outrageous Alex“There are times when we’ll have a funnier scene coming up with the four guys together, and I’ll say to them, ‘Think of this as a real Golden Girls-type scene.’  And they’ll immediately get it.” 

The Golden Rule of Four

 

In 1990, during the Girls’ run, one of the show’s writer/producers Gail Parent landed her co-creation Babes at Fox; but the sitcom about three overweight sisters and their elderly neighbor in a Manhattan apartment building was cancelled after a single season.  Ultimately it would be Gail’s fellow Golden Girls writer Marc Cherry who would find the greatest success by tapping into the power of the Rule of Four.  Having tinkered with the formula in 1994 by creating The Five Mrs. Buchanans for CBS, Marc brought Desperate Housewives to ABC a decade later, while acknowledging his debt to the four ladies from Miami.  “Blanche was my favorite character to write for,” he remembers, “because the character was so selfish and vain and self-obsessed, and yet you still liked her.”  Marc admits “there were a lot of traces of Blanche Devereaux in Gabrielle Solis.  It’s totally a credit to the actor.  Like Rue McClanahan, Eva Longoria is one of those actors who is able to be likeable when she is doing some unlikeable things.”

Otherwise, though, Marc says that although his training comes from The Golden Girls, the construction of Desperate Housewives was more akin to that of one of its older siblings under the Golden Rule of Four, Sex and the City.  Thus, his Lynette Schavo equaled Miranda, Bree Van De Kamp was Charlotte, and lead character Susan Mayer was akin to lead character Carrie.  In creating Susan, “I chose to make the romantic character the show’s anchor instead of the common-sense one, as was done on The Golden Girls,” Marc explains.  “Susan Harris’ paradigm was so successful – and indeed, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason copied it on Designing Women – that I just chose to emulate something else.”

In 2013, Marc gave the formula yet another twist in creating his follow-up series, Devious Maids.  It’s easy to see parallels to Rose in naïve, goodhearted Rosie, and to Blanche in sexy and self-centered Carmen.  And while the educated, intellectual Marisol has obvious similarities to Dorothy, Marc points out that “the tart-tongued part of Dorothy you will find in Zoila’s mouth.”  In creating his Devious characters, he says, “I kind of took Dorothy and split her up.”

As Marc explains, “due to her youth and inexperience,” there’s no obvious singular Golden antecedent for Devious’ fifth maid, Valentina; she has the naïveté of Rose, she’s a daughter like Dorothy, and as one set apart by age, she could even be seen as a 21st-Century Sophia.  But Marc does acknowledge the Girls as an influence when he was conceiving the character.  In speaking with real domestic workers in Beverly Hills, he reveals, “I discovered that it was not uncommon for there to be two members of one family working in a home.  And because I remembered the mileage we always got from having Sophia and Dorothy in the same household, I knew how effective it would be to again have a mother/daughter connection in this new female ensemble show.”

            By 2012, viewers were ready for a foursome from a whole new generation, and HBO’s Girls was born.  Although the show’s creator and star Lena Dunham didn’t base her Girls directly on the Girls from Miami, she does see at least one obvious parallel:  “I think we can all agree that [Jessa] is Blanche.”  As the show’s Executive Producer Bruce Eric Kaplan further explains, Lena’s creations do descend from Sophia, Dorothy, Rose and Blanche – albeit indirectly.  Addressing head-on the inevitable comparisons to its HBO ancestor Sex and the City, Girls’ pilot featured not only a discussion of Carrie and company, but also a poster of the iconic ‘90s series on Shoshanna’s bedroom wall.  “We have a very clear connection to Sex and the City,” Bruce explains.  “Girls is an update of Sex and the City, much as Sex and the City was so clearly a modernist version of The Golden Girls.  So I guess Girls’ link to The Golden Girls is sort of transitive.”  Thus, he adds, Girls’ lead character Hannah Horvath may be more direct a legacy of her more immediate predecessor Carrie Bradshaw than she is of Dorothy or Sophia.  But the connection, he agrees, is there.

            Most recently, HBO debuted another fab foursome with Looking, a San Francisco-set comedy about the lives of three gay men and their straight female BFF.  One of its producers, John Hoffman, explains that he and his fellow writers were so conscious from the start of their LGBT target audience’s love of the Girls that, as they initially brainstormed potential titles for the series, he suggested “Golden Sons.”

The proposed title didn’t fly, but Looking’s 2014 debut season still ended up being bookended by Golden Girls references.  As the show was in mid-shoot of its second episode, its British-born writer/producer/director Andrew Haigh suggested a last-minute script change, replacing lead character Patrick’s reference to Friends’ Ross and Rachel with a recitation of the lyrics to the Golden Girls theme.  As Andrew reveals, after each long day of shooting on location, he had gotten in the habit of unwinding in his San Francisco hotel room by watching the Girls.  And so was born what would become the series’ running joke, which paid off in the waning moments of the first season’s finale as Patrick climbed into Agustín’s bed with his laptop, recommitting to their roommate tradition of watching the Girls together.

As the episode faded with “Thank You For Being a Friend” over its closing credits, it was an appropriate season ending for a series about a friendly foursome -- particularly one which has obvious parallels in terms of its characters:  naïve Patrick to Rose, caustic Agustín to Dorothy, and sexually-charged Dom to Blanche.  As the group’s only female, Doris stands out as its quippy Sophia – although “for the record,” notes Looking’s creator/writer Michael Lannan, “our Sophia is actually our costume designer, Danny Glicker.”

From the book Golden Girls Forever by Jim Colucci, published by Harper Design, 2016

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