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Outspoken feminist Julia Sugarbaker runs a design firm out of her Atlanta home, along with her shallow ex-beauty queen sister, Suzanne, divorced mother Mary Jo, and, naive country girl Charlene. Black ex-con Anthony helps deliver furniture for the business and voices his unique opinion on whatever the women are discussing. Episodes typically revolve around the work, personal, and love lives of these four women. Written by
One of the funniest "Designing Women" moments never even happened on the show; it was on the short-lived series "The Edge". Shortly after Julia Duffy came on the show, "The Edge" spoofed the show in a hilarious skit where a 50-foot Delta Burke shows up, rips off the roof, and after exchanging some wise cracks with the group, eats one of them (Julia, I think), then storms through Atlanta creating havoc. Although the written description of this skit can't possibly describe its hilarity, it did spoof the irreverance of the character's sense of humors and their relationships with each other.
Terminator Julia (Dixie Carter, my favorite) had a loving if strained relationship with her selfish sister Suzanne (Delta Burke), while sassy but sensible Mary Jo (Annie Potts) had a very close friendship with all of them, especially the not-so-dumb Charlene (Jean Smart). Charlene was more of an innocent, lost in her own naive world yet was quite intelligent in her own way. The "fifth" of the clan was black ex-con Anthony (Meshach Taylor) who had a way of always walking in during a "female" discussion which would ultimately embarrass him.
Then, there was a bizarre array of recurring characters, most notably the wacky Bernice (Alice Ghostley), the dizzy senior citizen "with the arterial flow problem to the brain", who always had a wonderfully hilarious comment for everything. She reminded me of the hard-of-hearing Emily Latella from "Saturday Night Live" with her wacky comments, and every episode with her was a highlight of the show. Carter's real-life husband, Hal Holbrook, was memorable as well as Julia's attorney lover.
Yes, there were some serious social issue episodes, but this was a show created with that purpose. The writers were not afraid to explore these issues, and in most cases, they were very successful. I adored Julia because she was not just a one-dimensional opinionated woman; she showed tenderness on many occasions. However, cross her with an issue which upset her, and you would feel her wrath. She often exploded on Suzanne, but on a few occasions, she felt a true sympathy for Suzanne's well- meaning flaws. She also had a soft spot for Anthony, and was proud of the fact that he could put his past behind him and become successful. Suzanne on the other hand had a soft spot she hid behind her seemingly selfish nature. She could be self- serving at one moment, then totally sympathetic the next. Her love/hate relationship with Anthony was one of the show's highlights, as was her hysterical love for her pet pig, Noelle.
Mary Jo was probably the most sensible of the four women; unlike Julia, she saw things from a more widened point of view. Wacky situations came to her by chance; she didn't invite them like the others did because of their eccentricities. Charlene was both touching and funny, an innocent woman the others felt they had to protect. However, she had a strong streak out of her goodness and big heart, winning the respect of the others at Sugarbaker's. Julia Duffy came on after Delta Burke's departure. As the obnoxious Allison, Julia's cousin, Duffy played a character hiding behind her deep insecurities by being overly obnoxious and opinionated. While she could be funny, her character was not as developed as the other women. Jan Hook's Carleen was funny and lovable; not naive like sister Charlene, but more of an overly happy woman. I loved when she tried to be more like Julia because she looked like a little girl playing dress-up. I only saw a few episodes with Judith Ivey, whom I think is one of the funniest women on TV today. I found her character much more likable than either Suzanne or Allison, making her fit in better as the show concluded. Yet, she was not overly nice like Carlene or Charlene, but just a good old gal whom everybody could not help but love.
"Designing Women" itself could be hysterical (Julia getting her head stuck in a bannister; Bernice having a nose job and looking like Miss Piggy; Suzanne gluing her lips shut, etc....) or very, very touching. The episode which stands out as the most touching was the hour-long episode where Charlene gives birth, and Julia meets a 100 year old black woman (played by the fabulous Beah Richards). Who could not help but weep when Charlene is handed her baby while angel Dolly Parton escorts the old woman, who has died, into heaven, while she is singing "Somewhere Out There". It was presented in a way which was full of emotion; human, yet not manipulative. It is an episode I watch between Christmas and New Year's every year (as it took place on New Year's Eve 1989) and consider one of the best sitcom episodes ever made. "Designing Women" slowly shrunk in ratings after the departure of Delta Burke, but went out on a high note with a "Gone With the Wind" spoof where all of the female characters (including Bernice) fantasize about being Scarlett O'Hara. To end the series, the producers gave a wonderful closing to the delightful Alice Ghostley by having her have the last moments to herself of the series as she fantasizes about Anthony being Rhett to her Scarlett. It was a hysterically funny (and touching) way to end a fabulous show.
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