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Following the death of her husband, Ray, Suzanne Sugarbaker moved to Washington to fill her husband's seat in congress, dragging along her developmentally disabled brother, Jim, and adopted daughter, Desi. When she arrived, the only ones willing to work under her were Sissy, the drunk; Natty, the square; and Malone, the frail housewife. Written by
Following Delta Burke's very public off-screen battle with her "Designing Women" employers and her abrupt departure, a spin-off seemed implausible -- though it did happen a year and a half after her former series went off the air. The spin-off had a sharp-wit and lovable characters, but it was doomed and plagued with problems from the start.
The zingers flew fast and hard. Suzanne still had the beauty queen mentality and self-involvement, but the character grew and became a bit more responsible during her absence from the previous series. Teri Garr frequently out-shined the rest of the cast, consistently nailing her utterly hilarious one-liners and speeches as former-drunk Press Secretary Sissy ("like 'Mississippi,' except with an 'S' and a 'Y' and without the 'issipipi'). Garr has taken a lot of wonderful roles in her career, but in my mind, Sissy was THE funniest. Patricia Heaton was oddly well-suited to play the bun-wearing, humorless, overly conservative Administrative Assistant Natty. And Valerie Mahaffey was, as always, delightful to watch as the naive, completely off-kilter, recent divorcée secretary Malone.
Unfortunately, the show was not without problems, which quickly grew and ultimately began to diminish. Jonathan Banks was pointlessly injected into the cast as Suzanne's never-before heard-of 'retarded' brother Jim, so he was quickly phased out of the show. A major continuity error, Suzanne's maid, Sapphire, supposedly was her "mammy" and had been with her for her entire life... which was completely illogical, given Suzanne's psychotic, trouble-making, never-seen but often-heard maid Consuela on "Designing Women." Valerie Mahaffey merely subbed in during the first few episodes for first-choice Julie Hagarty. When Hagarty took over the role, she was COMPLETELY devoid of charm (I instantly dubbed her "bitch Malone" and she left such a indelible impression on me in the role that I've found it difficult to watch her in anything since); she was so terrible and obviously unhappy to be there that it's little wonder why she quit after filming two episodes. Mahaffey returned for one additional episode, which guest-starred Burke's real-life husband and frequent "Designing Women" guest-star Gerald McRaney -- though Suzanne was oddly out of character in the episode. Even worse than the inconsistencies, casting and production problems, the series was barely promoted, it usually aired opposite ABC's then-powerhouse "Roseanne," and CBS bounced it around, on and off the schedule during its brief run. After 8 of the 13 episodes aired (7 of which aired over the coarse of a mere month), CBS yanked the series off their schedule altogether and unceremoniously canceled it.
The final episodes were to air beginning that August. Malone vanished without explanation and was replaced by ditsy Veda. After a sole episode with Veda aired, CBS opted not to play the next, "Women in Film," which ended with a disconcerting minute-long montage of women being brutally butchered abused. Another commenter seems to have judged the entire series solely by that final scene, which was completely taken out of context. The ending was certainly strange, but appropriate given the plot of the episode -- which revolved around a congressional hearing about violence against women in films. Since CBS refused to air "Women in Film" intact, the episode was endlessly promoted ("with footage that CBS censors didn't want you to see") and run three weeks later on Lifetime in a marathon with the other unaired episodes.
What's truly sad is that the show was finally overcoming its problems and finding its groove in those final five episodes. One of the final episodes saw the belated introduction of Susan Powter (who was amongst the first people cited in the cast when the show was announced), whom they set up as Suzanne's nemesis... if the show had continued, her role doubtlessly would have been recurring -- and she was utterly brilliant in the part. Having recently re-watched the series, I'm still convinced that it could have, and should have, been a long-running hit. In many ways, I've always thought it was better than "Designing Women;" at the very least, it had the potential to be, had it continued. However, that same season, CBS also gave the axe to "The 5 Mrs. Buchanans," which was a guaranteed success out of the box that CBS mishandled and abused too...
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