As played by Dixie Carter, the matriarch of interior design firm Sugarbaker & Associates hasn't lost one ounce of her fierce flourish--she still speaks with emphatic conviction, her words cutting through the air with the unstoppable assurance and force of a tornado: "Charlene! I cannot believe that Sugarbaker's is standing on the precipice of total oblivion and all you can think about is whether some bum has a birthmark on his buttock!!!" You can still sense every exclamation point and italicized word, one of the many reasons I love the spitfire--and the show. There's passion running through both of their veins, making for an energizing and enlightening watch that manages to be funny, topical (Ishtar joke!) and thought-provoking.
After an initially rocky first season that survived the threat of cancellation, Designing Women had settled into its groove by the fall of 1987--and not much has changed from its winning formula (as the packaging sticker proudly proclaims: "The shake and sizzle continue!"). We're still privy to venom of the easily annoyed Julia ("I have 15 minutes to kill...I might as well have an editor for breakfast"), who also gets to show her flirty side this year ("I've read a cheap novel or two in my time"); the practicality of single mom Mary Jo (Annie Potts), who's "tired of being so mature all the time"; the random pop-culture musings of Charlene (Jean Smart), a.k.a. "the kind of woman who would have dated Lee Harvey Oswald in high school"; and the pageant lessons of Julia's younger sister, the semi-insensitive, semi-selfish Suzanne (Delta Burke).
Even with its familiar structure and characters, Women still manages to maintain a fresh perspective that sets it apart from so many other shows of its time (Roseanne and Murphy Brown would debut a year later) and of today, where the majority of network sitcoms fall far short of Designing's sharp sense of wit and style. It tackled topics that other shows shied away from, an unapologetically opinionated series that never force-feeds its point of view.
Among the issues raised through the sophomore season are interracial dating and racism; divorce and the modern family; the stereotype of Southerners as stupid; heart attacks; birth control in schools; dealing with the death of a spouse; mental illness; the Bible; women in authority positions in the church; and sexism. The show also takes aim at the prejudice inflicted on AIDS patients in "Killing All the Right People", one of my favorite entries ever. Featuring Tony Goldwyn as a young man who hires the women to decorate his funeral, it is highlighted by a cathartic outburst by Julia that--sadly--would still be relevant today.
It's a lot to tackle in 23 minutes--much like Charlene's disappointment in a sexist pastor (a great episode, although it gets a little repetitive with key dialogue) and Mary Jo's conflict with what she perceives to be a racist parent at her daughter's school, the main stories in two other episodes. Yes, some of the show's lessons are telegraphed, and I'm still bugged at the onset of unnecessary "emotional music" to highlight important monologues. But even though the more serious episodes are crammed (and sometimes cheesy), they're still admirable efforts that encourage discussion. And more importantly, even when Designing Women is on a mission, it never loses sight of the funny.
There are no major differences in the second season's structure, storylines or character arcs. Meshach Taylor returns as Anthony--the firm's delivery man and Y chromosome representative ("I really enjoy these little 'Man on the Street' quizzes that you all give me!"). He's in almost every episode, although Taylor still hadn't been added to the opening credits. We learn the truth behind his "unfortunate incarceration" this year, although I was surprised it wasn't more of a focal point for the episode.
Alice Ghostley shows up three times this season as Bernice Clifton, a fan-favorite scatterbrain who makes Charlene look lucid: "All I do is sit in front of the television set, and since it's broken, there's no picture. So now I can see myself on every channel." Bernice gets her best moment yet--a rare burst of clarity that surprises everyone--in Episode 20 ("Just put that in your pulpit and smoke it!").
The men are also back for another round. Hal Holbrook makes a few appearances as Julia's boyfriend Reese (the two married in real life in 1984), while Mary Jo faces complications from loves both past (Ted, played by Scott Bakula) and present (J.D., played by Smart's real-life husband Richard Gilliland). Suzanne faces a mini-crisis this season when her finances dry up: "I refuse to live in this house with that awful IRS sign on the front lawn. I mean, it's just too humiliating. As far as I'm concerned, they might as well just stick a big billboard out there that says 'Plague' or 'Whorehouse'." The problem gets a "sitcom solution" (somewhat odd for this show), and Suzanne finds comfort in two newcomers--a giant pig named Noelle (a gift from maid Consuela's family) and ex-husband Dash, played by Burke's soon-to-be-husband Gerald McRaney (she guest-starred on his series, Simon & Simon, just two months after his debut on Women; the two married in 1989).
Dash is the central figure in one of the more experimental episodes, a nice change of pace that focuses on the often difficult plight of writers. Another episode takes us back to World War II (smack in the middle of Charlene's dream), while Lewis Grizzard turns in excellent work as the Sugerbaker's brother Clayton in "Oh, Brother". Fresh out of a psychiatric hospital, Clayton sets his sights on being a stand-up comic--and is actually funny (a term I rarely use when describing stand-up comics). The answer to "You know why Junior Leaguers don't like group sex?" prompted a big smile, one of many in this episode.
Women is consistently smart and snappy, its witty writing resulting in laughs from every angle. The chuckles come from set-ups both slow and quick (when Mary Jo's aspiring He-Man son tells Suzanne "I bet I could pick you up!", Julia doesn't skip a beat: "Perceptive for his age, isn't he?"), and all of the scripts were written by creator Linda-Bloodworth Thomason. Her husband Henry directs nine episodes, while David Trainer--best known for his work on That '70s Show--joined the crew this season, his first long-term television job. Episode 3 ("Anthony, Jr.") is his first of 63 episodes (10 of them this season) in the director's chair.
There's obviously a genuine connection among the cast off the set (what with all the sleeping together behind the scenes), and that energy translates on camera. The most memorable addition to Season 2 comes in the form of the hunky Douglas Barr, best known for his role in The Fall Guy. He shows up in three episodes as Air Force Col. Bill Stillfield, who sweeps Charlene off her feet, breaks her heart and then sweeps her off her feet again: "He's just the sweetest, most thoughtful, kindest person I've ever met--you know, of all those people whose pants zip up the front."
There's a pure, old-fashioned romantic quality to their courtship that's refreshing, resulting in some scenes that will have you swooning. As with all of the spouses on the show, I wish we saw more of Barr. All of the main men show up for the season finale, where a weekend trip to a ski resort turns into a battle of the sexes. It's alternately annoying and amusing at the same time (Julia and Mary Jo just need to lighten up sometime!), and finishes the episode and the season on a memorable note.
As with Season 1, the most laughs come from Burke and Smart. Suzanne continues to be an interesting mix of appearance-obsessed socialite and sincere friend/sister. Her continued lack of racial sensitivity is a recurring theme, usually at the expense of Anthony: "Did you ever stop to think, if we'd both been born in a different time and place--you know, both of us white--that we might have actually been friends?" Musings like that result in a combination of gasps and guffaws: In addition to referring to "you know, that movie: There's Some Black People Comin' Over for Dinner", Suzanne also yearns to be in an elite social club, worries about what people may think seeing an interracial couple ("It just wouldn't look right, the two of us staying in the same room!") and decides to give Anthony cash in lieu of attending a minority fundraiser.
But Suzanne also gets to impress her friends (and us) by showing how controlled she can be, adding a nice nuance that helps counterbalance her more cartoonish characteristics: "It's amazing, isn't it?" marvels Charlene. "I mean, most of the time she goes around without the sense God gave a goose. Look at her! I mean, one crisis and she's Scarlet O'Hara! Who'd a guessed it?!"
And that brings me to my personal favorite, the simple country girl filled with wide-eyed fascination and childlike curiosity. Smart continues to delight with her natural performance--of the four characters, Charlene is the most realistic and relatable (Mary Jo is a little too manic for my tastes), the one I'd most want to hang out with. Whether she's name-checking the likes of Al Pacino, Bob Barker or Vanna White; pondering the practicality of edible underwear; questioning the gap in Lauren Hutton's teeth; talking about her curious culinary skills ("I'm baking a raccoon, which is a delicacy in the Ozarks!"); dreaming about John Ritter; sharing a crazy memory (the raffle drawing story in the season opener is a hoot); differentiating eccentrics from the North and the South; or calling Jimmy Swaggart "the sexiest man in America" (I'll forgive you that one, Charlene), there's something so lovably random and quirky about her.
She's easily distracted and sidetracked, leading to some stream-of-consciousness ramblings that provide some of the show's greatest moments. I'll leave you with one of my favorites, prompted by Mary Jo's admission that she gained satisfaction at seeing her ex-husband Ted jealous:
"Oh, you mean like Splendor in the Grass? You know, when Natalie Wood got out of that mental hospital and she went to see Warren Beatty and that big fat homely wife and all those kids that lived on that dirt farm? You know, it's not that Natalie wanted to hurt Warren, but after the way he treated her, it probably did make her feel kind of good to see him in those big, filthy ol' coveralls."
1. 101 Ways to Decorate a Gas Station (aired 9-14-1987) Charlene's psychic makes a prediction that coincides with a grungy gas station owner winning a free interior decoration from Sugarbaker & Associates.
7. Heart Attacks (aired 11-9-1987) Julia faces the idea of Reece's death when he suffers a heart attack.
12. I'll Be Home for Christmas (aired 12-21-1987) Charlene and Anthony try to play Santa Claus for Mary Jo's disbelieving son on Christmas Eve, but their plan backfires when a second Santa arrives
18. High Rollers (aired 2-8-1988) Charlene and Anthony accompany Suzanne to Atlantic City, where she hopes to win big and pay off her debts. Julia and Mary Jo bemoan their maturity.