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Designing Women: Season Four
The entertainment industry--and the world--lost a great one to cancer on April 10th of 2010, just one week after my review of Designing Women: Season 3 was posted. But thanks to Shout Factory, we can continue to enjoy the perfection that is Dixie Carter--a woman who embodied the style and class that made the show so special. Even when southern belle Julia Sugarbaker gets her head stuck in the banister of a historical stairwell just hours before the Governor's Ball (a dare prompted by her three cohorts in crime, who accuse the design matriarch of not being silly or spontaneous enough), she keeps her cool. It's one of the season's best episodes, with Carter showing grace, humility and humor under pressure--a rare combo that few actresses can pull off.
It's one of the fun annual "Julia gets embarrassed" episodes, showing that physical comedy is another gift in Carter's arsenal (don't worry, she also delivers one of her signature fiery speeches). "This is worse than the day you mooned Atlanta," notes sister Suzanne (Delta Burke). "At least you didn't have to look people in the eye!" The potential staircase disaster also sends the governor's manager into a tizzy, prompting an entertaining war of words that keeps the women on edge.
"You know, I think you're a little over the top with this Abbott Bannister thing," says the calm Charlene as the stick-in-the-mud manager continues to freak out. "I could understand if this was the staircase from Gone with the Wind or even Psycho, but personally, I have never even heard of the Abbott Bannister, and you know I think maybe it's just gotten exaggerated a little bit in your mind....maybe you should think about getting interested in something else." In an episode filled with fury, it's a nice change of pace--a line delivered with the simple yet honest observational wit that Jean Smart did so well. Yep, the quality in this installment is just as high as it ever was, continuing the show's remarkable run at the top.
The outstanding episode proves Designing Women didn't have to rely on hot-topic issues to stand out. Even when it was just focused on being funny without any perceived agenda (which I might argue anyway), it was still one of the best sitcoms of its time--and continues to hold up remarkably well after all these years.
Season 4 is particularly noteworthy for a few reasons, and I'm not talking about all the new hairstyles (although I'm loving Mary Jo in dark auburn). Burke received an Emmy nomination for this season (her first of two), primarily due for her work on the episode "They Shoot Fat Women, Don't They?" , which chronicled Suzanne's struggle with weight gain--brought to the forefront after the cruel behavior of some of her former classmates at a high school reunion. It's one of the show's more potent moments, and illustrates how adept the series was at blending genres--tackling a serious issue with a remarkably refreshing sense of humor (I would never jokingly call any episode of Designing Women a "very special episode", a phrase reserved for lesser sitcoms that weren't mature enough to convincingly handle the material).
"I'll admit I have put on a few pounds here and there, but you all act like I should be ordering fabric over at Georgia Tent & Awning!" exclaims Suzanne, whose anger-filled rice cake diet is visited throughout the season. Burke's real-life struggle with weight became tabloid fodder at the time, and additional tensions behind the scenes would eventually change the landscape of the show for good (Burke sticks around for one more season, but the conflict between her and the creators erupted in the fall of the fifth season).
And for critics who accused the show of having a political agenda (I'd say it responsibility expressed various points of view), the references in Season 4 (which aired in 1989-90) seem slightly higher (it's all harmless fun and never becomes the focal point of the show). In addition to a handful of references to then-Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton in the second episode (he's a friend of Charlene's...who knew?!), we also get some smiles at Dan Quayle's expense ("I sent him s little note just to cheer him up," says Charlene of the true story, "you know, after he got mixed up and said that Buzz what's-his-name who was a sex offender, you know, walked on the moon...anybody can make a mistake!") and a few Reagan references (Julia isn't the biggest fan).
But I defy you to tell me this isn't funny: "Julia, you've been ranting and raving about Ron and Nancy Reagan for nine years now, and I and the rest of the American people are sick of it!" argues Suzanne. "I remember when it all started, at their first inauguration. Nancy was wearing that over-the-shoulder white dress and a string of pearls, and she looked stunning. But Julia goes, 'I don't know what everyone's carrying on about! Wilma Flintstone's been wearing that outfit for years!'"
Suzanne's catch phrase is in full force this season ("EXCUSE ME!" pause "EXCUSE ME!"), and she remains just as clueless about how her race-related comments may come across as insensitive: "I don't care what anyone says about the 'New South'. It's just like that time we went to Memphis. I mean, any time you put one black man and three well-heeled white women together, it's just gonna look strange, and that's all there is to it!" It's a habit the show constantly revisits, and you may find yourself a tad stunned that they dared to go there. The discomfort reaches its apex in "The Rowdy Girls", where Suzanne wears dark makeup (awkward!) as the women channel The Supremes for a charity event. But since Anthony gives his semi-seal of "it's not really blackface" approval ("It's very complicated...I certainly don't think one should do it while one is tap dancing and eating watermelon"), the show at least has a dialogue about it. (If it was up to Suzanne, they wouldn't even be The Supremes: "If we're going to be black people, I would rather be those ones that sang that 'Midnight Train to Georgia' song. You know, Gladys Knight and the Pimps.")
Don't worry, though--Suzanne shows just as much insensitivity toward Japanese people ("I just hate traveling to under-developed lands!"), the less fortunate ("Whenever people talk about seeing the 'real' anything, what they're talking about basically is hanging around with poor people!") and homosexuals--excuse me, homa-sexuals. That includes the entertaining "Suzanne Goes Looking for a Friend", where a former pageant competitor turns out to be a lesbian--resulting in some discomfort for all of the women (poor, stupid Suzanne, thinking "coming out" refers to a cotillion: "That's ridiculous! Who ever heard of a lesbian debutante?"). But my favorite Suzanne moment comes in "There She Is", where the former Miss Georgia learns that a clerical error means she has to surrender her crown.
Meanwhile, Charlene gives birth this season, the writers deciding to work Smart's real-life pregnancy into the show (real-life hubby Richard Gilliland played Mary Jo's love interest J.D.). Appearing a handful of times is Doug Barr as Colonel Bill "Top Buns" Stillfield, the couple remaining one of TV's treasures. And Smart remains the standout of the series--can you believe she's the only non-Southerner of the bunch? She's so good at creating authentic stories from Charlene's past, you feel like you're talking with a close friend. She's also the funniest--whereas Suzanne gets all the glory with the big jokes and persona, Charlene is more sweet and subtle with her humor--which comes across far more real and relatable.
Whether she's expressing her fondness for old films, talking about her family or sharing a story from the newspaper, Charlene (and Smart) is irresistible: "I can't believe this! Did you see this?! Droves of vicious killer bees are heading toward the United States! They're from South America, expected to arrive in three or four years. That is terrible! Can you imagine?! I bet our bees are scared to death!" Exhibit B, one of my favorite lines this season: "Did y'all see this? A guy in Florida's offering reincarnation insurance. Pay $9.95, and then when you come back in the next life you get 10 million dollars. Come back as a plant or animal you get 20 million...that is absolutely ridiculous I mean, what if I came back as a rhododendron? What the heck am I gonna do with 20 million dollars? Buy Miracle-Gro for all my friends?"
Julia has more than just the banister embarrassment to deal with this season (careful with that alcohol!), while an encounter with an old high school admirer reaches for the heartstrings (even if it is a little heavy handed). Meanwhile, Mary Jo (Annie Potts) continues to be a wreck, her lack of self confidence in the romance department leading to some of the more annoying moments this season (although seeing Suzanne admonish her friend for the giant box of tampons in her shopping cart makes it all worth it: "Mary Jo! Men do not come up and talk to a woman who's wheeling around a 25-pound sack of dog food and a big box of Kotex!").
Anthony (Meshach Taylor) joins Suzanne in more wacky encounters this season, including a cross-dressing caper that conjures up images of Karen and Rosario from Will & Grace (hmm, were they partially patterned by that template?). It's off the wall but works, especially when we get to see the return of Anthony's nervous laugh. As for a different mishap in the graduation episode? I wasn't too keen on it (a little too irresponsible, Suzanne!). Anthony is also busy dividing his attention between two love interests: uptight yuppie Lita Ford (played by Mariann Aalda, not Lita Ford) and the vivacious Vanessa (Olivia Brown), a hooker with a heart of gold (okay, she's not really a hooker, but that describes her perfectly). Brown is a nice breath of fresh air this season, throwing a little pizzazz into her four appearances (sadly, she never returned).
Then there's crazy Bernice (Alice Ghostley), who is as off the wall as ever. While I was initially less than enthusiastic about the character in earlier seasons, she's grown on me. Sure she has some groaners ("I think Phyllis is trying to get me declared impotent!"), for the most part her zingers are pretty solid this season ("Why is it that just because you get old, all of a sudden you're supposed to be able to make stuff?"). And the episode devoted to her quirky nature ("Bernice's Sanity Hearing") is a winner.
There are a few misfires this season: The "annual trip with the boyfriends" episode is far too silly for its own good (Mary Jo's behavior and the hillbilly bar fight kill it for me), the worst of the show's usually entertaining battle of the sexes (far better is the finale, where the women are at odds with each other at a health resort). And the hour-long episode where Charlene gives birth (and gets a visit from guardian movie star Dolly Parton) is stretched a little too much, lessening the impact of some of its more poignant moments (which are also ruined by "Somewhere Out There"...remember when that was popular?!). That episode also features the one thing that continues to irritate me the most about the show--it's abrupt use of sappy music to signify an "emotional moment", ones that would be far more effective if they were left alone. It's a total buzz kill, ruining what could be far more impactful moments. The tactic rears its annoying head in the second episode (you can practically hear then yelling "Cue the music!") and returns often--including in "The Rowdy Girls", where guest Kim Zimmer (Guiding Light) tries to make sense of her predicament.
Other guests this season include Hal Holbrook as Julia's man Reese, sadly in his last series appearance; Gilliland, who also just gets one appearance; George Newbury, who returns as Julia's son; WKRP in Cincinnati's Richard Sanders, stripping down to his skivvies; Leann Hunley from Days of Our Lives/Dynasty (given the unfortunate task of delivering the season's most uncomfortable line of dialogue); the late great Lloyd Bochner, also of Dynasty (among many other projects); and Bruce Davison of, you know, everything. But my favorite guest is Henry Cho as put-upon cowboy Sam, who politely puts the Sugarbakers in their place on a plane. (If you're excited to see more of Suzanne's pig, I'm sorry to tell you that Noelle ran away.)
Pop culture references making their way into the scripts or on the screen this season (always one of my favorite parts of the show) include Jim Baker, Manuel Noriega, Oh's cereal, culottes, Mandingo, Donald Trump (the new Dick Clark?), Deliverance, Leona Helmsley, "Don't Worry, Be Happy", Donohue, Steel Magnolias, the Lindsay Wagner TV movie Princess Daisy, Anita Bryant (always a favorite target), Star Search junior, macramé, calypso pants and Unsolved Mysteries, Suzanne's favorite show. It's also a hoot to watch the women get play Trivial Pursuit or the Jeopardy! board game, the competitiveness getting the best of them in the finale (I could watch a whole episode of them doing this...hysterical!)
You have to hand it to the writers for trying to inject the series with more social relevance. Regardless of how you stand on politics, animal rights, maintenance men with ill-fitting jeans, breast feeding in public, world hunger or homa-sexuality (I found it interesting that the bowling alley episode script had one guest character talk about how they have "chosen an alternative lifestyle"), it's refreshing that the show is intelligent enough to at least start the dialogue without forcing a view on us. And even without those moments, Designing Women remains one heck of an inspired, funny series--surprising us with random musings about anything and everything, observations that are still funny today. Take it away, Suzanne!
The 27 episodes are spread across four discs; most average 23 minutes, but there are two double-length episodes: "The First Day of the Last decade of the Entire Twentieth Century", where Charlene gives birth; and "Their Finest Hour", a clip show:
1. The Proxy Pig (aired 9-18-1989) Suzanne's pg runs away, and she's left looking for someone to dote on. Mary Jo attempts to impress her high school rival by pretending she lives in the home Sugarbaker's is decorating.
2. One Night with You (aired 9-25-1989) Donald Gilman, a terminally ill classmate of Julia's, has one dying request.
3. There She Is (aired 10-2-1989) A newly discovered clerical error proves that Suzanne was not the winner of the Miss Georgia title in 1975--and she must hand over her crown to the true winner.
4. Nightmare from Hee Haw (aired 10-16-1989) A canoeing trip in the remote Georgia woods goes bad when the Sugarbaker ladies and their men encounter three troublesome hillbillies.
5. The Girlfriend (aired 10-23-1989) After Sugarbaker's fires a contractor, they hire Anthony to complete the work.
6. The Rowdy Girls (aired 10-30-1989) Anthony and the Sugarbaker ladies prepare a song-and-dance routine as The Supremes for a benefit show; Charlene discovers her cousin Mavis is a victim of abuse.
7. Bernice's Sanity Hearing (aired 11-13-1989) When her niece tries to have her declared incompetent, Bernice enlists the Sugarbaker gals to come to her defense.
8. Julia Gets her Head Stuck in a Fence (aired 11-20-1989) Sugarbaker's is hired to decorate the Governor's mansion for the annual ball, and Julia gets stuck in an antique banister while tagging a gag picture for Mary Jo.
9. Julia and Suzanne's Big Adventure (aired 11-27-1989) Julia and Suzanne take a trip to Tokyo, but are soon left penniless. Anthony and Mary Jo run up a huge phone bill.
10. Manhunt (aired 12-4-1989) Afraid of being an old maid for the rest of he rlife, Mary Jo accepts Suzann's help in finding a new boyfriend.
11. They Shoot Fat women, Don't They? (aired 12-11-1989) Suzann's high school reunion brings her weight to the forefront of conversation.
12. You've Got to Have Friends (aired 12-18-1989) Mary Jo is forced to take a job at a fast food restaurant after her ex-husband falls behind in his child support payments.
13. The First Day of the Last Decade of the Entire Twentieth Century (aired 1-1-1990) Charlene goes into labor on New Year's Eve with her friends by her side, and Suzanne cheers her on--in the hopes of winning a brand new car.
14. The Mistress (aired 1-8-1990) Sugarbaker's is confronted with a moral dilemma when they are hired to decorate two homes: one for the client's wife and the other for his mistress.
15. The Fur Flies (aired 1-15-1990) Suzanne is assaulted by animal rights activists while she is modeling a fur during a fashion show; Charlene is forced to look for a new nanny.
16. Oh, What a Feeling (aired 1-29-1990) Sugarbaker's is in desperate need of a new dlievry van, but negotiating for a great deal turns into more than they bargained for.
17. Anthony and Vanessa (aired 2-5-1990) When the wild-spirited but warm-hearted Vanessa falls for Anthony, Suzanne helps make her over so she can win his attention.
18. Payne Grows Up (aired 2-19-1990) When Julia's son announces he's getting married, Julia realizes she is also growing older.
19. Tornado Watch (aired 2-26-1990) Everyone in Atlanta is urged to stay indoors during a severe tornado watch, trapping the Sugarbaker ladies with a crazy mix of people.
20. Tough Enough (aired 3-12-1990) Hoping to get a contract to remodel a bowling alley, Sugarbaker's tries to out-macho another design firm.
21. It's a Wonderful Life (aired 3-19-1990) Charlene is overcome with feelings of self-doubt after the birth of Olivia.
22. Suzanne Goes Looking for a Friend (aired 4-9-1990) Suzanne rekindles a friendship with an old pal form her beauty pageant days, but is shocked when she finds out the woman is gay.
23. Foreign Affairs (aired 4-30-1990) When her maid needs to apply for citizenship to keep from being deported, Suzanne persuades Anthony to impersonate Consuela.
24. Have Faith (aired 5-7-1990) After she starts dating a minister, Mary Jo decides she is unworthy of hjis attention and tries to break off the relationship.
25. Their Finest Hour (aired 5-9-1990) A clip show of the first four seasons.
26. Anthony's Graduation (aired 5-14-1990) Anthony overcomes a visit by his family, writer's block, hysteria and being shot to make it to his college graduation.
27. La Place Sans Souci (aired 5-21-1990) Suzanne and Charlene square off against Mary Jo and Julia when they are put on very different diet and exercise programs at a posh health spa.
If you're familiar with the previous season releases, you know what's in store with this full-frame release--a rough looking picture that's passable. Colors are a little oversaturated at times, black levels don't impress and there isn't sharp line to be found (the opening credit names and episode titles really show off the weaknesses). Still, it's not anything close to preventing a soloid recommendation for the set.
The 2.0 track is also as it has been, decent enough if lacking in clarity and sharpness.
Trailers for other Shout releases is all we get.
Still in its groove, Designing Women continues to incite laughs and passionate debate in its fourth season--best remembered for the episode that tackled the well-publicized weight gain of one of its stars. A smart sitcom that's able to laugh at itself, it combines socially responsible scripts with plenty of silly scenarios--and holds up remarkably well after 20 years. Highly Recommended.