"Charlene, I don't want to hear anymore about this Lady June person! First of all, anybody who would call themselves by that name must have a serious problem. And secondly, who the heck is she, anyway?"
"Well, she's the founder of our company! She's our mentor and teacher and best friend for life!"
"I know that, Charlene...I mean, who is she to form this little cult of Stepford wives?"
"...did y'all see that movie?! That was a good movie!"
And that, my friends, is why I love Designing Women. All it takes is a little sidetrack from the lovable yet easily distracted Charlene to get me smiling (you can take the girl out of Poplar Bluff, but you can't take Poplar Bluff out of the girl). And as the sitcom's third season played out, the cast and crew were in a comfortable groove that had the women as smart and sassy as ever.
Not much has changed at Atlanta's Sugarbaker & Associates--the weight gain controversy and dismissal of Delta Burke was still two seasons away, with the resulting cast changes and drop in quality soon to follow. No, this is still comfort food viewing--with a lot of intelligence in its scripts and passion in its performances, Designing Women was not only mature for its time, it's mature by today's primetime television standards. Sure it has was some might view as a liberal slant (something I might argue with, at least in these earlier seasons), and some of the scenarios are a stretch--most of them created to set up Julia Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter) for a fiery speech. But you have to love a series that has a stance, gives divergent views a voice, knows how to make us laugh and isn't afraid to make fun of itself.
By now, the personalities of the four leading ladies have been sharply defined, and the cast runs with it. Julia is still "The Terminator" and proud of it ("I know I can be sanctimonious and self-righteous"), making her rare breaks from character all the more enjoyable (and her big glasses are back, too!); the sometimes-insensitive Suzanne (Burke) still draws most of her life lessons from her days on the pageant circuit--and still manages to be sweet and insulting at the same time ("Suzanne! Must you always do that? Treat Anthony as if he's the eunuch of the harem?"); the imaginative Charlene Frazier (Jean Smart) is still prone to stream-of-consciousness sidetracks filled with pop culture adoration; while Mary Jo (Annie Potts) remains the show's most "normal" character (and for my tastes the least fun one), a nervous wreck whose lack of confidence and huffy, dorm-slamming tirade entrances dominate her frequently whiny screen time (but as the frequent voice of reason, you still gotta love and root for her).
Also returning for the ride this year are put-upon delivery man Anthony (Meshach Taylor), once again drawn into the ladies' wacky adventures (and a frequent target of Suzanne's stupidity: "Charlene, we just can't go rushing off into the night driving through the dark Georgia woods with Anthony...it just would not look right!"); and Bernice (Alice Ghostley), their scatterbrained and kooky elderly sidekick ("I think Bernice is a little ling on dry wall and a little short on studs..."). They team up for a few memorable moments, and Anthony's venture into drag (and frequent outcries of "Some white woman!") enlivens the already funny "Wilderness Experience".
The designing men also make a few appearances throughout the season: Julia's beau Reese (Carter's real-life companion Hal Holbrook, who also directs an episode this season) gets minimal time; Mary Jo's boyfriend J.D. (Smart's real-life companion Richard Gilliland) gets more juicy script time, but is oddly "dumped" via dialogue in Episode 17 (an odd move considering episode 16 focuses on his relationship with Mary Jo); while Air Force captain Bill Stillfield (Douglas Barr) gets the most time, his solid relationship with Charlene building to their wedding in Episode 18 (they remain one of television's best couples ever).
Along the way, Season 3 offers a lot of memorable episodes (in addition to the aforementioned "The Junies", one of my favorites) that play to the show's strengths. Julia's politics and passion are ignited the most in Episode 2, where she runs for a seat on the local board of commissioners (primarily to combat the controversial views of the conservative opposition); and in the season finale, where a risqué advertisement has her starting a crusade against smut ("Pornography is not free speech...it's commerce."). Both episodes offer some rousing speeches--not all of which I agree with, but you have to love their conviction (the cathartic end of Episode 2 is one of my favorites). But the show also proves it can step away from its comfort zone and still be hysterical when mining more conventional sitcom material--Mary Jo's desire for bigger boobs in Episode 5 is a hoot, and also refreshing considering Julia doesn't react the way you might expect.
Another silly set-up (involving Suzanne's pet pig and a gun) invigorates "Full Moon", an episode that also gives Julia some gun control fodder (and features a hysterical "subliminal message" gag used to great effect); while the late, great Wendy Jo Sperber (Bosom Buddies) and some suggestive photos pep up "The Women of Atlanta" (Julia + pearls = funny). Charlene's attempt to impress Bill's upper-crusty family in "The Engagement" is also amusing ("She said, 'Tell me Charlene, do you have a habit?' And I said, 'No, I'm just nervous.'"); it reminded me of one of my favorite episodes of Friends, where Lisa Kudrow goes through the exact same nightmare (in an odd coincidence, both episodes feature a character named Phoebe, played here by Anne Haney--another late and great industry veteran). Also look for Carter's real-life daughters Ginna and Mary Dixie, who play the nieces (and hysterical younger versions of) Julia and Suzanne in "The Naked Truth".
There are a few misfires along the way--the worst episode by far is (sadly) the wedding episode, an empty effort that feels like a clip show even though it isn't; and Mary Jo's reaction to J.D.'s unemployment goes a little too far in "Mr. Meal Ticket", where you'll be annoyed with her immaturity. I also wasn't too enamored with the circus on display in "The Last Humorously-Dressed Bellboy in America", where Suzanne tries to get even with a man who wronged her; and the firm's encounter with a cat in "Mr. Bailey" turns what should have been a small subplot into the main course. As for the season opener, it's fun--but isn't quite as fantastic as the Season 2 finale, which also brought together all the couples for a weekend getaway that turns into a battle of the sexes. (I could also do without the show's continued annoying habit of inserting jarring bits of sappy music to suddenly signify "important" scenes, which would be far more meaningful and effective with a silent soundtrack.)
But even the weaker episodes are still packed with amusing exchanges and memorable scenes, and as a whole this season keeps the series flying high. If you've read my reviews of Season 1 and Season 2, you know why I love these characters and why the show ticks. That all still applies here, so I thought I'd let their own words speak for themselves--and how entertaining Designing Women is. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do:
"'Tiny Bubbles'?! Suzanne, Don King does not sing 'Tiny Bubble's...that's Don Ho! She just does it to drive me insane. It's like we're the Smothers' Brothers, and she's Tommy and I'm Dick."
"Who would have thought of homemade food in a gas station? Is that just in the South or what? I mean, now you can go in, get your tires checked, buy some birth control in the bathroom and have a little turkey and dressing on your way out."
"A training bra? You little people have to train yours, and you call us dumb!"
"You know, I've been included in a lot of groups in my life, but I must say, this 'little breasts' category is--for me--a first."
"I don't believe in bisexuals. I figure the rest of us have to choose, so why shouldn't they?" - Suzanne
"You know Charlene, I get a little tired of you berating me just because I do not know the same people you do. And for your information, I can name a lot of Eddies! I can name Eddie Fisher, Eddie Cantor, I can even name Eddie Amin! But I'm sorry, I do not know Eddie Haskell!"
"No Suzanne, we do not think that is silly--the idea of a nice, college homecoming queen ceremony where you yourself would be rooting for a 30-year-old black man seems not only logical, but very dignified."
"I've never seen such a tidy room for a man who wasn't unnaturally close to his mother..."
"I realize that different people have different definitions of what is obscene. I myself may not be able to define pornography, but I know it when I run over it."
"I can tell when a man's interested in me...I have a sixth sense. Danny only has four! That's just too weird for me..."
"Oh for Pete's sake. Every time you two get a little cranky you start going on these man-bashing jags, you know? 'Men are the cause of all trouble in the world!', 'Men invented high heels and cheap pantyhose!' I bet you next thing you know, you'll be accusing them of that whatchamacallit...that, uh...PMS envy!"
"None of the women in my family perspire!"
Suzanne: "Let me get this straight...he's never had a girlfriend, he knits sweaters and he works at a beauty shop? Well, I don't mean to get personal Charlene, but has it ever occurred to you that maybe Odell is involved in some homosexual activity?"
"Charlene, the man publishes a porno magazine...he's gonna be susceptible to an incredibly sexy woman--and I'm gonna give it to him with both barrels!"
"Anthony, isn't it true that if a man gets kicked down there, he is debilitated, right?"
"Isn't it amazing how specific these magazines are? I mean, there is something for everybody! There's one out there all about feet! I mean, can you believe that?! I've never seen anything like it in my life. I mean, if a person liked that they could just get a Kenny's catalog and have a real good time!"
1. Reservations for 12, Plus Ursula (aired 11-14-1988) A voluptuous au pair stirs up friction between the men and the women during a vacation to the beach.
7. Curtains (aired 1-2-1989) As a textile company's biggest client, Sugarbaker's is targeted for protests by striking laborers. Mary Jo has trouble getting her car repaired.
12. The Junies (aired 2-20-1989) Charlene takes on a part-time job selling Lady June cleaning products
18. Come On and Marry Me, Bill (aired 4-10-1989) Charlene's wedding hits a bump when she finds Bill handcuffed to an exotic dancer.