- Delta Burke, Orlando Sentinel, August 2, 1990
But all was not well on the set, and to understand the shift in roles this season you have to understand what was happening behind the scenes. Burke's battle with weight was well known to fans, her Season 4 episode chronicling her struggle leading to an Emmy nomination. Exactly what was said to her by producers Linda Bloodworth Thomason and Harry Thomason may never be known for sure, but it's clear that there was tension between the two parties--and the actress as least perceived things a certain way. That was made public in an August 2, 1990 article published by the Orlando Sentinel (Burke's hometown), where she voiced her displeasure with her job. The producers fired back, and Burke fired back again.
The whole country watched as Burke then aired her grievances during a Barbara Walters interview in November of 1990, shortly after this season started. Her complaints with how she was treated were also aired elsewhere in the media (who weren't always so kind in return), leading to further fractured relationships on the set--not just with the Thomasons, but also with castmate Dixie Carter, a close friend of Burke's who (like the rest of the cast) stood behind the show's creators. Burke claimed she was underappreciated and the cast was mistreated, while the producers claimed she was unprofessional. By missing some rehearsals, Burke had to be written out of at least one episode (the actress soon suing over her dock in pay).
It was the start of an ugly feud that wouldn't be resolved in time to bring Burke back for Season 6. Some mused that part of the change in Burke's outlook was prompted by husband Gerard McRaney, who's hit show Major Dad also aired on CBS at the same time (was he the Lee Majors to her Farrah Fawcett?). In the summer of 1991, People magazine published an informative article chronicling the trouble, and while all parties involved reconciled over the years (Burke would work with the Thomasons again, and she and Carter patched things up long before the latter's passing in 2010), the damage for Designing Women was done.
At that time, when watching installments weeks or more apart, it might not have been so apparent. But when watching these episodes back to back, it becomes clear that the writers were happy to leave Suzanne Sugarbaker in the background for Season 5. In addition to being absent entirely from two episodes, Burke's character isn't given any leading storylines this season (all of her co-stars get more meat, including Meshach Taylor's Anthony and even Alice Ghostley's Bernice)--and some of her outlandish behavior is left to after-the-fact, second-hand stories from the other characters (as for the subplot where she Maxi-Glues her lips shut, preventing her from speaking? Methinks the writers were maybe having some fun).
Suzanne lingers on the couch, ready with a well-timed quip and smile to make us laugh as usual--but there's a little something missing this season that prevents the character from shining as bright as she should (one of the reasons that makes her Emmy nomination for Lead Actress this season a little head-scratching). It's a shame, because everyone deserved better--and the show was never quite the same after the dust settled. Suzanne is just a little more sedate and less sparkly than usual, but she still proves to be an essential ingredient to the series.
And despite the ill will on the set, what we get on screen is still superb. Season 5 continues the high-quality, high-class comedy the show was known for. All it takes is one episode to get us back in the groove, complete with a trademark diatribe courtesy of the always spirited Dixie Carter, whose Julia--a.k.a "The Terminator" ("Able to annihilate jerks in a single bound!"), a.k.a. "the Eleanor Roosevelt of the '90s" ("You have always reminded me of her," gushes Charlene. "I mean, you're more attractive and you don't wear those orthopedic shoes...")--can't help but stick up for the sullied reputation of the South after her home gets placed in a historical tour to less-than-favorable results:
"We Southerners have had to endure many things, but ONE THING WE DO NOT HAVE to endure is a bunch of bored housewives turning historical homes into theme parks, not to mention ILL-mannered tourists with their BIG GULPS, SLURPEES, MISTYS and FROSTYS, their dirty feet overflowing rubber thongs and babies who sneeze Fudgesicle juice!"
Ahh...that's the stuff! I love me some Julia speak, and she gets her handful of opportunities this season--my favorite coming when the matron of Sugarbaker's loses her cool at a trial that's cutting into her personal time thanks to some stupid jurors: "I want you to pull up to the table and mark your ballots! And if you don't mark them right, I'm going to rip that fire extinguisher off the wall and blow your over-fed, under-read, simple-minded butts out onto the Fair Price Motel parking lot!" (That's just the first half of a speech that goes on to take a swipe at...June Allyson?!).
You see, when the calm and collected Julia loses her "S", it's a beauty to behold (I see a little bit of me in her, an angry side that usually only surfaces when on the phone with inept customer service people). And pity poor Charlene, who gets in the way--resulting in a great exchange in that same episode (the facial expressions of Jean Smart are one of the show's many strengths). "Predictable" Julia also gets out of her comfort zone and shows us a few different sides this season, always one of my favorite themes (Julia, a night club singer? Running?! Coaching a Little League Team?!! Get outta here!)
Less Suzanne also translates into more Mary Jo (Annie Potts), always my least favorite lead...simply because she can be such a killjoy. But she gets the juiciest, most heartfelt material to work with this season--including her refusal to play victim when her past comes back to haunt her, a desire to have more kids, a rant on the perception she faces as a single working mom (leading to a memorable clash with Charlene) and breaking out of her uptight shell to sew her wild oats: "I know in some ways I'm just a suburban mom, in other ways I'm a young woman who's just starting to learn how to have a good time and I need you to tell me I'm not being a slut!" You have to admire Mary Jo's pluckiness, as well as her love for her son--which comes pouring out during an argument with an umpire: "Oh come on...look at the pitcher! He's just a little boy, give him a break! I just think it would be so great for his self-esteem if he could just strike one person out!"
Her behavior in a few other episodes (dating an older man her daughter was interested in? ruining Charlene's special weekend with her husband?!) are out of character even for her, resulting in some of the season's weaker moments. Thankfully, Charlene is there at every turn to perk me up. Smart is her radiant self as the "donkey girl scout" (thank you, Suzanne!) with a heart of gold and an enthusiastic lust for current events and pop culture.
Her ramblings, as always, remain my favorite part of every episode, never ceasing to bring a smile to my face. Here's just a sampling of Season 5's gems:
Yes, you are Charlene...and I wouldn't have it any other way. Only you know how to get from Mildred Pierce to V05 commercials in a fraction of a second, and I love being on board your wacky ride. (Note that in Episode 16, near the 3:49 mark, you can tell part of the line "Did y'all know that politician left his wife to marry his son's nanny?" is dubbed; when initially filmed, the line was "Robin Williams" instead of "that politician"; the initial version of that line never aired, perhaps for fear of Williams anger.)
As for Suzanne, we don't get any episodes focused solely on any meaningful character development, so we're left with her amusing little traits that still manage to make us laugh in spite of our better judgment. She still carries a gun (and aims it on two occasions this season), she's still fixated on material possessions (those pearls cost how much?!) and she's still a little politically incorrect, particularly when it comes to black people: "That's very good, Anthony! I just love that negro humor! I don't know why they don't make more movies with scared black people in them!" Did I mention that as of this season, Anthony is now a full partner in the business? Not good news for Suzanne. (A late-season episode also tackles more modern day prejudice as the two vie for membership to an exclusive country club.)
Thankfully, she still has her catchphrases ("EXCUSE ME!", "Big whoo!") and still accentuates her Southern accent when saying the word "homosexual". Here are a few more of Suzanne's greatest hits from Season 5 (yep, she still remains the most quotable of the bunch):
Sigh, I miss you already, Delta! (Come back!) While on the surface she may seem like the most one-dimensional character here, Burke is able to show hints of complexity that show more depth (which sadly doesn't get explored enough this season). When she delivers a line like this...
"Better not start talking art with Julia, Charlene...she'll start reminiscing about her art school days in Paris. You know, when she studied at the Sore Buns."
...we know she's kidding, just trying to get under Julia's skin. She's smarter than she lets on, but she just wants to have fun--and in a show swirling with so much seriousness, that's an essential ingredient. Designing Women continues to tackle some important issues this installment: single motherhood, the justice system, plastic surgery, racism, the loss of a loved one. And even when the short running time can't do the issues complete justice, you still have to commend the writers for attempting to do something important, for caring enough to make the most of their 22 minutes.
In addition to his country club conflict and adjusting to the added responsibility of being a full partner, Anthony (nervous hyena laugh still intact) also has to content with a bully this season--as well as put up with Suzanne's comments: "Excuse me, are we talking about me wearing a period costume? Perhaps a little Kunta Kinte loin cloth ensemble with matching ripped-up shirt?" (Runner-up for best Anthony quote: "I wasn't raised like Opie Taylor or Beaver Cleaver...Opie and Beaver? Where do you white people get these names for your kids, anyway?!")
As for the other men in their lives, Season 5 comes with the off-screen passing of Reese (Hal Holbrook makes no appearances), while we get a one-episode return of J.D. (Richard Gilliland makes the most of his minutes on screen; I wish was on the show far more often...he's fantastic, and you can see why Jean Smart married him in real life). And what season would be complete without Doug Barr as Bill Stillfield, the dashing military man in Charlene's life? (Again, sadly, only one episode...which happens to be one of the season's weakest thanks to Mary Jo and Charlene's awful communication skills). Not surprisingly, none of Suzanne's former flames show up this season.
Bill's absence (he's off fighting in the Persian Gulf) creates some of the more meaningful moments of the season as Charlene tries to cope with raising her young daughter alone--and yearns for some male interaction, a struggle that surfaces in "Keep the Home Fires Burning". That episode also uses a World War II flashback, and if that sounds familiar, it should: The show used the same trick in Season 2, Episode 9 ("I'll Be Seeing You")--where Charlene is granted her birthday wish for a soldier and dreams the ladies are part of the USO back in WWII. Julia sings in both, Mary Jo wears the same outfit in both...making the trick seem a little tired this time around (and the absence of Burke in the episode doesn't help).
Also on deck are WKRP in Cincinnati's Richard Sanders as the sexually frustrated Dr. Elliot Newhouse, who takes a liking to new student Charlene ("You know, you really do have amazing insights! You also happen to be stacked like the Library of Congress!"); he's a curious Season 5 guest star considering he appeared as a completely different character (oddball Elmer) earlier that year in Season 4's "Tornado Watch" (Episode 20).
We also get five appearances from Ghostley as the scatterbrained and oddball Bernice ("Mary Jo, you're the sexy nymphet with the pert ones in this group...tell us how you make your clients' fantasies come true!"), the most prominent coming in an episode that chronicles the aftermath of some bad plastic surgery. Yeah, the makeup is pretty unconvincing (I actually thought Bernice was pulling everyone's leg to make a point) and the conclusion is far too unrealistic and tidy (what is this, a cartoon?), but it's still a hoot (although I've never been sold on the character, nor the actress's line delivery). And making four appearances this season is Lexi Randall as little Randa Oliver, a feisty client that clashes with Julia before eventually turning a new leaf. Two of her appearances make sense for the storylines, but the other two are somewhat pointless--she's just there, as if she was dumped on the studio's doorstep and they needed to put her somewhere.
But Season 5's offenses are minor and forgivable, and it remains a perfect bookend to Season 1 as essential additions the library of any fan of quality television. Things get a little trickier next go-round, but for now just sit back and enjoy.
"Hey Julia, don't put a damper on us...we're good at this stream of consciousness thing!"
1. A Blast From the Past (aired 9-17-1990) Sugarbaker's is put on a historical tour of homes, and Julia becomes irate at the selling of the myth of the Old South.
7. Old Rebels and Young Models (aired 11-5-1990) Charlene's baby auditions for a modeling job.
13. Pearls of Wisdom (aired 1-7-1991) Mary Jo switches her knockoff pearls for Suzanne's real ones and then loses them at a restaurant.
19. Blame It On New Orleans (aired 3-4-1991) The ladies attend a convention in New Orleans, and Mary Jo has a fling with a man who turns out to be married.