Saturday Matinee #141: "The Golden Girls: Twenty-Eight Years Young!" (September 14, 1985)
Published September 14, 2013
by Albert Gutierrez
This week on Saturday Matinee, we'll take a break from the traditional Disney cartoons to celebrate one of Disney's most acclaimed live-action productions: hit and hip sitcom "The Golden Girls." The series holds a very notable place in Disney history, as it was the very first television series produced by Disney's new television studio, Touchstone Films Television Division (later Touchstone Television, currently ABC Studios). This new division continued Disney's foray into adult-minded fare, serving as the natural extension of their adult-branded "Touchstone Films" banner, which made its theatrical debut in 1984 with the highly-successful romantic comedy Splash. "The Golden Girls," a co-production between Touchstone and Witt-Thomas Productions, eventually would herald a string of successes for Disney in television, namely in spin-offs such as "Empty Nest" and "Nurses," with the studio creating its own hits throughout the 1990s with "Home Improvement," "Dinosaurs," "Boy Meets World," and "Ellen." None of these sitcoms might have been produced had it not been for Disney's success with "The Golden Girls." So let's sit back, relax, and return to September 14, 1985, when "The Golden Girls" premiered.
Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur) has arrived home from her job as substitute teacher. She complains about the terrible students she dealt with to live-in cook, Coco (Charles Levin, whose character was dropped after this episode). Later on, roommate Rose Nylund (Betty White) comes home, from a depressing day at the grief counseling center. Completing the threesome is Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan), getting ready for a date with Harry. While Blanche prepares, Dorothy and Rose muse on about getting old, a prospect met with both reluctance and apathy. The two try to press Blanche to tell them more about Harry, and she rages on about him.
Blanche: He doesn't talk loud at the movies, doesn't take his own pulse, and... he's still interested.
Rose: In what?
Dorothy: Rose, if you have to ask, it does not matter anymore.
Later, she lets it slip that he proposed, expecting an answer tonight. The doorbell rings, and we see that it's not Harry, but Dorothy's mother, Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty). Her retirement home, Shady Pines, burned down, so she took a cab to the house. Sophia's a bit more straightforward than her daughter, her mouth not containing a filter of any kind. We learn it's due to a stroke she had, which rendered her unable to censor her thoughts. Harry eventually shows up for the date, charming most everyone except Sophia.
Blanche: Sophia's home just burned down.
Harry: Well, that's terrible.
Sophia: Not to me. It was a retirement home. You know what they did? They set off a fire alarm in a retirement home. Who can rush? Half the people have walkers, the other half can't get out of their chairs, but they've got bells going off like crazy. You know what that does to hearts that only beat a few times a week? It's not pretty.
Rose is visibly upset about the prospect that Blanche may marry Harry, leaving her and Dorothy homeless. She declares that they are alone, as their husbands are gone, and their kids have their own lives. Eventually, Blanche returns from her date, and admits that she's decided to marry Harry. Dorothy and Rose have conflicting feelings towards Blanche's decision, with Rose naturally more cautious about it all, while Dorothy is genuinely happy. We learn more about each character, as Rose and Blanche's husbands have both died, while Dorothy's divorced. Sophia, in her continued state of confusion, joins them and Coco in the living room.
Rose: Sophia, did we wake you?
Sophia: I heard noise, I thought it was robbers, so I hid my jewels. Now, I can't remember where.
Dorothy: Ma, you don't have any jewels.
Sophia: Thank god, because I can't find them.
It's the day of the wedding, but Harry is nowhere to be seen. Rose feels extremely suspicious about him, and wants to tell Blanche about her feelings. Dorothy, not believing Rose, does everything to keep her from saying anything, including covering her mouth and locking her in a closet. Unfortunately, Harry ends up a no-show, with a police officer stopping by to deliver the news: he's been arrested for polygamy, already married to six other wives. Blanche is visibly upset, but three weeks later, has finally come out of her stupor, and thanks Dorothy and Rose for supporting her in this time of need.
Blanche: I was feeling good because of you. You made the difference. You're my family, and you make me happy to be alive.
Rose: Let's all drive to Coconut Grove for lunch. My treat, we have to celebrate!
Sophia: What, that she came out of her room?
Rose: That we're together!
Dorothy: And no matter what happens, even if we all get married, we'll stick together.
When watching the first episode of "The Golden Girls" today, I noticed a decidedly much slower pacing compared to other episodes, with a comedic tone not yet fully realized. Aside from the final scene, much of the episode takes place overnight, consisting of Blanche's date with Harry in the early evening, her return later that night, and their impromptu wedding the next morning. As a result, while we do get to know the girls over the course of an evening, we don't know as much about them. In addition, their personalities are still somewhat shaky. Dorothy's sardonic wit has more anger than later episodes, while Rose is not as entirely dumb as she'll be later on. Blanche in particular feels least-developed in the pilot. Her story with Harry does not really allow the audience to know her as much as they do Dorothy and Rose.
In comparison to other episodes, the pilot does feel rather underwhelming. Then again, this is coming from a perspective of a "Golden Girls" fan who's watched the entirety of the series several times over within the last twenty-odd years. My familiarity with the show has made me know these characters very much like I do old friends - or, in this case, pals and confidantes. Watching the world's introduction to them, I should keep in mind that a 1985 audience came in cold to these characters. They live in a world where Bea Arthur reminds them of Maude, Betty White charms as Sue Ann Nivens, and Rue McClanahan played second banana to both (having portrayed Vivian on "Maude" and Fran on "Mama's Family"). Estelle Getty stood out as the complete unknown, familiar only to those who saw her stage work. Thus, it's slightly understandable why the creators only intended for her to be recurring, with Coco the gay cook (Charles Levin) poised to be the sassy uncensored voice when Sophia wasn't around. But Coco's appearances here are quite minimal, almost like they knew ahead of time that the character wouldn't be a success. Sophia became the breakout character, her immense popularity during the pilot recording and preview screenings led to her becoming the fourth Golden Girl, while Coco disappeared without another word.
Ultimately, the foursome that we get here works. Bea Arthur's Maude was one of the strongest female characters on television in the 1970s, and Dorothy looked poised to be another Maude, albeit one with a bit more emotional baggage. In addition, Rose and Blanche were polar opposites of their performers' past roles. An oft-told tale, Betty White and Rue McClanahan auditioned for each other's roles, but director Jay Sandrich suggested they switch so as to avoid typecasting, White in particular. Blanche felt too much like Sue Ann Nivens. Perhaps that is the freshness that allowed audiences to embrace the series so quickly. Familiar actors in slightly familiar, or completely opposite, roles, coupled with a standout new performer who audiences just can't get enough of.
The pilot ended up scoring a 25.0 rating, easily beating its competition: repeats of telemovies In Like Flynn (8.4 on ABC, a mix of Romancing the Stone with "Remington Steele") and Illusions (7.8 on CBS, a generic whodunit mystery). Granted, summer repeats (and of telemovies, no less) were bound to lose out to new programming anyway, especially given NBC's dominance on Saturday nights during the 1980s. When regular programming began for the rest of the season, "The Golden Girls" maintained high ratings, ending the season in the Top 10 (at #7), while CBS and ABC's offerings on Saturdays at 9 failed to even chart (the short-lived shows "Lime Street," "Lady Blue," and "Fortune Dane" on ABC, and the respectably-rated "Saturday Night Movie" filler on CBS).
In Disney's 1985 Annual Report, they made special note about the success of "The Golden Girls" as it played a major part in Disney's triumphant to television. Indeed, September 14 not only saw the debut of "The Golden Girls" on NBC, but popular cartoon "The Adventures of the Gummi Bears" (also on NBC) and the short-lived classic "The Wuzzles" (on CBS). Coupled with the return of the anthology series on ABC in early 1986, the company now had an unprecedented presence on all three broadcast networks, in addition to their own premium cable channel. Ironically, the beginning of the Disney Channel in 1983 led to the end of the long running anthology series on network television. At the time, the company elected to focus programming on cable rather than the now-twenty-nine year old television series, fearing both would cancel each other out. Now, with slightly stabler ground, as well as the confidence from Disney's other hit television shows, the anthology series could return to television in a grand way.
The complete series of "The Golden Girls" was released, season by season, between 2004 and 2007. The series saw a "Complete Collection" release in 2010, with packaging shaped like Sophia's bamboo purse. You can also catch repeats on Hallmark Channel, TV Land, and Logo TV.