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Monday, June 4, 2012

'Desinging Women' S6: Transition 'Sarah Palin' Year

Like an exceptional restaurant that has an occasional off night, the early '90s sitcom "Designing Women" deserves a mulligan for its very well-intentioned but somewhat ill-conceived sixth season. The good news is that watching episodes from Shout Factory's April 2012 release of that season showed those presentations are much better than I remembered.

The better news is that Shout Factory is releasing the improved seventh season of "Designing Women" in July 2012. Adding the great actress Judith Ivey as a well-written character equal to Dixie Carter's designing diva Julia Sugarbaker allowed the series to end on a good note. 

In many ways, "Designing Women" was a hybrid between "Sex in the City" and "The Golden Girls" in that the four women who owned an Atlanta design firm represented four standard types of women. 

Julia, the leader, was a well-educated sophisticated woman who did not suffer fools glad. Suzanne, replaced by Julia Duffy's Alison in the sixth season, was an aging beauty queen with an active dating life. 

Single mother Mary Jo reveled in adolescent hi-jinks and struggled with child rearing decisions. Moderately bright country gal Charlene, replaced in the sixth season by her less intelligent and sophisticated sister Carlene in the sixth season, was the most naive and trusting of the group.

Aside from generally good writing, "Designing Women" was notably for insightful candid analyses of current and evergreen issues. These included a classically hilarious episode about newsstands' right to display pornographic magazines and other episodes on domestic violence, religions barring women from serving as clergy, racism, and dead-beat dads.

The series' strongly feminist viewpoint further did not hold any punches regarding stereotypical bad male behavior. One of Julia Sugarbaker's best trademark rants commented on men who barge in on a quiet girls' night out was a highlight of the series. Having this outburst haunt Julia in a later episode made a hilarious storyline fall on the floor funny. 

In other words, "Designing Women" hit the trifecta of taboo topics; sex, religion, and politics.

As my review of the fifth season of "Designing Women" stated, that series became more of a standard sitcom that year but still was quite funny and included "issues" episodes. It was also the year that presented challenges in the form of series stars' Delta Burke and Jean Smart leaving the show.

Returning to the topic of "Designing Women" deserving a mulligan for its sixth season, replacing Delta Burke's Suzanne with Julia Duffy's similar Alison Sugarbaker was akin to the McCain campaign choosing Sarah Palin. The idea looked good on paper but was a bad move in reality. 

Duffy had just finished a long well-regarded run playing pampered insensitive Stephanie van der Kellen on "Newhart," which shared the CBS Monday night lineup with "Designing Women." Alison Sugarbaker is the character that Stephanie would have become if karma had caught up with her.

One difference, and flaw, was that Stephanie not-so-deep down had a better heart than Alison. "Newhart's" writers also humanized Stephanie by giving her a particularly soft-spot for the very caring and not-so-bright handyman George Utley. Additionally, all of "Newhart's" characters shared an affection for each other that was lacking between Alison and the other "Designing Women" characters.

Taking one more break from my review of "Designing Women's" sixth season, I want to get on my knees and ask Shout Factory to please, please 1,000 times please add "Newhart" to the list of "rescued" shows that it released.

On a larger level, "Designing Women's" sixth season suffered from the senioritis, or premature seven-year itch, that strikes many shows around their sixth season. 

The Thomasons, who created the series, were not very actively involved; the veteran cast members seemed to be losing steam, and the departures of two original cast members did not help. 

I consider this analogous to what occurred when Ron Howard and Don Most left "Happy Days;" I hate to think what would have happened if Henry Winkler had quit as well.

At the same time, the viewing public would have missed great moments in "Designing Women" if it had taken the common modern approach of deciding that having enough episodes for syndication justified calling it quits after five seasons.

The opening episodes of "Designing Women's" sixth season had hilarious moments; favorites included the veteran cast literally cutting Alison down to size and Julia cleverly turning Alison's "bird on your head" phrase against her.

Other good sixth season "situations" included episodes about a community theater production of "Mame" and Carlene moving into a seedy apartment in a dangerous neighborhood. An episode in which the cast traveled to Hollywood and invaded Charles Nelson Reilly's home is one of my favorite of the entire series.

"Issues" episodes from the sixth season included the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy, racial profiling, and artificial insemination.

Anyone who wants to share thoughts or questions regarding "Designing Women's sixth season is encouraged to email me.