Double feature: The easy parallel between these two series is the quartet of shared archetypes leading up their respective casts. In both “The Golden Girls” and “Designing Women,” you’ll find: the sweet one (Rose, Charlene;) the brainy one (Dorothy, Julia;) the sexy one (Blanche, Suzanne;) and the quirky one (Sophia, Mary Jo.) Also, but less to the point, a semi-emasculated male drifting in and out of the frame (Stanley, Anthony.)
Somehow, this “four humors” approach to female character development (heart, head, libido, nerves) both flirts with and undercuts reductiveness. With time, the elements in all (4×2) leads mix and swirl until they resemble the surface of one of “The Golden Girls”‘s beloved marble cheesecakes. Turns out that Mary Jo is brainy too. Rose isn’t not quirky. You get the point.
But there is another, more important parallel that both links these shows together and sets them apart from most other sitcom fare. Namely, the fact that the “action” in both of these series is primarily synonymous with their leads telling stories about events that have already occurred offscreen.
Plot advancement through full, classical storytelling. A respect not only for words but for narrative technique – the setups (in “Designing Women,” this is often the slamming of the front door as another lead enters the Sugarbaker house in a huff; in “The Golden Girls,” it’s more likely the nighttime kitchen gathering,) the tropes (Sophia’s “Picture it…”,) the rhetorical devices (Julia’s preference for striding through the room with her coffee cup dangling from her hand.)
Think of how different this shared approach is from the content delivery and sources of humor in most other sitcoms. Postmodern shows like “30 Rock” and “Arrested Development” take us along on their characters’ adventures, then expand upon them with flashbacks, flashforwards, and quick cuts to additional information (often juxtapositions of characters’ truths with actual fact.) Instead, “The Golden Girls” and “Desiging Women” prefer to tell rather than show.
Maybe this is what naysayers mean when they criticize these shows as “too talky” or “too feminine.” I’d say that the most feminine thing about them is that when one of their leads tells a story, all the other ones actually listen to it.
(Creative Commons licensed original images courtesy of “Big Yellow House” and “texascooking” at Flickr)