30 years of Designing Women

The women of “Designing Women.” (Internet photo) 

Okay, I know, I know – Designing Women isn’t a soap opera.

And technically, it’s been thirty ONE years since it landed on our screens in 1986. But I’m giving GetTV a pass on that one, because they’re bringing Designing Women back to our TV sets. Thirty years is a great hook – and a great Twitter hashtag too!

I’ve always loved this show, and while it changed over the years, and lost some of its charm – and a few of its finest characters – towards the end of its run, it still stands as a solid piece of work for me.

One thing I truly loved about the show is how carefully defined each character was, and how story emerged from those details. As with the best of soap opera, a well defined character meant the story would often write itself.

As with Maude and All In The Family, the more I watch them, the more timeless they feel. The wallpaper might be out of fashion, and the situation of the episode may seem quaint. But the issues that people are fighting about are the same.

Suzanne was, of course, a predecessor to Karen Walker, but one with a beating heart under all the bravado.

Mary Jo was, as Dash Goff once said, “part calico choir girl………..and part satin dance hall doll.”  

Charlene was everything you saw at the surface – a loving, generous friend, with a quirky stream of consciousness emerging from her brain 24/7.

And Julia was, in every sense, a grand lady – a combination of beauty and brains, with high standards – and no problem letting the people who didn’t meet those standards know about those failures!

Designing Women had Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and husband Harry at the helm, with Linda writing all the episodes during the first few seasons. The consistency in the writing showed in the quality.

I always sort of felt there was a kinship between DW in that era and Guiding Light, which had Pam Long, another writer with roots in the South who wrote about Southern characters, and understood the balancing act – and the conflicts – between old worlds and new ones, always a fertile ground for soaps to cover.

It was no surprise that GL’s Kim Zimmer made a memorable appearance on DW as Mavis, Charlene’s cousin, in a 1989 episode, shortly before Zimmer left GL. It seemed almost tailor-made for Zimmer’s talents.

The way they were….. (Internet photo)

I loved Julia’s epic reads, though I know some people found them a bit wearisome. But I truly loved how she could, as the old Irish saying goes, tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they’d look forward to the journey.

Fans – myself included – remember some of the more iconic scenes – the “night the lights went out in Georgia” speech, an AIDS episode – based largely on Thomason’s own mother struggling with AIDS – as well as Charlene’s WWII fantasy and wedding, and the arrival of Charlene’s baby.

But one of the most moving ones, for me, was an episode called “How Great Thou Art.”

Charlene feels a call to the ministry, and approaches her very conservative church leadership about this call. (You’ll recognize Patrick Tovatt, Cal from As The World Turns, as the minister.)

Meanwhile, Julia is asked to sing at her church, and fears performing the song How Great Thou Art because of her worries about hitting the high note.

It sounds like a simple plot, but it’s a very moving one. Much of the power of it comes from the characters (and of course the performers).  The Designing Women Online website, a wonderful resource for any fan, has a wonderful writeup about this episode. 

Their words say it splendidly – that the show “created and told an emotionally explosive story with no gimmicks or dramatic scenes — simply two women struggling with their faith.” 

Maybe I’m a Pollyanna for thinking there’s an enormous amount of drama in these true-to-life situations, drama that need not involve a chimera (whatever the hell THAT is), or a virus that makes you hit people on the side of the head with a giant rock.

This is high stakes for the characters involved, and for at least one of them, it doesn’t end with a happy ending. That doesn’t make the drama any less meaningful or involving.

And it also makes me wonder why faith was always generic and rare on soaps. It was seldom used, trotted out only at holidays and for weddings, funerals and deathbed prayers.  (There’s probably a whole separate post coming on that one.)

I’ll be checking out the GetTV episodes – even if I do have all the DVD’s already. GetTV, by the way, has a really great library – I’ve especially enjoyed some of the 60s and 70s talk shows they’ve got in their library.

Check out the GetTV site to see where it plays near you.

ALSO: Check out this blog post about the return of DW by writer Will McKinley. He’s an expert on classic movies and classic stars. He’s also quite knowledgable about soap operas, too. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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