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Friday, January 13, 2012

Golden Lessons From "Golden Girls"

Who would've thought that a series featuring 4 female senior citizens would end up sweeping the Emmys and would be a perennial TV fan favorite?

(Photo courtesy of

Today's youth-obsessed, looks-centered TV culture (just take a look at the proliferation of "reality shows" that feature stylists, hairdressers, plastic surgeons, even people with no jobs except to "look good") stands in complete contrast to the Golden Girls, an enormous hit of a TV show in the 80's to the early 90's.

It invited sarcasm into its' set every episode, was no stranger to talking about sexual matters even though there was barely any skin shown, poked fun at everything from religion to wrinkle creams, and managed to eke out a strong personality type for its' four leads while maintaining hilariously written story lines (did you know that Marc Cherry, creator of Desperate Housewives, used to write for GG?) that always managed to speak to viewers because of its' accessibility and relevance.

The tall Dorothy Zbornak (played by Bea Arthur) had the most zing when it came to sarcastic comebacks. A divorced substitute school teacher who was not the luckiest in romantic matters, she continued to see her ex-husband - in order to insult him for the "maggot" that he was, to use Dorothy's words. She was considered to be the forward-thinker of the group.

Sweet Rose Nylund (played by the only living member of the Golden Girls, Betty White) regularly bored the other 3 housemates with her "St. Olaf stories" (St. Olaf being a town in Minnesota where Rose grew up). Whether it was her stint as a log-rolling beauty pageant contestant, or her tale of the herrings that juggled little Ginsu knives, she was constantly being ridiculed for having the most unbelievable stories and mocked for her naivete. Ironically, she seemed to have the most intriguing personal conflicts: finding out her lover was under the Witness Protection program escaping the Mob, her tumultuous relationship with Holly, her younger sister, or discovering that her father was a "celibate monk".

"Experienced" Blanche Devereaux (played by Rue McClanahan) has been around the block - twice, on the same night. Labeled a "human mattress" by Sofia, her bedroom seemed to resemble a convenience store more, with men coming in and out of it 24/7. In fact, most of her storylines centered around a particular man, a couple of men she was seeing together, or how depressed she was that she didn't have a date (and she didn't hide her venom when the other women had dates at those particular times). She was seen as the "shallow" one, who stayed loyal to her husband George until his death.

Feisty Sofia Petrilo (the anything-but-diminutive Estelle Getty) was Dorothy's mother - which explains where Dorothy got her training in wit. Sofia had the enviable task of saying what everyone was thinking (but was afraid of even blurting out) - and delivering it with a big bang. Calling Blanche a floozy, saying "I deserve better company than this in my last years!" to Rose, or castigating her own daughter for turning down a date ("How many chances are you going to get?"), she was the proverbial mother of the other 3, and known for her "Picture This" stories.

As I am currently finishing a marathon of my boxed-set discs of the GG (and consequently railing at how idiotic TV shows have become circa 2012), it dawned on me why I like the Golden Girls so much: it had substance and depth, despite it being a "sit-com" (situational comedy). 

We're all getting older, and we'll soon die.

This was the obvious, inescapable theme, being a show about four seniors, and including one who was a mother of another senior, to give you an idea of the age range of these characters.

What was particularly endearing was how they dealt with this given the issues they faced: Rose lost her pension checks from the company where her late husband Charlie worked, and had to start over with a new job at her age; Dorothy still had to work as a teacher because her ex-husband remarried and squandered the money they saved when they were together; Sofia constantly worked at hospitals and centers to give cheer to other people.

Blanche had the most aversion to this topic, and manifested outright denial that she was aging. ("I can't must be from living with old people.") Coupled with narcissism and a sex drive that was in overdrive, it's fascinating to see her wrestle with the issues of mortality and sustaining one's looks. Even back then, being youthful was a big issue, but the difference was that this show poked fun at Blanche's attempts to hold back time, while today's lineup openly embrace this "need' while sending the message that having no attempts to "stay young" will make you miserable.

There's nothing like sarcasm to deal with things quickly.

The area of specialty of Dorothy, sarcasm was regularly practiced by all four lead cast members. When one person had a knack for carrying on about something in particular the others didn't care for, she would be usually be met with a comeback that would stop them dead in their tracks.

Blanche (talking about retirement): "I can't wait to retire...I wonder if I can collect pension at...49-50." (referring to her "supposed" age).

Dorothy (in deadpan mode): "4950...what is that, Blanche? The address of the Social Security building?"

One of my favorite lines was from Sofia, as the three other girls were discussing about growing old together.

Dorothy (talking to Sofia): "Oh, Ma...are you worried that no one's going to take care of you in your twilight years?"

Sofia: "Are you kidding me? These are your twilight years, I'm supposed to be dead!"

And when Rose had her HIV scare, and asked Blanche how she dealt with waiting for the HIV test:

Blanche: "Well...I just kept to myself and acted like a real bitch to everyone else."

Rose: "No wonder we never knew that you took the test!"

We will keep searching for a companion.

One interesting thing this show communicated was that seniors are not to be written off as "past their prime" in romance and sex. All four leads were constantly looking for someone to love and be loved: what differed was what this meant to each lady, as they all were single (three by death of their husbands, one by divorce).

The obvious punchline here was Blanche, who seemed to have a set "expiration date"; once she dated a man for six weeks, it was time to "move on" to another man, lest she be emotionally involved any deeper. The rationale: she could not bear losing another man the way she did when she lost her husband.

The surprise portrayal was Sofia, who managed to have a more exciting dating life than her own daughter, who was constantly in a slump date-wise. And this opened the eyes of many viewers, that even as we age, to the point where kids and younger people will say "we don't want to hear about it!", our hearts - and bodies - will yearn to connect with someone else, as a matter of human need.

Humor lightens any "heavy" discussion.

Across its 7 seasons, the show featured a multitude of social and explosive issues, all of which were tackled with empathy (I was scratching my head constantly while marathon viewing and asking myself "They didn't get censored for that?") and large quantities of humor and laughter, which might initially seem breezy, but in hindsight, it was an excellent approach, if only to avoid the trap of sounding preachy.

Among the topics they discussed were: "the coming out of Blanche's brother, safe sex, same-sex marriage, empty-nest syndrome, ageism, elderly motorists, sexism and sexual harassment, assisted suicide, Alzheimer's disease, teen pregnancy, caring for the elderly, impotence, death, adultery, solicitation, FBI involvement, UFOs, illegal immigration and deportation, nuclear disarmament, political corruption, advance-fee fraud, chronic fatigue syndrome, organ donation, caring for the blind, domestic violence, problem gambling, substance dependence, artificial insemination, animal rights, unemployment, poverty and the homeless, child neglect and abandonment, gun violence, burglary, solitude, interracial marriage, adult education, plastic surgery and dementia." (From wikipedia)

The episode that hit me most was when Sofia's friend asked her to be there while she attempted to kill herself.  One, because I know someone personally who committed suicide, and two, I don't know how I would have responded to such an unusual, uhm, request. (You'd have to watch the episode itself to see how Sofia managed to "resolve" this dilemna.)

Real friends are hard to find but worth the search and wait.

Universally accepted as the most endearing trait of the four leads, it was their friendship with each other that carried them through the most absurd and horrifying situations (I'm thinking of Blanche's violent lover who was starting to get physically abusive with Dorothy). And one that carries its weight in real life, which resonates especially more in this age of Facebook and an irrational thinking that having a million "Facebook friends" means you are "popular" (all the while losing the very essence of what true friendship means and entails).

Even the theme song, easily one of the most recognizable and singable opening songs from a sitcom, says this out clearly:

Thank you for being a friend,
Traveled down the road and back again,
Your heart is true,
You're a pal and a confidant;
And if you threw a party,
Invited everyone you knew,
You would see,
The biggest gift would be from me,
And the card attached would say,
"Thank you for being a friend."

Revisit this show if you have a chance, and if you haven't seen this at all, go and get a copy. You'll wonder - and despair - why they don't make TV shows like this anymore.

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