I wrote way back about the backlash against the Reagan era backlash against the Norman Lear political sitcom and counted The Golden Girls as part of that movement. Think about it: four women who were wives and mothers, but instead of becoming saintly aids to their children’s own families or nursing home fodder they set out to establish independent lives that include new jobs, forming a new non-traditional family, and even getting sex. It was downright revolutionary. It’s no surprise that the formula is being copied to this day, most famously with Sex in the City and Hot in Cleveland (with in at least a few ways the former being, despite not being about four women who are at least in their early 50s, the more direct copy).
I grew up watching The Golden Girls when it first aired, before it had its well-earned reputation as a gay cult classic and a showcase for strange distortions of late ’80s/early ’90s fashions for “upper middle-aged” women. Even if I didn’t have the Nostalgia Goggles glued to my nose, I would still feel that it belongs firmly in the canon of the great American sitcoms. It still stands out as unique, it challenged and broke through traditional definitions of the “sitcom family,” and, above all else, it was funny. So inspired by sites like “Full House Reviewed” I thought I’d take a retrospective on the series (although of course with a much less vitrolic look). So take your laptop or tablet out to the lanai, relax on your wicker chair, and join me as we watch the pilot to one of the most enduring sitcoms of all time.
Every pilot of a long-lasting series strikes a few odd notes, like settings or secondary characters that get dropped . The pilot of The Golden Girls has an entire main character, Coco Davis, who is the Girls’…cook? Butler? Whatever the case, Coco is pretty interesting even though he doesn’t influence the plot and gets about four minutes of screentime. It’s all but spelled out that he’s gay, which wouldn’t have made him the first sitcom gay character (apparently that honor goes to Peter from the short-lived and now forgotten 1972 sitcom “The Corner Bar”) but would have still been rare for 1985. No report even suggests he was cut out of the show for being a gay character; instead it was because Sophia, originally meant to be just a recurring character, got a much better audience reaction so she pretty much “absorbed” his character and role.
It’s easy to see why. Coco’s actor Charles Levin (probably best known as the neurotic mohel in that episode of “Seinfeld”) is just not given a chance to break out, but it’s probably for the best. It’s already a little weird that a house with a grief counselor, a substitute teacher, and a person who has a non-specified job in a museum can afford to employ a full-time manservant. It would have gotten more so with all the episodes that deal with the Girls fretting over their financial security.
Anyway, the plot here doesn’t deal with how the Girls got together, but rather with…them almost getting broken up. Blanche is excited that her boyfriend of just one week, Harry, is going to speedily marry her (this really unlikely decision is waved away with Blanche cheerfully pointing out that she’s too close to death to wait through an engagement). Rose frets that this means they’ll lose touch and she says it was a miracle the Girls got together in the first place, to which Dorothy flatly replies that the only reason they got together was that they all answered the same newspaper ad Blanche put out. Nonetheless, Rose is anxious enough that she starts claiming that she has bad feelings about Harry and tries to warn Blanche just when she’s leaving for the marriage, but Dorothy puts her in a literal chokehold which Blanche mistakes for a group hug, in one of the whole series’ greatest images:
Dorothy is my big sis, y’all.
But I forgot to mention the closest thing the pilot has to a b-plot, the glorious appearance of Sophia Petrillo. Her character is really the only one that changes from the pilot, as in the early scripts she got lines originally meant for Coco and she becomes less of a bitter, cantankerous grandma to a quasi-bitter, quasi-hip grandma. She shows up to the house in a taxi after her nursing home (which isn’t named just yet) burns down, a fact that the series for all its notorious problems with continuity remains pretty solidly fixed in Golden Girls history. After Rose is shocked that Sophia blurts out to Blanche, “You look like a prostitute!” (she hasn’t quite started calling her a slut all the time yet), Blanche, who takes the whole thing pretty pleasantly (well she is Southern after all), explains that Sophia had a stroke that destroyed her ability to censor her own speech. Surprisingly, if I remember right, the series actually brings this up again a few more times – which does bring a bit of a tragic element to Sophia’s later hip grandma persona.
Anyway, Sophia immediately diagnoses Harry as a scuzzball – and of course she and Rose turn out to be right. Harry is a serial bigamist, which yes is still a thing for both genders, which Blanche learns to her devastation from a cop. This sends Blanche into a spiral of depression, which she only breaks out of with just the first of many Girl-power solidarity sessions. Thus begins the seven year run of The Golden Girls, the show that taught us the comedic possibilities of a woman in her 80s constantly calling a middle-aged woman a slut.
Aside from poor Coco, who just vanished instead of being properly written out, and arguably Sophia, the pilot is pretty consistent with what will come. The character dynamics are there, their occupations are set up, and we get the first signs of Dorothy’s toughness and scathing wit, Rose’s “unique” thought processes, and Blanche’s sexy confidence. And it really was for the best that Coco was replaced by Sophia, but nonetheless let’s take a moment to reflect on the all too short fictional life of Coco Davis:
“It’s wonderful dating in Miami. All the men under 80 are cocaine smugglers.” -Dorothy
“When I go put me in a sack and leave me next to the cans.” -Sophia
Rose had a premonition of Indira Gandhi’s assassination.