The Golden Girls: “The Engagement”
Picture it: Miami, 1985. The hair is big, the collars are bigger, and there’s a gay man in the kitchen making enchiladas. Two friends, Rose and Dorothy, sit at the kitchen table together.
“I’d kill to be twenty again,” says Rose (Betty White). “Oh, I’d kill to be forty again,” says Dorothy (Bea Arthur) before recounting how she got into her car after work and was shocked to see “an old woman was in the mirror and I didn’t even recognize her.”
To which Rose, of course, replies: “Who was it?”
This is just one of the many joke set-ups that the show will rely on throughout its seven-season run. It’s this kind of back-and-forth that often seemed the crux of Dorothy and Rose’s relationship. In fact, the formula of that joke became so well-known that the studio audience would often start laughing before Betty White could even get her predictably dumb reply out. But sometimes familiarity is half the fun. As the late, great Edward Albee said of the show in a great 2011 interview with Metro Weekly: “everything that happens you expect it to happen but it’s believable, given the limitations and definitions of the characters.” And The Golden Girls is always very clear about who these characters are. They are Dorothy, a sarcastic substitute teacher from Brooklyn; Rose, a Midwestern airhead; Blanche (Rue McLanahan), a vivacious southern belle; and Dorothy’s mother, Sophia (Estelle Getty), a wise-cracking Sicilian matriarch.
Two minutes into the pilot of The Golden Girls, we’ve met three of those women, and they’ve already said things that are equal parts saucy and sad, hilarious and intimate, signaling right away that we’re among friends — and great friends, at that. Their musings on aging and romance seem simple enough to be relatable, yet sharp and funny enough to feel like they’re being spoken for the first time. How efficiently we know them and how funny it is to watch them reveal themselves to us is a testament to TV legend Susan Harris’ brilliant and economical writing. In a show that’s light on plot and heavy on laughs, the relationship between these women — as roommates, as friends, as family — is what it’s all about.
So, it’s only right that the pilot’s stakes come from the potential dissolution of that relationship.
Blanche has seen the mysterious Harry every night, but her roommates have yet to meet him. Finally, they make her spill it. And spill it she does. By all her metrics, Harry is the dreamiest man this side of an AARP subscription. Of course, these metrics include not making noises when he chews, a standard to which Dorothy replies: “Chewing. That’s way up there on my list. Comes right after ‘intelligent.’”
Then Blanche drops the real bomb. Harry’s proposed, and she’s seriously considering it despite only having known him a week. Though her roommates are understandably concerned, the widowed Blanche worries that it may be her last chance at finding love. Rose and Dorothy ponder what life would be like if Blanche got married, as she owns the house they’re living in. They would be separated, and, Rose fears, alone.
Still reeling from this news, Dorothy answers the doorbell to find her mother, Sophia, paying an unexpected visit. Her nursing home, Shady Pines, has burned down. Rose beckons her to the sofa, “Sophia, you must be exhausted!” “Why?” says Sophia, “I rode in the cab, I didn’t push it.”
Sophia has suffered a stroke that left her with the… kind of enviable (and studio exec-friendly) side effect of saying whatever the hell she’s thinking. She offers very straightforward advice and critiques on a number of topics:
- On Blanche’s evening ensemble: “You look like a prostitute.”
- On Harry, Blanche’s date: “The man is a scuzz-ball.”
- On Rose’s loneliness: “Get a poodle.”
Blanche returns from her date to announce that she did, indeed, accept Harry’s proposal. Although disappointed and unsure it’s right, Rose and Dorothy decide to support their friend.
On the day of the wedding, Rose is the one who gets cold feet. She is suddenly overcome with a hunch that the wedding is a big mistake. A shocking take, considering the couple-to-be has known each other for two weeks. But Dorothy, with a series of escalating and near-abusive tactics such as throwing her into a closet and locking it, stops Rose from telling Blanche. But soon enough, a cop arrives (played by future Designing Women star Meschach Taylor) to ruin the day. Harry has been arrested for bigamy. Rose is vindicated, but Blanche is crushed.
Three weeks pass, and Blanche is still so depressed not even Julio Iglesias tickets can get her out of her room. “I know grief,” says Rose, “It takes time.”
But Dorothy disagrees: “Listen, if you’re Irish, you have a wake. You eat, you cry, you drink, you vomit and you’re done. If you’re Jewish, you eat, you sit, you put on ten pounds and it’s over. We Italians scream, dress up a donkey, hire a band and that’s that. It’s these southern protestants who make it a way of life.”
Of course, Blanche pulls through. She surprises her friends on the iconic lanai and announces she’s feeling much better, citing their influence. “You’re my family,” she says, “And you make me happy to be alive.” The girls head out to lunch, their friendship intact. Thus, the episode gets the sitcom standard 2-minute resolution to a 21-minute problem, and the series establishes its raison d’etre.
There’s one additional element of the pilot I haven’t really talked about yet. That is Coco, the gay cook, played by Charles Levin, who is all but edited out of the final cut of the episode. He exists in the margins of shots, almost as if avoiding conversation with the ladies. He has only a few lines, rarely anything more than set-up for someone else’s punchline. On a show that so clearly knows who each of its characters is and why we should care about them, he seems like an afterthought.
Susan Harris had experience writing a recurring gay character. In her earlier series, Soap (1977–81), Jodie Campbell (Billy Chrystal) had broken new ground in becoming American television’s first regular gay character. While the handling of Jodie’s character might provoke some eyebrow-raising today, Harris and co. wrote him as an out, proud gay man living in 1970s Connecticut and though jokes were made at his expense, he is treated with startling empathy.
But Soap came along in the late 70s, just as TV started turning away from the outright political stances of Norman Lear sitcoms. Suddenly, shows like The Facts of Life were dedicating episodes to the plight of rich, white people, and making sure America knew even heartless Reaganites deserved sympathy too.
In Susan Harris’ hands, the delightfully queeny Coco might have been a great character. But The Golden Girls would have to find subtler ways to be subversive in the TV climate of the 80s.
Reshoots saw Coco being sidelined in favor of the quippy Sophia, who was beloved by early audiences. Coco had quickly become an unneeded ingredient in a dish that was already delicious. Levin’s character was dropped, and Getty became the fourth series regular. Coco was never mentioned again. But some still say, if you whisper the word “enchiladas” on a quiet summer night, Coco will appear above your bed and set you up to land a great punchline.
As economical and clear as the pilot is (it does its job and does it well), it’s interesting to go back and see all the details and decisions still being made. Coco is a more obvious example, but the subtle aesthetic choices stand out as well. The set, particularly the kitchen, is much darker (in lighting and design) than in later episodes. The makeup, particularly Estelle Getty’s, is harsher. The same little kinks are still being worked out of the performances as well. Bea Arthur’s mannerisms as Dorothy seem particularly acidic at times. From her uncomfortably violent treatment of Rose to the way she screams certain lines in a way that doesn’t quite come off, there’s still some polishing to be done. Betty White’s Rose is daft, but not as charming, folksy, or dumbly confident as she would become — in fact, she’s a little whiny. Rue McLanahan’s accent hasn’t gone full-tilt Vivien Leigh yet, nor is her Blanche as savvy as we now know her to be. Honestly, it’s a little hard to imagine the Blanche of a few episodes later ever falling for a bigamist’s scam.
Because The Golden Girls is a show that so clearly knows its characters and situation, seeing these choices that seem out of step with that understanding, especially when compared to the polished product it quickly became, is fascinating. They are details that might not even register with a first-time viewer. They certainly didn’t matter to a 1985 audience, who were watching three of the most gifted and beloved performers of the era and one dazzling “newcomer” (in Getty) absolutely killing it.