Death and Despair in Sitcom World: Why The Golden Girls Is Singularly Great

This is the first in a series of essays on the TV series I have loved, series that, at their best, tap into the universal but also seem to speak only to me. I hope to mix some cultural analysis with my own sentimental feelings. 

The Golden Girls is like home to me. I’ve been meaning to write about this show for years, but I always hesitate because the words don’t come freely. It’s been so much a part of my life — and so much has already been written — that it’s tough to know where to start. A recent A.V. Club essay on the series sparked my interest and revealed new ways to think about the show.

Many of us born in the 1980s (and later) discovered The Golden Girls as teenagers watching late-night reruns. The girls, as they called themselves, were around the same age as my grandparents. My initial reaction was shock at how bawdy and hilarious these old ladies were. Although I loved spending time with my grandparents (and still do), they certainly didn’t talk or act like Sophia and Blanche. As I got older, my understanding of the show’s humor morphed into appreciation and even awe. (Partly because now, in this culture driven by teen boys and cross-promotion, how could this show even make it to air? A modern Golden Girls is the stuff of internet fantasy.)

The Golden Girls is Golden Girlspraised for its sharp writing, the strong performances of its four leads, and its unprecedented portrayal of senior citizens on American TV. Although the series fell into some familiar sitcom tropes, the four leads created fully realized characters. Bea Arthur’s Dorothy remains one of the most shaded and three-dimensional sitcom characters I’ve ever seen. It was the perfect marriage of content and form, writing and acting: the scripts were clever enough to wring great, often stunning performances from its actors, and the actors contributed depth and subtlety to a genre riddled with cliche. But fans and critics often forget just how unconventional The Golden Girls was.

So much about it bucked tradition: older women with careers, pursuing casual sex and romance; the characters engaged with morally and politically charged issues like AIDS, gay rights, feminism, and ageism (with varying success, of course); and the women represented a chosen family, which endeared them to gay fans. The show’s expansive concept of family resonates deeply with gay fans to this day; young LGBT people, for decades, have built their own families out of necessity, as we are often cast out from our homes, misunderstood, or alienated by our own families. The show was an outlier in 80s sitcom world, which had mostly abandoned the social consciousness of Norman Lear’s 1970s shows in favor of “Morning in America” conventionality. (The creator of The Golden Girls, Susan Harris, wrote the controversial abortion episode of Maude in 1972.)

But what sticks out to me is what the A.V. Club’s Sonia Saraiya observed: this is a show about death. The spectre of death haunts the episodes so thoroughly that it’s impossible not to notice. The girls, in their late 50s and early 60s when the show began, have all been widowed or betrayed by their husbands and left behind by their families. In each other, they seek solace from loneliness. Despair, tempered by humor, pervades the series’ seven seasons. So many episodes focus on a family member or friend’s illness or death, and each of the girls has serious health scares of her own. Their dead husbands and parents haunt the show and its viewers’ collective memories.

The season 6 episode “Ebbtide’s Revenge,” in which Sophia’s son Phil dies, is particularly difficult. It features what I think is Estelle Getty’s best performance of the series. Sophia at first navigates her grief stone-faced, squabbling with Phil’s widow, Angela, over decades-long resentments. After the funeral, Sophia and Angela (the great Brenda Vaccaro) reveal the source of their conflict: Sophia’s shame over Phil’s cross-dressing and her supposed role in it, and that she allowed it to destroy their relationship. The show used cross-dressing as a joke for years, but here the writers mine it for pathos. Getty’s performance devastates, as she takes us through the complexities of her character’s grief: the loss of a child, the guilt of family estrangement, the mourning of lost time, and the loneliness and fear that often accompany aging. This is not typical sitcom material, but The Golden Girls makes full use of its premise and its performers to hit hard when it counts.

In “72 Hours,” Rose deals with the possibility that she was infected with HIV by a blood transfusion. Rose then has to endure a weekend worrying that she might have contracted a disease that will kill her. This episode has a ripped-from-the-headlines quality, and we should remember that many people were infected and died from AIDS in the 1980s and early 90s because of a reckless blood industry and the lack of a scientific consensus. The show uses Rose’s virtuousness to great effect. If a viewer thought, even for a moment, that the promiscuous Blanche was more likely to contract HIV, the writers set them straight. When Rose attempts to slut-shame her roommate, Rue McClanahan gets to speak this powerful message: “AIDS is not a bad person’s disease, Rose. It is not God punishing people for their sins!” America was still in the grips of Reagan-Bush conservatism, and the AIDS crisis was mired in apathy and fear-mongering in the press and government. Activists were not only fighting for medical treatment, but were also trying to counter the homophobic notion that AIDS patients were getting what they deserved. That The Golden Girls — a series geared toward older people — took such a progressive stance is particularly daring.

Golden Girls kicking coffin

Of course, the series also uses death as the inspiration for a great many jokes. Take the classic “It’s a Miserable Life,” in which Rose ‘kills’ the despised neighbor Freida Claxton. Who can forget that kindly old lady kicking Mrs. Claxton’s coffin? There’s “Til Death Do We Volley,” which sees Dorothy’s old frenemy fake her own death on a tennis court. The pranks between the two then escalate to yet more sinister levels. And consider the deaths of off-screen characters deemed fortuitous by our girls (usually Rose) because it removed the competition from some bowling tournament or charity award.

So while The Golden Girls remains known for the dirty jokes that flew past network censors, perhaps its most daring contribution is its obsession with aging, loneliness, and eventually, death. The broadcasting model aims for mass appeal, and The Golden Girls succeeded, finishing in the top 10 most-watched shows for six of its seven seasons. But it also, unexpectedly, tapped into something nearly universal: the knowledge that time moves swiftly, that death is all around, and that old age can be deeply isolating. These women have chosen to face their final years together, because they love each other, and because it’s better than being alone.

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