Starring Bea Arthur as world-weary Dorothy Zbornak, Estelle Getty as her sharp-tongued mother Sophia Petrillo, Rue McClanahan as Southern belle Blanche Devereaux, and Betty White as wide-eyed Rose Nylund, this show about Miami Beach housemates presented a refreshing, hilarious slice-of-life look at the joys and antics of women over 50 — with a side of cheesecake. At times fearlessly challenging, The Golden Girls, created by veteran TV writer Susan Harris, was not your grandma’s sitcom. Over the course of its seven seasons, it broke barriers in storytelling, winning 11 Primetime Emmy Awards and 68 nominations.
Today, The Golden Girls is finding new life in syndication, and on Hulu, where viewers of all ages — including those that were not even born when the show went off the air in 1992 — binge on the series, which tackles still timely topics like racism, women’s rights, domestic assault, and medical ethics. The undeniable chemistry between the series’s central figures, as well as their stellar comic timing, add to the sitcom’s ageless allure. From Sophia’s cutting quips to Dorothy’s withering glances to Blanche’s brazen sexuality and Rose’s innocent charm, everyone has — or wants —friends like these.
In his new book, Golden Girls Forever: An Unauthorized Look Behind the Lanai, Colucci compiles the first-ever complete retrospective on the legendary TV sitcom. The book features synopses of beloved episodes; never-before-revealed photos and stories; exclusive interviews with the series’s all-star cast, writers, and crew members; and commentary by current small-screen stars Rachel Bloom, Laverne Cox, and Michael Urie. I spoke with Colucci to learn more about the enduring series.
KITTY LINDSAY: Taking a literal page from your book: When and with whom did you first watch The Golden Girls?
JIM COLUCCI: Oh, good question! By myself. My parents were not big TV watchers. I don’t know where I got the sitcom bug from because it wasn’t from my family. They watched a lot of nonfiction stuff like The History Channel, but I grew up loving sitcoms, [particularly] multi-camera sitcoms. So, as a lover of sitcoms, when I heard that this kind of all-star show was being put together, [with] people I loved from other shows — like Betty White who I loved from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Bea Arthur who I loved from Maude, and Rue McClanahan who I loved from Maude and Mama’s Family — I would scour TV Guide looking for news [about it]. By the time the show debuted in 1985, I was eagerly awaiting it.
What about The Golden Girls appealed to you so much?
It really was like putting together a super group or an all-star team. But it was also the material. [Golden Girls creator] Susan Harris is one of the best TV writers there has ever been, and then you add to it that the show’s writers really valued clever joke writing, clever situations, and depicting real-life situations of older women with dignity in a way that people had never seen before on television.
So much of the writing was groundbreaking. And when it comes down to it, I love a good joke and where other sitcoms of the era were kind of crappy and were very manipulative — for example, you’d hear more awwws than actual laughs — here was a show that trusted the audience to get really clever, smart humor delivered beautifully from these women’s mouths. As the show went on, it became a training ground for so many writers like James Vallely, Marc Cherry, Mitchell Hurwitz, and Christopher Lloyd. So, when you look at all the people who went through there and just the talent that they had — not just the four ladies, but everybody behind the scenes, really putting quality material out there — that was uncommon for sitcoms of that era, and even maybe today.
What did the TV landscape look like in 1985? What set The Golden Girls apart?
What made The Golden Girls different then is what would make The Golden Girls different now: the age of the characters. [NBC executive] Brandon Tartikoff gets the credit for that. No executive then, or even now, would have the nerve to put four older women on TV by themselves without them being the butt of the joke of a young couple who lives next door or something like that. This was a show about older people. Of course, we all know older people [and] we all can relate to them to some extent. We’ve all had mothers and grandmothers; we’re all going to get old someday; we all worry about the mortgage, we worry about healthcare. These are things in the news now. So, it was just putting these characters on TV by actresses who could do anything, but were underemployed because of their age. It wasn’t typical in 1985 and it’s not typical now.
In addition to making visible women of a certain age and their lives, in what other ways did The Golden Girls flip the script?
In so many ways. The Golden Girls tackled subject areas that most shows either shied away from or would skirt. One thing that the writers of the show learned early on was that because these were older women, the audience was somehow more forgiving of things coming out of their mouths. Forgiving in terms of saying edgy things, but even network censors would give them more leeway because these were women with experience, who had lived life, who had wisdom to impart, and it wasn’t this twentysomething sidekick character making a joke about the homeless or AIDS.
These were women, who by the nature of being older women, were marginalized in society, so they had license. Cleverly, the show realized early on they had that license and certain subject areas that they could distinguish themselves by being a little bit more serious in the issues they tackled, and add their trademark humor to the mix.
The Golden Girls was only the second sitcom after Designing Women to talk about AIDS, and the sad thing is The Golden Girls did it in early 1990. AIDS had been around since 1981 and had been a plague well into the 1990s, but TV was afraid of it. And sitcoms, were afraid of it. How do you make it funny? The Golden Girls had Rose have an AIDS scare by getting possibly tainted blood in a transfusion. That was huge. And they did it because they could.
They talked about homelessness. They talked about the difficulty in healthcare and what they feared about getting older in terms of taking care of each other, taking care of themselves, and affording to be able to live. They talked about euthanasia in an episode. They really were smart, as I said, strategically — having those areas to themselves — but also having something to say and not being afraid to say it.
Which episodes left a lasting impression for you?
I would cite “72 Hours” where Rose worries about the blood transfusion because to me, at the time, that blew me away. It blows me away now. To think it took until 1990 for a show to tackle HIV. I’m so glad they did. And I know it meant a lot to people on the show, too.
In the book, I talk about Peter Beyt, one of the editors on the show who went on to become one of its directors. He had lost a partner to AIDS and worried about AIDS all the time. Growing up in Louisiana, he felt kind of a buried shame about being gay in the first place and about AIDS and kind of carried that around with him, and he didn’t realize how much he’d been made to feel bad about himself until he was editing that episode. Not having read the script, not having been to the tape night, not knowing what was coming at all, he put it in his machine and here was one of his heroes, Blanche Devereux telling him that AIDS is not a punishment from God. He said it was everything he needed to hear in that moment being said by his idol and he just broke down and cried.
I’m gay myself, but in 1990, I was only 20 and I didn’t have as much experience with the disease. I can only imagine for a gay man — or anybody affected by the disease, a family member, of any group who was affected by this — to hear those words on television must have been immensely powerful.
The series’s audience transcends age, gender, and generational divides. What do you attribute to The Golden Girls’s broad appeal?
One of the maxims of television and film is that one of the ways to be universal is to be specific, and the more specific you are with your characters, the more universal it becomes. By making them older women, that makes them specific. We feel we know them. We feel we know a Dorothy in our lives or we know a Rose or a Blanche. As I’ve said, we certainly have grandmothers. We have mothers. We may be older women ourselves. Whoever we are, we know those people. When they tested the show, little kids wanted to watch this show about old ladies because they found Sophia to be such a kick. So, they knew early on that The Golden Girls was going to be an across-the-board hit. And it still is.
The lineage of TV series like Desperate Housewives, Sex and the City, and Hot in Cleveland can all be traced back to The Golden Girls. How did the series shape women-driven narratives on TV?
I think what happened for The Golden Girls is that it became a well-recognized formula to put four women together. The Facts of Life had done that before The Golden Girls —with four girls being a core group of friends — but The Golden Girls certainly made it popular. I call it “The Golden Rule of Four.” After that, we had Designing Women, we had Desperate Housewives, we had Living Single. Each of these may have a different additional dimension to them; Living Single is an urban black version and Designing Women is a Southern version, but I think that a lot of comedy creators were inspired by them being a foursome together.
If The Golden Girls were to receive a 2017 facelift, what would it look like? Who would star? Would it even be made?
There has always been a huge group of older women who are underemployed due to age discrimination, so I have no doubt that there are way more than four fantastically funny actresses out there. Could they cast a sitcom about four funny women today? Yes. Would they? No, because [the industry is] still so ageist.
Also, I do think that there was magic to The Golden Girls that you wouldn’t get the exact same thing if you tried, even if you got an amazing group of people together. No one could do what Bea Arthur did. No one could do what Betty did. It would have to be done differently. And there was magic in that writing, too. You couldn’t recapture exactly The Golden Girls.
In fact, a writer who I know, Stan Zimmerman, who wrote on the show as a staff writer in the first season, is now trying to sell a show called Silver Foxes which is that formula, but with gay men in retirement in Palm Springs. He had a script reading where he cast George Takei and Bruce Vilanch, really talented people, and he’s having problems getting that read by any network because he has two strikes against him: ageism and possibly homophobia. So, it’s no easier now than it was then to get this show on the air, unfortunately. It was a show that defied convention and should have inspired more network executives to take chances, and yet they don’t want to take any more chances now than they did then.
What do you hope your book will inspire in its readers?
Just an appreciation for how special the show really is. Thirty years from now, if we’re talking to another generation of young men and women and they hear The Golden Girls’s logline — four women in their 50s and 60s living in Miami — I don’t want them to dismiss this show out of ageism or gender bias. I want them to know that it’s groundbreaking, to know that it’s funny, and that it meant something and it will continue to mean something to people. The Golden Girls empowered people. It made them laugh, it brought up things that we needed to talk about, and I don’t think you can ask any more than that from a show. To hit all of these points, that’s a rare show indeed.
Which Golden Girl are you and why?
[Laughs.] You know, most gay men when I ask them that question, they give me this answer: I’m Dorothy, but I wish I were Blanche. I can’t even pull off, “I wish I were Blanche.” I’m so Dorothy. I’m so type A [and] cynical. I have a little bit of Rose in me, too; a little bit of a romantic, dreamer side, but I’m 98 percent Dorothy and proud of it.
Kitty Lindsay is a Ms. blogger and a regular weekend contributor at Hello Giggles. She is the creator and host of Feminist Crush, a weekly podcast featuring conversations with feminist artists and activists.