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Designing Women Appreciation Page (1 Viewer)

Caproni

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DESIGNING WOMEN is one of those shows that seems to have always been tucked in the back of my head somewhere. I had been a avid fan of classic film and television for years, and I vaguely remembering always knowing about this show, albeit in name only. Being a big fan of THE GOLDEN GIRLS, I was aware of the semi-frequent comparisons, and that some see DESIGNING WOMEN as nothing more than a poor man's GOLDEN GIRLS. That is just the tip of the ice berg though.

DESIGNING WOMEN ran on CBS from 1986 to 1993, producing seven seasons and 163 episodes. It features an ensemble of four beautiful and talented women: Delta Burke as the multi-divorced, ex-beauty queen Suzanne Sugarbaker; Dixie Carter as her independent, liberal-minded sister Julia Sugarbaker; Annie Potts as the quirky and opinionated Mary Jo Shively; and Jean Smart as the sometimes naive but always sweet Charlene Frazier. These four women worked off one another beautifully, and they managed to easily overcome the odds stacked against them. Despite the fact that the second episode, "The Beauty Contest", contains Julia's famous "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" speech, the show initially suffered in the Nielsen ratings. It was almost cancelled by CBS in 1987, but a viewership protest brought the show back to Monday nights where it was to stay for the next five years and routinely place in the weekly top twenty.

As a comedy, DESIGNING WOMEN follows in the pattern of most sitcoms of the same era, but with an added twist. The series was known for tackling controversial issues through humor. Among the issues addressed were homosexuality, obesity, world hunger, and many more. The writing for this show is solid, even though my personal tastes would've preferred it had they toned down some of the more liberal-minded heavy-handiness that they pushed so strong sometimes. Throughout it all, however, the show rode on the coattails of its four talented leads. Delta Burke emerged as the fan favorite as Suzanne, whose eccentric nature, off-set political views, and mannerisms practically defined this show's reputation. Dixie Carter, a libertarian-leaning conservative, was adept in spitting out liberal lingo in many episodes, although she did not always agree with her dialogue. Annie Potts was the opinionated one, cute and sweet, but with a fire just beneath the surface. Jean Smart was leggy and sometimes the country bumpkin.

DESIGNING WOMEN grew in the Nielsen ratings each season and earned fair acclaim from contemporary television critics. It was placing tenth in the ratings in 1991 when both Delta Burke and Jean Smart exited the show, and producers scrambled to find suitable replacements. To fill their vacancies for season six, Julia Duffy and Jan Hooks were brought into the ensemble. While the show was still a quality one, it was not the same, and for the seventh season, Duffy was replaced with Judith Ivey. After a abrupt time slot change to Friday nights in 1992, the show's ratings tanked and it was ultimately cancelled.

I realize that there are other DESIGNING WOMEN threads here on HTF (even one I started with THE GOLDEN GIRLS), but I wanted to give this gem its own appreciation thread. I know there's got to be fans lingering out there that will be excited that this show's been given its own place.

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Caproni

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Delta Burke as Suzanne Sugarbaker is the best part of DESIGNING WOMEN to me. Not only is she the most beautiful, she is the funniest in my opinion. Suzanne is one of the best situation comedy characters there has ever been. All her eccentricities coupled with her Southern sass makes for a hilarious combination.

I enjoy all the oddities they attach to her. Considering Suzanne is an ex-beauty queen, she is sometimes vain and fuels her own local celebrity. I really like how they give her pet pig she calls Noel. She drives it around in her car and takes it to the local Dairy Queen to get dilly bars.

She's a delicious character. Suzanne is the best.

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Caproni

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For better or worse, I enjoy talking about DESIGNING WOMEN and its behind-the-scenes difficulties. It is always interesting to me for a show that I like to have some form of back-camera hoopla to give me a little something extra to dig my teeth into.

For DESIGNING WOMEN, the biggest controversy behind-the-camera was the fallout with Delta Burke, the show's breakout star. As early as the second season in 1987, Burke spoke of the pressure to "be thin" placed on her by the producers of the show. There was apparently a lot of concern surrounding her weight gain as the series progressed, and if I'm remembering the facts/rumors correctly, she was even placed on a special diet to help her drop weight. Her real-life weight struggles were the main focus of the fourth season episode called "They Shoot Fat Women, Don't They?", which earned Burke considerable critical acclaim. In the episode, Suzanne (Delta Burke) faces the bullying of her former high school classmates when she goes to her high school reunion. Her heart-wrenching speech given at the conclusion of the episode is a pivotal moment in both Suzanne and Delta's life, and it's a definite tear-jerker as well.

Aside from the continuing issues surrounding Delta's weight, problems arose concerning Delta's often outspoken opinions about long working hours. She complained openly in one interview about the long working hours alongside her husband, fellow TV star Gerald McRaney. The producers of DESIGNING WOMEN were not ones to take such allegations lightly. Not only would these situations alienate Burke from her producers, it would strain her relationship with her co-stars. While Annie Potts and Jean Smart apparently remained neutral during the confrontations, Dixie Carter openly sided with her bosses, feeling that Burke was out of line. The fifth season of DESIGNING WOMEN brought forth some changes. The producers were fed up with the public display of their behind-the-camera issues, and they were more than comfortable with allowing Delta Burke to take a back-seat in that season's episodes. She was left out of two episodes entirely. Even so, the show's ratings were increasing, and Burke was still the show's most-identifiable star.

The issues continued to rise throughout that fifth season, and in 1991, it was ultimately decided that DESIGNING WOMEN would continue without Delta Burke. She was basically fired or at least asked to be let go, but some stories try to sell it as she decided to leave. Honestly, it was probably a combination of both stories. I'm sure Burke was ready to go, and the producers were fine with her going. She made her last appearance on DESIGNING WOMEN in the fifth season finale.

Around the same time, fellow cast member Jean Smart began toying with the idea of leaving the show. She apparently wanted to spend more time with her growing family, and desired to work on other projects without the weekly task of filming a sitcom. Smart would make her final appearance as a series regular in the finale of season five as well, although she would return as a guest star for the sixth season premiere. Apparently, the producers had originally hoped that Smart would return for guest spots, but this never materialized.

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DESIGNING WOMEN lost two of its four lead actresses in 1991. The producers were immediately faced with the task of quickly replacing Delta Burke and Jean Smart before production on season six started. For Burke's replacement, a few well-known names were shuffled in the bucket. Bette Midler was apparently among those mentioned, but a more serious contender was Loni Anderson, the wife of movie star Burt Reynolds, who was most famous for her role as Jennifer Marlowe on WKRP IN CINCINNATI in the late seventies and early eighties. Ultimately, neither actress secured the part. Julia Duffy, best-known for her work on NEWHART, eventually one the coveted role. Finding Smart's replacement was considerably less stressful. After a few contenders, the producers decided on Jan Hooks, a multi-talented actress and former SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE cast member. Both Julia Duffy and Jan Hooks debuted on DESIGNING WOMEN in the sixth season premiere.

The first episode of the sixth season, called "The Big Desk", aired in September 1991. It was watched by more than forty million Americans, making it the highest-rated episode in DESIGNING WOMEN history. In short, the episode explained that Suzanne (Delta Burke) had left Atlanta to be with her mother in Japan, and that Charlene (Jean Smart) would be leaving Atlanta to go overseas with her husband. To fill their gaps, Suzanne and Julia's (Dixie Carter) cousin Allison (Julia Duffy) has purchased Suzanne's shares in the design firm and she comes to town in an effort to take control of Sugarbaker's. Carlene (Jan Hooks), Charlene's previously unmentioned sister, slides into her role as office secretary.

DESIGNING WOMEN rode high on the publicity surrounding its behind-the-scenes issues in the Nielsen ratings for its sixth season. Despite this, the critics were not necessarily favorable to the new cast additions. The primary complaint was aimed towards Julia Duffy as Allison, a character many found unlikable. Annie Potts said that the producers "really made a mistake" with Julia Duffy, not because she was a bad choice or bad actress, but because her character Allison "wasn't very likable". One commentator said that Julia Duffy's hiring was the "biggest slap in the face for Delta Burke", specifying that the dark-haired Burke had been betrayed by her firing and replacement with "a skinny blonde". On the other hand, Jan Hooks received a warmer reception from fans and critics as the dim-witted Carlene, although some criticism was drawn for her character being one-note.

Owing to the backlash, the producers eventually decided not to renew Julia Duffy's contract after one season. Years later in an interview, Duffy spoke of her job as not being the easiest, and that the set itself was quite tense. She blatantly said that "the one year was plenty" when asked about her release after one season. Bonnie Hunt was apparently the first choice to replace Julia Duffy, but she declined the opportunity, favoring to join the cast of DAVIS RULES instead. Theatre actress Judith Ivey eventually secured the role, and she was set to debut in the seventh season premiere. That episode was called "Of Human Bondage", and it explained that Allison (Julia Duffy) had bailed on Sugarbaker's for a Victoria's Secret franchise and that B.J. Poteet (Judith Ivey), a wealthy widow, would take her place as the company's financial backer.

The seventh season of DESIGNING WOMEN moved from Monday to Friday nights. This was an attempt by CBS to establish a comedy block with DESIGNING WOMEN, THE GOLDEN PALACE, MAJOR DAD, and BOB. The Nielsen ratings immediately plummeted, sliding from #6 to #67 by the end of the 1992/93 season. DESIGNING WOMEN was cancelled in 1993 after seven seasons.

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Malcolm R

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I enjoyed the show, but became tired of "Julia the Crusader".

I don't think Julia Duffy worked well in the cast, but recall enjoying the last season more with Judith Ivey.
 

Caproni

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I enjoyed the show, but became tired of "Julia the Crusader".

I don't think Julia Duffy worked well in the cast, but recall enjoying the last season more with Judith Ivey.
Julia was known as The Terminator, and honestly that did get old sometimes. There were occasions where it fit, but most of the time it was just too much and too heavy-handed. And the "trade off" aspect that Dixie Carter worked out with the producers was irksome. I don't think she was a good singer at all and I could've done without all of that.

I think Julia Duffy takes a lot of flack that isn't warranted. Her character Allison wasn't the most likable person, but some of the blame goes on the writing. Duffy wasn't given any favors with the way her role was written. The writers wrote her into a corner with giving Allison a diagnosis called Obnoxious Personality Disorder (OPD), and they were determined to keep her out of the core clique. Her primary story-arc was arguing with Anthony over Suzanne's house, and that kept her at odds with Anthony and the other ladies. There were a few cases where the writers flirted with making Allison more relatable and sympathetic. There's the episode where Allison thinks Julia's dating a gay man, and Allison reacts to the situation the same way Suzanne would've had she still been around. She ridicules Julia about the man being homosexual, and telling her she's just scared to date a straight guy because of the commitment. I recall another episode where Mary Jo goes to a sperm bank. Allison shows up and Mary Jo and Carlene try to pull her into the circle. None of this lasts, though, and it's a shame too. Julia Duffy is an attractive and talented woman, but the producers, writers, or whomever decided to keep her character one-note and not give her a single shred of likability that was worth anything. I was actually disappointed that they didn't redeem her and keep her around.

The seventh and final season is my least favorite. Judith Ivey was a good addition, in theory, but I feel another cast change injured the show. The writing that seventh season got really weak, and Julia and Mary Jo were written to act totally out of character. It all got really sloppy and bland, even though Judith Ivey's B.J. did bring some much needed sass to the ensemble. My main complaint that last season was the focus on Anthony and his girlfriend/wife Etienne. I didn't care for that at all. I did like that we got more of Berniece that last season though. She was always hilarious.
 

Blimpoy06

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Great analysis of the show! I always appreciated that while having a marked feminist slant, the show never portrayed men as inferior or idiots. I enjoyed Hal Holbrook's scenes with Dixie Carter the most. And Meshach Taylor was a perfect foil for Delta Burke as he fought to increase Suzanne's limited world view. And I agree about Alice Ghostly as Bernice. Never a wasted moment on screen.

Delta Burke must have worked out her differences with the producers. They created "Women Of The House" as a vehicle for Suzanne Surgarbaker in 1995. I've never seen any episodes myself. Any thoughts on that short lived series?
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Caproni

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Great analysis of the show! I always appreciated that while having a marked feminist slant, the show never portrayed men as inferior or idiots. I enjoyed Hal Holbrook's scenes with Dixie Carter the most. And Meshach Taylor was a perfect foil for Delta Burke as he fought to increase Suzanne's limited world view. And I agree about Alice Ghostly as Bernice. Never a wasted moment on screen.

Delta Burke must have worked out her differences with the producers. They created "Women Of The House" as a vehicle for Suzanne Surgarbaker in 1995. I've never seen any episodes myself. Any thoughts on that short lived series?
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Delta Burke did eventually iron out her differences with Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason. It must've been a quick reconciliation because WOMEN OF THE HOUSE came only like two years after DESIGNING WOMEN had been cancelled.

I've never seen WOMEN OF THE HOUSE, so I couldn't comment on it personally. I know it only lasted like thirteen episodes because of low ratings. Apparently it wasn't a terribly good show at all.
 

Caproni

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I just learned that Jean Smart (Charlene Frazier Stillfield) and Judith Ivey (B.J. Poteet) appeared together in PIAF, a Broadway play about the life of French chanteuse Edith Piaf.

Some of you might already have known that. This is before both of their DESIGNING WOMEN days.
 

Caproni

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It has always struck me as strange that DESIGNING WOMEN was not a bigger hit in the Nielsen ratings. It received strong reviews its debut season, but it was cancelled in 1987 due to unsatisfactory ratings. A viewership poll quickly emerged and saved the sitcom from an early grave.

DESIGNING WOMEN didn't crack the Nielsen Top 30 its first three seasons. Going into its fourth season, which is generally considered the best season, the series finally entered the top thirty (placing #22 for the year). The series was reaching its pinnacle, with the original cast at least, during season five. It ending up coming in tenth place in 1991, tying with THE GOLDEN GIRLS in the season-end ratings.

Following Delta Burke and Jean Smart's departure, the series generated a lot of behind-the-scenes attention. The publicity surrounding Burke's issues with producers and the addition of Julia Duffy and Jan Hooks to the main cast sent the ratings for season six through the roof. The season six premiere was watched in more than thirty million homes, making it the most-watched episode of the series. DESIGNING WOMEN peaked at sixth place for its sixth season.

CBS decided to move DESIGNING WOMEN from its familiar Monday night time slot to Friday nights in 1992 for its seventh season. That season also brought in Judith Ivey as a replacement for Julia Duffy. CBS wanted to make a comedy block on Friday nights with DESIGNING WOMEN, and fellow sitcoms MAJOR DAD, BOB, and THE GOLDEN PALACE. The strategy was not successful. These sitcoms faced stiff competition from ABC, where shows like STEP BY STEP and FAMILY MATTERS drew in large family audiences.

DESIGNING WOMEN fell from #6 to #67 between 1992 and 1993. The series was then cancelled by CBS after seven seasons.


Nielsen ratings
Season 1 (1986─1987): #33 (16.1)
Season 2 (1987─1988): #34 (15.5)
Season 3 (1988─1989): #33 (15.0)
Season 4 (1989─1990): #22 (15.3)
Season 5 (1990─1991): #10 (16.5)
Season 6 (1991─1992): #6 (17.3)
Season 7 (1992─1993): #67 (9.9)

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Wiseguy

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DESIGNING WOMEN didn't crack the Nielsen Top 30 its first three seasons. Going into its fourth season, which is generally considered the best season, the series finally entered the top thirty (placing #22 for the year). The series was reaching its pinnacle, with the original cast at least, during season five. It ending up coming in tenth place in 1991, tying with THE GOLDEN GIRLS in the season-end ratings.

I always thought the third season was the funniest (Also thought the third seasons of Barney Miller and Happy Days were the funniest). In addition, that season introduced a jazzier recording of the Georgia theme song (which they alternated with a slower version. Some of the pictures of the cast were different in the two versions as well). Unfortunately, in syndication, all the openings (of the first five years, at least) were replaced with phony quickies which were not too impressive. These may have started with the CBS morning airings. I haven't seen much of the network reruns (TVLand, Lifetime, Antenna TV) but don't think they've revived the original openings there either. The slower version won out and only that one was heard for the next two years.

The fourth and fifth seasons were still good but I thought the show was slowly running out of steam, especially compared to the third season. The first two seasons were good, too, and it was impressive that creator Linda Bloodworth wrote every episode of the second season. Once the actors started disappearing it never recovered.

I always thought the black sitcom Girlfriends (2000-08) was quite similar to Designing Women with the characters (four woman with different personalities: level-headed, sassy, ditzy and egotistic plus a black man) and could be both hilarious and serious just like Designing Women. It also shared the same problem as Designing Women: the egotistic character left the show (when the series moved from the defunct UPN to the new The CW in 2006, although I don't know if that had anything to do with her departure) and it went downhill from there. Like Designing Women, it lasted for two years after the actor loss, but the final season was cut short by the writers' strike of 2008 and a concluding episode was never made.
 

Caproni

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I always thought the third season was the funniest (Also thought the third seasons of Barney Miller and Happy Days were the funniest). In addition, that season introduced a jazzier recording of the Georgia theme song (which they alternated with a slower version. Some of the pictures of the cast were different in the two versions as well). Unfortunately, in syndication, all the openings (of the first five years, at least) were replaced with phony quickies which were not too impressive. These may have started with the CBS morning airings. I haven't seen much of the network reruns (TVLand, Lifetime, Antenna TV) but don't think they've revived the original openings there either. The slower version won out and only that one was heard for the next two years.

The fourth and fifth seasons were still good but I thought the show was slowly running out of steam, especially compared to the third season. The first two seasons were good, too, and it was impressive that creator Linda Bloodworth wrote every episode of the second season. Once the actors started disappearing it never recovered.

I always thought the black sitcom Girlfriends (2000-08) was quite similar to Designing Women with the characters (four woman with different personalities: level-headed, sassy, ditzy and egotistic plus a black man) and could be both hilarious and serious just like Designing Women. It also shared the same problem as Designing Women: the egotistic character left the show (when the series moved from the defunct UPN to the new The CW in 2006, although I don't know if that had anything to do with her departure) and it went downhill from there. Like Designing Women, it lasted for two years after the actor loss, but the final season was cut short by the writers' strike of 2008 and a concluding episode was never made.
Most fans I know (through forums such as this one) seem to think the fourth season was DESIGNING WOMEN at its peak. I can agree that the fourth season does contain a lot of my favorite episodes, and many of them define the show in my opinion. I often think of episodes like "A Nightmare from Hee Haw" and "Tough Enough", two of my absolute favorites. That season also includes "They Shoot Fat Women, Don't They?" and "The First Day of the Last Decade of the Entire Twentieth Century", which are two other gems and fan favorites.

Even still, I can see your fondness for season three. That season has some really good episodes as well. I am particularly fond of the episode "Odell", if mainly for Suzanne's concerns about Charlene's brother being gay, and "The Wilderness Experience" where the women take part in a weekend camping trip. Those two are hilarious.

In hindsight, DESIGNING WOMEN was probably at its best during its third and fourth season. I'd say that the final three seasons still have their gems, however. Season five seemed fractured because of the producers edging out Delta Burke, even though episodes like "Maybe Baby" and "Charlene Buys a House" are good for laughs. Season six has "Carlene's Apartment" and season seven had "Oh Dog, Poor Dog". Good episodes. Maybe not the show at its peak, but good shows nonetheless.
 

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