By the time Designing Women limped to its final season, the show was tossed around the schedule before being ignominiously cancelled without a proper sendoff for our ladies from Sugarbakers. In the sixth season, breakout star Delta Burke and reliable supporting cast member Jean Smart left the show - Newhart star Julia Duffy and Saturday Night Live alumna Jan Hooks were brought in to fill the voids – by the end of that creaky season, Duffy was dumped. Opening in the seventh season, Duffy’s character, Allison Sugarbaker, Julia’s (Dixie Carter) obnoxious cousin is sent off to run a Victoria’s Secret in New York. Sugarbakers Design Firm is experiencing financial troubles, that reflect the recession of the early 1990′s. To add to the show, Tony-winning stage vet, Judith Ivey joins as B.J. Poteet, an eccentric millionaire is brought in to fix the interior design firm’s fortunes.
As with the other seasons of Designing Women, this season has various plot lines and running arcs that are trademarks for the show: the annual disastrous vacation (this time, an aborted trip to Washington, DC to join the Clintons for the inauguration ball); social and political jokes and references – some that date pretty badly; rambling stories, that include raunchy sex jokes; episodes that touch on personal women’s issues (Julia goes through menopause); pop culture references to tabloid gossip (Princess Diana’s marital troubles); trendy, “shocking” episodes regarding some social trend, in this season, it’s crossdressing. Unlike the other seasons, there are no “very special episodes,” the closest being an episode where B.J. discovers love letters from her late husband, and then gets a monologue that give viewers evidence of Ivey’s award-winning thespian chops.
As disastrous as Duffy’s inclusion to the show was, Ivey fits in very well. Her character’s a great foil for Julia - the two characters share an adversarial relationship that is based on mutual love and respect, but manifests itself in the kind of bitchy humor that’s expected from the show – she’s not the comic powerhouse that Burke was, but Ivey does herself very well. Carter as the prudish, liberal Julia, is good, too – Carter’s pretty wooden as an actress, but for some reason, the writers incorporate her stiffness into the stuffiness of the character. Hooks dolled up in some pretty fancy business suits this season, acquits herself well, though a comedienne of her gifts should be taxed much more. As Mary Jo, Annie Potts is good, though in this season, she’s strangely amped up, mugging tremendously, playing to the back rafters of the studio audience. Mesach Taylor and Alice Ghostley offer great scene-stealing comedy as Anthony and Bernice – Ghostley especially is given some fun lines, playing up her character’s dottiness. Stage and TV vet Sheryl Lee Ralph also pops up from time to time as Anthony’s love interest – again, like with the case of Hooks, an actress of Ralph’s particular talents should be given more to do.
Because this is the final season, and at this point, Designing Women was no longer the trend-setting show it was in its heyday, there is a palpable feeling of finality to the episodes. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any gems – In “Mary Jo vs. the Terminator” the normally meek Mary Jo stands up to the imperious Julia, when years of resentment over the latter’s condescending manner bubble up when Mary Jo asks Julia to proof a letter, which of course Julia massacres with red ink. “Love Letters” is also good, with a touching performance by Ivey, when B.J. finds out her dead hubby might have been a philanderer. Over all, however, the intelligence of the show has dipped – instead of smart, lazer-like shots of feminist humor, boob jokes and cracks about bimbos fly around. Instead of celebrating the diversity of women, our four ladies sniff contemptuously at women they deem vacuous and lob juvenile anti-women jokes (at times, you’d think some of the jokes were written by a cadre of male high school seniors).
The show starts off pretty strongly, before crawling to its overdue death. The final two-part episode is a particular low point: Sugarbakers is facing financial ruin, so the ladies must take on a job redecorating a house patterned after Tara from Gone with the Wind. What proceed are unfunny sequences where each of the ladies dream up imaginary scenarios where each one is Scarlett O’Hara. This episode is a terribly sad end to a show that started off as one of the smartest sitcoms on television. Hobbled by the premature exit of its most popular actress, Designing Women, never recovered. Instead it was retooled badly, before ending on such a sad low note.