When a breakout star leaves, often the show suffers in his/her absence. This is definitely the case with the sixth season of Designing Women out on DVD this week. The 1991-1992 season of this classic sitcom saw the departure of fan favorite Delta Burke, who starred as the self-sentered and spoiled Suzanne Sugarbaker and replaced by Newhart vet Julia Duffy. Jean Smart who played the lovable and trusting Charlene also jumped ship and was replaced by Saturday Night Live alumna Jan Hooks.
For the uninitiated, Designing Women is a long-running sitcom about 4 women who run a designing firm in Atlanta. Much of the sitcom’s charm comes from the chemistry between the four original cast members: Burke, Smart, Dixie Carter and Annie Potts. Each character was a “type” and each actress was given her moment to shine. Because of backstage tension with producers, Burke left at the show’s height. With her absence there was a perceptible pall and Designing Women never recovered (it struggled for one more season before being canceled).
The plot has Suzanne leaving Atlanta for Japan and selling her share of the design firm to her spoiled and vain cousin from New York, Allison (Duffy). Like Suzanne, Allison is quick-tempered, bigoted and conservative. Unlike Suzanne, though, she’s extremely unlikable. Whereas Suzanne was endearing in her thoughtlessness and guile, Allison’s sophistication works against her – you sympathize with Suzanne because there was no artifice with her (despite being a former beauty queen) – with Allison, her meanness is often calculated and hurtful.
With Suzanne gone, the firm needs Allison’s capital. But her entrance doesn’t go smoothly. She is in constant battle with senior partner Anthony Bouvier (Mesach Taylor), over the right to live in Suzanne’s mansion. Allison isn’t the only new addition to the Sugarbaker’s design firm: Charlene is off to London with her fighter pilot hubby, and in her place is her folksy, naive, younger sister Carlene (Hooks). Like her big sis, Carlene is a voracious pop culture fan and a fervent reader of supermarket tabloids. Also like Charlene, Carlene is sweet and kind-hearted.
With all this upheaval, it’s easy to forget about the holdovers: Sugarbaker’s founder Julia (Carter) and Mary Jo (Potts). Julia’s trademark is her monologues, which she recites throughout the episodes whenever something offends her. Mary Jo on the other hand is the resident wit – the office’s answer to Dorothy Parker. Anthony is back and so is eccentric family friend, Bernice Clifton (Alice Ghostly), who has become more barbed and cutting with her surreal humor this season.
Despite all the changes, the writers attempted to have things go as usual, putting the four women into the kinds of fixes and situations that are par for the course for Designing Women: Julia and Mary Jo get stuck under a client’s bed; Allison, Anthony and Carlene get stuck in the storage room; Julia is cast as the star of in an amateur production of Mame and becomes a nightmarish diva; Anthony pimps Carlene out to a besotted college professor; Carlene enters a song-writing contest and ropes Mary Jo and Julia into performing; Carlene moves into a slum.
And as with other seasons of the show, there are topical issues and political points discussed: the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearing are highlighted in “The Strange Case of Clarence and Anita.” Mary Jo and Julia, on the side of Hill square off against Allison who believes Thomas. The audience seems particularly engaged as the characters trade barbs and make salient points about the hearing. Thomas’ confirmation to the Supreme Court also adds poignance to the episode. Oh, and Mary Jo is dressed as Bette Davis and Julia’s dressed like Joan Crawford because the two were in a production of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Other more serious topics include racial discrimination when Anthony is wrongly accused of theft at a mall or an episode that has Julia recovering from an hysterectomy. Sometimes the writers can get a bit heavy handed but it’s admirable that the show was still trying to address controversial issues.
The addition of Duffy as Allison in retrospect was a bad idea. This is in no way Duffy’s fault – in fact, she’s an excellent comedienne, but her character is so sour that it’s difficult to watch her at times. By trying to recreate a new Suzanne, the show forgot to add shadings to Allison, drawing her as a wildly unlikable monster. Hooks suffers with casting as well – those familiar with her work on SNL, know that she’s a versatile and talented comic. But again, like Allison, Carlene is written as a wan copy of her predecessor.
Potts is a standout. She’s fantastic and has a great way with one-liners. Carter is a limited actress, and she often lapses into southern grande dame territory, but the writers take advantage of her hauteur and wooden demeanor in playing up Julia’s reserved and prudish nature. Taylor and especially Ghostly are scene-stealers, who liven up any scene they grace.
Despite series-high ratings, Designing Women‘s 6th season was seen as a low point and for its 7th year, went through another change – this time replacing the thoroughly prickly Allison with an eccentric millionaire widow, BJ (Judith Ivey). The show would sputter in its final year before being unceremoniously dumped, without even a proper sendoff. Still, despite it being a spotty season, there are moments of inspired comedy that make some of the episodes worth watching.