Watching: A Vintage Sitcom

Progressive attitudes in a traditional format.

Dear Watchers,

Welcome to Wednesday — in a world in which we assume that days and weeks still mean something!

Here in New York, those of us without a beach house have spent more than five months mostly indoors and are, by now, climbing the walls. And wishing those walls were papered in some kicky print. (Maybe not a yellow one.) So if you need some classic sitcom laughs, and you find yourself thinking a lot more about interior design — with a particular emphasis on window treatments and wicker — have I got a show for you.

Stay sane. See you Friday.


My home, and my mood, need remodeling

Sharp tongues and shoulder pads, clockwise, from top left: Alice Ghostley, Delta Burke, Dixie Carter, Annie Potts, Jean Smart and, center, Meshach Taylor.Fotos International, via Getty Image

‘Designing Women’

Where to watch: Hulu

“Designing Women” premiered on CBS in 1986 and ran for seven seasons, though only the first five include the full, glamorous core cast — Dixie Carter, Delta Burke, Annie Potts and Jean Smart — as a quartet who run an Atlanta interior design firm, with Meshach Taylor as the dapper deliveryman. Last year, Hulu made all 163 episodes available, each a study in shoulder pads, singsong A, B and C plots and sitcom rhythms you can mark with a pendulum.


Formally, the show stuck to traditional fabrics and finishes. It took home its sole Emmy for outstanding achievement in hairstyling. (Which it deserved — mousse has never worked so hard.) But it remains the rare ’80s show that treated the fact of women — most of them mothers — working outside the home as both aspirational and unremarkable. Even as the producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason saw her career steamrollered by CBS’s Les Moonves, she created a space where career-minded ladies could wear their brooches and speak their minds, with pride. (Want an example of that speaking? Start here.)

Though progressive in some of its attitudes and plotlines — it was one of the first sitcoms to turn its attention to the AIDS crisis — its treatment of gender and sexuality hasn’t aged entirely well, and Taylor aside, the lack of nonwhite characters is pronounced. But the show limns female friendships with complexity and warmth, and the cast is unimprovable. (If “Watchmen”and “Legion” convinced you of Smart’s genius, you should have known way before.)

Also, enough years have elapsed that the très ’80s fashions look super again. Potts’s unsinkable Mary Jo, my favorite, calls the gang “the best of the big-shouldered broads,” and they have the blazers to back it up.

For years a reboot has been rumored, and had the pandemic not intervened, theater audiences would have met these women again. Bloodworth-Thomason had written a play that updates the office to 2020 (though the characters magically remain in their mid-30s), as political fractures threaten to dissolve the business. Performances would have begun in Fayetteville, Ark., in August. Guess we’ll have to wait for a vaccine to find out what punch lines these women and their blouses will land now.



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