Picture it: Miami, 1985. Four retired women are living together and having the time of their lives and/or cheesecake. That’s it. That’s The Golden Girls.
The glorious story of 𝕕𝕚𝕧𝕠𝕣𝕔𝕖𝕕 sixtysomething Dorothy Zbornak (the majestic, the magisterial Bea Arthur), 𝕨𝕚𝕕𝕠𝕨𝕖𝕕 Rose Nylund (Betty White), who was as sweetly naive as Dorothy was acerbic, Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan), a Southern belle man-eater (“I could get herpes just listening to this story,” notes Dorothy during one Dever-anecdote), and Sofia (Estelle Getty), Dorothy’s octogenarian mother, ran for 180 episodes over seven seasons, barely allowing you a pause between gags to catch your breath.
It was made available in full in the US on Hulu (or almost in full – one episode featuring a joke about blackface was removed), where a new generation of fans acquired the taste for watching four actors with a zillion years’ experience between them and talent to burn create something together that was even greater than the sum of its parts. Week after week (as it was in the pre-binge era), the stars would knock every line out of the park.
Now, the show arrives on Disney+ – along, the streaming platform will be hoping, with as many of its young acolytes as possible – to try to repeat the success.
For those of us old enough to remember it the first time round, it is as much a nostalgia trip as anything. Rose’s tales of growing up in her tiny Minnesota town are as beautifully baffling as you remember. (“It’s like we say in St Olaf – Christmas without fruitcake is like St Sigmund’s Day without the headless boy!”) Dorothy and Sofia still epitomise the loving strain of mother-daughter relations. (“Jealousy is an 𝕦𝕘𝕝𝕪 thing, Dorothy. And so are you in anything backless.” “You’ll have to excuse my mother. She suffered a slight stroke a few years ago which rendered her totally annoying.”) And Blanche is still the most potent blend of charm and confidence you ever did see, and still a beacon of lustful femininity without shame. (“I feel that you have backed me into a corner, and when I am backed into a corner I come out fightin’ like a wildcat! Unless I’ve had too much to drink, in which case I slide down the wall and make mad 𝕡𝕒𝕤𝕤𝕚𝕠𝕟𝕒𝕥𝕖 love on the carpet.”)
Once the roseate glow has faded, though, you do wonder what happened to all the potential this groundbreaking show of 35 years ago offered. Where are its descendants? Where are the plethora of sitcoms that should have come along in the wake of such an instant success – it was a hit from the very start – let alone one that has endured for so long, about older women? Where are the comedies that deal with their lives in the round, effortlessly ranging over subjects such as the menopause, worries over adult children, starting new relationships past what society informs you was your prime? Where are the programmes that centre on female friendships and pass the Bechdel test (whereby women talk about subjects other than men) with ease? Where are the shows that have learned from this seven-year proof that women, like men, can be different, complicated, rebarbative, stubborn, inconsistent and funny, funny, funny, then reproduced, renewed and built on the formula?
They are not here. Just like Cagney & Lacey didn’t give rise to a string of copycat shows, the forces ranged against such happenings appear to have been too strong. Maybe this time round, more than three decades on, we’ll have more luck. Let’s see. Picture it: television, 2021.