The 25 years that have passed since The Golden Girls was first broadcast on NBC have not affected the series: its quality, its humor, or its popularity. Betty White’s ubiquity is only one of the many ways it is infused in popular culture today, and remains as funny and engaging as it was a quarter century ago, something few television shows can claim. All seven seasons of the show had already been released on DVD, but it’s so popular they were just released again on Tuesday, in a special anniversary set that comes in a box shaped like Sophia's purse.
How is it that the Susan Harris-created Saturday night NBC sitcom has held up so well?
Its endurance is especially interesting because much of The Golden Girls crumbles under any scrutiny. The layout of the house makes no logical sense (the bedrooms and the garage occupy the same space, the all-important kitchen table has just three chairs) and there are the ever-changing details about the women's pasts (ages, names, places, and stories shift to make jokes work). Each individual episode is also thinly plotted. By the end of each half hour, conflict has been quickly resolved, often by some deus ex machina. In one episode, Blanche agrees to a date with a man before she discovers he's in a wheelchair. She struggles with her prejudices and eventually learns that her concerns were unfounded. He's the perfect man for her, but the episode has to end, so she discovers he's married and cheating, dumps him, and is ready for a new beau the next episode.
These faults are forgivable and forgettable because the series did an exceptional job with the parts that really mattered and that too many shows today neglect: character. Not just quirks in masquerade, but full, round, honest characters.
Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur), Rose Nylund (White), Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan), and Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty) are some of television's most enduring and unforgettable characters, and it's not just because they are older women who said things like "slut" and "tramp." It's because they each had thoroughly developed personalities. Sure, they had the traits that anyone who's ever watched the show can recite, but they were the opposite of the one-note people too many sitcoms give us.
A lot of humor came from Blanche's sexuality, Sophia's spunkiness, Rose's St. Olafian naivete, and Dorothy's exasperation (" Condoms, Rose! Condoms, condoms, condoms!"). But Rose wasn't simply dumb; Blanche was more than a slut. Moreover, their age was often fodder for a punch line but it didn't affect them as people: their sexuality, their work, or their lives. And they just enjoy their time together, which is fun for viewers, as the live studio audience's laughter makes clear. The wheelchair episode is watchable and re-watchable not for its resolution, but for moments like Sophia pretending to be Blanche's grandmother, affecting a ridiculous Southern accent.
The writing was so strong that it's no surprise that the writing and producing staff's alumni includes people such as Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry and Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz. But their writing worked because of the actors and their limitless talent. Besides fully inhabiting their characters and giving them endearing personalities, they made absurd jokes sound real and made sight gags out of mere facial expressions, as Arthur, Getty, and White demonstrate when Dorothy and Sophia dress up as Sonny and Cher. In their hands, even a single word can be hilarious, such as when Blanche learned that Dorothy's visiting friend was gay. McClanahan's delivery is flawless: "Lesbian. Lesbian? Lesbian!"
That last scene is evidence of something else the show did that has made it timeless. While it wasn't the first to include gay characters or embrace a progressive worldview, the women both grappled with differences and made fun of them but accepted everyone. The women's unequivocal embrace of gay and lesbian people explains why the show has such a following in the gay community, particularly from those who came of age in the 1980s. Here were women like our mothers and grandmothers, and though they weren't perfect, they ultimately weren't judgmental. We wanted people like this in our real lives, as real friends. It’s no surprise the hashtag “ thankyouforbeingafriend”—a reference to the show’s theme song—trended on Twitter when McClanahan died in June.
The series itself explored a number of social and political issues, from interracial marriage to AIDS to teen pregnancy, and only occasionally did that feel gratuitous. That was, in part, the writing, which kept those plotlines on the same level as all the others: emotionally resonant, deeply felt, but still fodder for humor and resolvable in less than a half hour.
The Golden Girls were honest and relatable, but there was something more: intense, unfailing, real friendships. It's the characters and their relationships that still work now. Reports of off-screen conflict can't change the fact that on screen, the characters were always deeply committed to one another, and that friendship is genuine. When the series began, they already knew each other: Sophia moves in during the pilot episode, but the other girls have been living together, albeit with a quickly excised gay cook (oh, Coco). The characters' relationship just existed and stayed consistent well into the 1990s.
The final episode of the seventh and last season is the only one to split up the group: Dorothy leaves, and after repeated tearful entrances, walks out the door for the last time, but still, through tears, she reminds them, "I love you, always." The other three women moved on to CBS and The Golden Palace, where they were joined by Don Cheadle, Cheech Marin, and a child actor.
It was never the same, because the girls belong together.
They are, awesomely, still together, both on DVD and nearly every night, for hours at a time. The Golden Girls has been rerun continuously since before the series went off the air: first in syndication, then on Lifetime, and, since 2009, on WEtv and Hallmark Channel. Despite the cable networks' criminal mangling of the episodes—they edit out scenes and even individual jokes to fit more commercials—the series has found new audiences and stayed relevant. That college students can find their way to the show 20 years later is evidence of its distinctive shelf life.
Its faults are its gifts as a television show. Every episode resets, and the girls are always left back where they started.
Its faults are its gifts as a television show. Every episode resets, and the girls are always left back where they started. Unlike, say, Lost, which subsumed character to increasingly absurd plot, The Golden Girls is the reverse, and it’s OK that it’s nothing of any substance or consequence beyond the relationships. That's what makes it possible to watch an episode even when you know from the first few minutes that, “This is the one where…” The jokes are still funny in part because they're forgettable and we can re-live them with our on-screen friends each time we watch. The insults, the sarcasm, the mocking, the joking, the brutal honesty, the fights, and even the major conflicts: nothing affected their friendship. Nothing.
We've lost Estelle Getty, Bea Arthur, and Rue McClanahan, and someday, Betty White will be gone, too. But Sophia, Dorothy, Blanche, and Rose are always together. That is their biggest gift to us.