Syndicated TV shows come and go, but The Golden Girls remain.
I don’t think a show like this could ever be made again…certainly not by the same name. The Girls were in their 60s, and these days, no one in their 60s wants to be thought of as “golden”…at least, no one I know. I always have to remind myself that age redefines itself generationally (for example, it still breaks my head to think that Archie Bunker was only 46-ish at the top of All in the Family, but then 46 looked different in 1971 than it does now). Grace and Frankie did a little bit for this generation what The Golden Girls did for theirs, I guess—demonstrated that older people had lives. And emotions. And sex. And cheesecake. Well, I doubt that cheesecake was ever in question, but you know what I mean.
Yes, they did an episode for Valentine’s Day, and I’ll get to that. But first we have to talk about the Girls as a whole—the show, and the enduring phenomenon. Hell, as of this writing, two weeks ago I went to a pop-up event in NYC called “Golden Girls Kitchen”, which was a themed restaurant with rooms done up like their kitchen and Blanche’s bedroom and The Rusty Anchor bar, and you could get entrees like Sophia’s Lasagna al Forno (surprisingly good), and fancy themed cocktails. There’s a Golden Girls Cruise. There’s a ton of merchandise to be had (Funko Pops that come in like three different outfits each). My favorites that I personally own are my Golden Girls overalls, and my t-shirt that says “don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like Bea”. I still miss Rue La Rue, the cafe tucked away in Washington Heights that was decorated with head to toe Golden Girls memorabilia, including a lot of stuff from Rue McLanahan’s personal collection (the owner had been a friend of hers). Every time the opening credits came on over the monitors that constantly ran episodes, everyone in the place would stop what they were doing, and sing along. “Thank you for being a friend!”
Everyone knows that the LGBTQIA community loves The Golden Girls. It makes sense. Right from the off, from their “fancy man” houseboy Coco who didn’t outlast the pilot, the Girls were welcoming to All Things Queer, and it was beautiful to watch. Dorothy’s lesbian friend who got a crush on Rose. Blanche’s brother coming out as gay, and then getting married. Rose getting an AIDS test. Dorothy’s straight, married brother who liked to wear women’s clothes. Lin-Manuel Miranda may be the reason a lot of us have t-shirts that say “love is love” these days (well, when he said it on the Tony Awards, he said “love is love is love”), but I think Blanche was the first one to say it on a sitcom. The Girls also got real with things like Alzheimer’s Disease, homelessness, immigrant deportation, and a personal favourite, chronic illness…that time Dorothy got absolutely savage in saying that which all of us have always wanted to say to every doctor who has ever failed to take us seriously. Seriously, watch the clip. You’ll stand up and cheer. I do, every time.
So anyway, “Valentine’s Day.” The Golden Girls was very large on having clip shows…but they weren’t always your standard clip shows, made up of clips from previous episodes. A lot of them were more vignette episodes, usually set in the framework of a kitchen chat over cheesecake. Each of the Girls would have their own story to tell, usually from their past, usually independent of the others. These were fun because it gave the women a chance to do something a little different, in a different surrounding, often with different people. In Estelle Getty’s case, her “picture it…” stories often gave her the chance to appear her own age, without the age makeup she normally wore as the 80 year old Sophia.
So…picture it. Miami, Season 4. As the Girls sit around the kitchen table, bummed because their Valentine’s Day dates have stood them up, they take turns telling tales of Valentine’s Days past. Sophia goes first, and sure enough, it’s young Sophia and her husband Sal in Chicago, narrowly missing the St Valentine’s Day Massacre…though she says it wasn’t that St Valentine’s Day Massacre, just that it was a St Valentine’s Day Massacre. She also insists that unlike the others, she hasn’t been stood up by her date, and that her date happens to be Julio Iglesias. I don’t know why her roommates don’t believe her. At this point, Sophia has already proved her irresistibility to celebrities, in the form of Burt Reynolds and a bunch of his friends, back in Season 2.
Honestly, the Sophia scene is my least favourite out of the vignettes in this one. Nothing’s wrong with it – it’s always sweet to see another episode of “Sophia and Sal: A Love Story.” Sophia’s father is played by Bill Dana, whose face we already know at this point because he has already appeared (and will do again) as Dorothy’s Uncle Angelo. Family resemblance, I can buy it…it’s like the Mother’s Day episode a few seasons later, when Bea Arthur was the one who put on the age makeup for a flashback sequence so she could play Sophia’s mother.
The next scene puts the “flash” in “flashback…remember that time Rose accidentally booked herself, Dorothy and Blanche into a clothing-optional resort for Valentine’s Day weekend? It’s delightful, especially watching Blanche ogling the naked patrons playing volleyball from their window. Comments about guys making no-handed serves, though…even if that could physically work in a casual (read: flaccid) situation, I always think—ouch? Anyway, the ladies stare long enough to rationalise themselves into thinking “what the heck”, decide to throw caution and clothing to the wind, and go down to dinner in the buff…only to learn from a very snotty maitre d’, “we always dress for dinner.” He also has to throw in a terribly ageist comment about how in their case, they should keep their clothes on for all the meals. Rude.
Scene number three is Blanche, celebrating an anniversary of sorts. Every year, she goes back to the bar where her late husband George proposed to her. She orders champagne for both of them, and sits there with her memories. When a young man overhears her explaining this to the bartender, he wistfully remarks how he wishes how he could think of romantic things like that. Blanche gets terribly excited at the idea of being able to mentor someone through his own marriage proposal, paying forward what George had done, and walks the guy through the whole thing. The payoff comes when the guy’s date shows up, and it’s another guy.
We’ve recently learned the depths of Blanche’s homophobia—at least, with regard to her own family—a few episodes prior, when her brother Clayton came out to her. She struggled with it (and will struggle with it more a while from now, when he tells her he wants to get married—she’s not keen to lend him any wedding ideas, that’s for sure), but eventually came round as much as she can. Blanche Devereaux is easily The World’s Most Heterosexual Human (except for that one New Year’s Eve when she’s so desperate to be kissed at midnight that she begins to look at Dorothy with a gleam in her eye for a hot second), so I’m not sure she can truly grasp the concept of queerness…but she’s there for Clayton, and Valentine’s Day Guy, in a “you do you” kind of way.
The last flashback scene is the most memorable one in the episode, I think. It’s another one where the three younger Girls are planning a getaway weekend without Sophia (what’s up with that?), and it’s another one where this show about so-called old ladies managed to be as socially conscious as one involving 30somethings or teenagers. Preparing to leave for a Valentine’s Day cruise with boyfriends we’ve never heard of before (nor will again), the three ladies are in a drugstore buying last-minute necessities, when the ever-sex-minded Blanche suggests they bring along some “protection.” Bea Arthur could be drier than the Sahara Desert when she wanted to, and when Rose doesn’t get it, Dorothy’s first response is “two armed Pinkerton guards, Rose.”
Eventually, however, dryness gives way to frustration and she explodes – “Condoms, Rose! Condoms! Condoms! Condoms!” (I’ve seen merchandise with this on, by the way) We’re already laughing at this, when the clerk responds “Calm down, lady! You just get outta prison?” Any other women would have sunk through the floor with embarrassment, but Blanche grabs the microphone from the guy as he’s loudly asking a co-worker for price checks on the things, and gives everyone in the store a lecture about social responsibility, and shut the hell up. Ain’t nobody got moxie like Blanche Devereaux.
The last bit of the episode is the boyfriends (again, three guys we’ve never seen before, nor will again) showing up after all to take the ladies out for dinner and dancing. Apparently Sophia arranged the whole thing—either because she’s sweet like that, or to get her roommates out of the way while she goes out with Julio Iglesias. Considering that in a later episode, she cops to being “a mean old lady like the paper boy says”, I suspect it’s the latter. He shows up at the back door, is scolded by her for his discretion (“what’s the point of going out with Julio Iglesias if no one’s gonna see us?”—then why did you hustle your roommates out of the house, Sophia?), and off they go, singing “Begin The Beguine” together. Sophia Petrillo could pick up a young hottie better than anyone I know…it gives me hope that my 80s (still a ways away) won’t entirely see the end of my sex appeal. Lord knows that’s a lesson Grace and Frankie wanted to make sure I learned (by the way, I am SO excited to see 80 For Brady and give it my money—in an increasingly ageist world, things like that deserve support).
We’re still grieving Betty White, the last remaining Golden Girl, being taken from us about five minutes before celebrating her 100th birthday. I have a theory, though, that she didn’t actually die – it was more like she ascended, floating heavenwards on a cloud of joy and profanity (she should have done a George Burns and cheated—he celebrated his 100th birthday 17 years early, at the age of 83). I recently finished a full rewatch of The Golden Girls, Golden Palace (the spinoff wasn’t all that bad, it definitely had its moments), and its sister show, Empty Nest (I watched it mostly for the dog, but the humans were fun too). The laughs are still there, and so are the teeth…I’m a fan of the Norman Lear school of sitcoms, where they use the comedy to say real things, as opposed to simply antics. Do yourself a favor and revisit the Girls some time (they’re streaming on Hulu). Some things never get old, and this is one of them.