Hey Belled Readers!!
With Spring already upon us, we thought it was time to get some of our Spring cleaning done and dust off another classic DW article.
In this 1988 TV Guide feature that ran during the summer between seasons two and three, a Southern writer examines Designing Women's take on the depiction of Southerners on television -- not to mention his slight crush on a certain beauty queen!
In addition, Jean Smart takes on another bizarre and eccentric character in a twisted new animated series. And as promised, we have information on Judith Ivey's return to the New York stage, plus we examine 'What Ever Happened To' Richard Gilliland.
My, How They Kiss and Talk
A Southern Gentleman Finds the Ladies of 'Designing Women' A Credit to Their Region
A Classic 'Designing Women' Article
Source: TV Guide - July 2-8, 1988
Written by: Roy Blount Jr.
Photos by: Mario Casilli and Christine Loss
I don't really want to kiss Delta Burke, or course, because we are both involved with other people,
but I would've done it. Still, it would've been awkward, because one, I am not an actor, and two,
the character she plays is a riper version of someone I might actually have lusted after in high
school and college, and three, of course, I lust after her.
It would not impress her at all to learn about three. I mean it wouldn't impress Suzanne
Sugarbaker, the character Delta plays on CBS's Designing Women. I don't know whether it
would impress Delta Burke --- it probably wouldn't, but I don't know. I don't have any way of
knowing, and I never will have now. Of Suzanne, however, I can say with certainty that she takes
it for granted that every man in the world has eyes and ears and lusts after her. And to being
impressed, here is what she once remarked of a character who had been trying to act biggity about
his Hollywood connection: "He said he dated the Doublemint Twins --- as if someone like me
who's ridden on a float with the Vice-President of the United States is gonna be impressed by
something like that."
Actually I didn't realize it would involve Delta Burke when I turned down the chance to play the
part of a Southern writer on an episode of Designing Women last year. (I turned it down because
I had a personal engagement, which I won't go into because I have given up trying to make the
person in question feel guilty about it). I didn't realize it would involve kissing anybody, and I
didn't know who Delta Burke was then, because I had never watched Designing Women.
Since then I have watched it a number of times, and the point I want to focus on, now that I have
finished kicking myself, is two. The main characters on Designing Women --- Suzanne, her sister
Julia (played by Dixie Carter) and their associates, Charlene (Jean Smart) and Mary Jo (Annie
Potts) --- are Atlanta women who ring true to me. I grew up in Decatur, Ga., which is just outside
of Atlanta, and it comes as a shock to me to watch a sitcom in which Southerners are funny
without being a discredit to their region.
As a Southern man, I am sometimes asked what Southern women are like. I am too smart to
answer. It could well be, I tell people, that there is nothing that all Southern women have in
common, aside from the obvious thing that all women world-wide have in common, which is that
they will rise up against me if I make assumptions about what they are generally like.
Television has not shared my discretion. On television, Southern women have tended to be known
quantities: wizened mountain grannies or molasses-voiced connivers or 'What God Had in Mind
When He Created Cutoff Jeans.'
Designing Women is different. The only generalization I am willing to make about Southern
women is that they can be funny in a distinctive way: silly, biting, down-to-earth, weird and
affectionate all at once. Designing Women is funny in that way. It is Southern women laughing
at themselves. And it elevates the tone of TV comedy.
In an article for TV Guide in 1980, about Southern stereotypes on television, I complained that the
stronger a character's Southern accent, the dumber and/or less honest the character, and that the
South of "Sheriff Lobo" and The Dukes of Hazzard was largely given to car wrecks. The license
to assume that Southerners are morons still holds on TV today. I quote from an approving New
York Times review of an HBO stand-up comedy special starring Dennis Miller: "Mr. Miller's
material can be scathing, especially when it comes to Southern parts of the United States. On the
Deep South: 'To be frank, I find those people anything but deep.' On Alabama: 'Talk about
Darwin's waiting room.' Or on West Virginia: 'It makes Mayberry look like a think tank'." Why
the word for these insights is scathing and not bigoted is a question that perhaps only
Southerners find intelligent.
Frank's Place, set in a Creole restaurant full of substantial characters, comes as a refreshing
departure from TV Dixie, but then people don't think of New Orleans as stupid, just crazy.
Designing Women breaks new ground by finding sentiently sexy humanity in well-off,
indigenous-sounding Southern white women. Even in the case of Suzanne, who is prejudiced
against everyone except herself, the women of Sugarbaker's (they are interior designers, but of
course they have as much free time for extra-professional predicaments as everyone else on
television) are what we might call post-racist. That is, they easily include their black handyman,
Anthony (Meshach Taylor), as part of the gang. A bit too easily, but then everything in TV
comedy is easier than in life. Anthony is not Dr. Cliff Huxtable, but he's not Buckwheat either.
"One thing you don't want to do is to get her tickled," he says of someone. "She throws herself
on the floor and starts rolling around acting like Frankenstein."
"That'd take the hair off a sweater," remarks Mary Jo sympathetically.
So we don't have to feel guilty about enjoying the way these women talk. Another thing I
complained about in that 1980 article was that TV failed to appreciate the richness of Southern
The best episodes of Designing Women are primarily occasions for the five regulars to sit around
getting on one another's cases and chewing the fat.
Julia and Mary Jo are the responsible ones, Charlene is the warmheartedly, gamely dizzy, and
Suzanne is an oft-wed former beauty queen of whom elder sister Julia observes, "Suzanne doesn't
mean to be selfish; she just doesn't think. I've seen her stretch out on airplanes --- actually lie
across people. Or put her purse on top of them."
Dizzy, I realize, is the wrong word for Charlene, because it is stereotypical. Charlene is blonde.
What she is is a kind of Southern Judy Holiday.
Mary Jo sometimes feels sorry for herself on the grounds that she is a less vivid character than the
others, but it never takes them long to talk her out of that. After all, the Southern writer character
that I was supposed to play described her aptly as "part calico choir girl, and part satin dance-hall
doll," and she has a flair for crisp, off-the-wall girl-talk summations. She once describe Charlene
as "the kind of woman who would have dated Lee Harvey Oswald in high school."
The actor who played the Southern writer instead of me was Gerald McRaney, who was the funny
brother in Simon & Simon. Playing Suzanne's ex-husband on the show inspired him to propose to
Delta Burke in real life. (They'll be married this fall.) I might say that the kissing in Designing Women is good and juicy and that it tends to lead to other things. We don't actually see these
things happen, but they leave the women with satisfied, undominated smiles. Suzanne was
smiling that way when she said, after seeing off the Southern writer character, "He had this kind of
inspired look in his eye when he left."
Maybe at least I'll get a chance to fly next to her some day.
Judith Ivey Makes a Musical Return to Broadway
Judith Ivy is back on Broadway this season in what is considered by many to be one of the greatest musicals of all time.
Originally produced in 1971, the Roundabout Theatre Company presents the first Broadway revival of the Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman production Follies. A musical show about the musical theater, Follies tells the story of the once-spectacular, but now crumbling Weissman Theatre, where on the eve of its demolition, ghosts from its glorious past return and showgirls from decades ago reunite -- and remember -- one last time. It is an examination of the disappointments of middle age and the foolishness of youth, juxtaposing two dissatisfied and dysfunctional couples with the ghosts of their younger selves and the remnants of the technicolor fairy tale they bought into. The score is filled with brilliant pastiche like "Broadway Baby" and "Ah, Paris" as well as the more heartfelt "Losing My Mind" and the incomparable "I'm Still Here."
The production is being directed by Matthew Warchus, who will be recreating Follies in a darker, more actor driven rendition with a hallucinatory twist more fitting the smaller venue of the Belasco Theatre. Judith will by playing Sally Durant Plummer, with other key roles going to Bythe Danner, Gregory Harrison, Treat Williams and Polly Bergen. However, there has been some industry concern that none of these actors are known for their singing. Warchus promises this is not an issue.
"I don't enjoy going to musicals that are acted well and sung badly, so the casting has been a very vigorous process," says Warchus. "We were looking for acting ability and the right character, but also that they can sing--not only proficiently, but notably well. I think that's how we've ended up."**
Previews began March 8, with a run scheduled from April 5 to September 30th. For tickets, visit Follies: The Official Site, and watch for more information in an upcoming edition of "Belled."
**Source: Follies: The Official Site.
Jean Smart Loses Her Sobriety -- and Hair -- in a New Series
Jean Smart has been known in recent years for taking on very eccentric, edgy or sometimes 'off-the-beam' characters, but this week she lends her voice to the most bizarre role yet in The WB's new prime-time animated series, The Oblongs.
Based on the works of underground San Francisco cartoonist Angus Oblong, The Oblongs depicts the warped world of a bizarre yet loving family of have-nots who can't seem to beat the caste system of the beautiful people living high on the hill. The series takes on everything from industrialism and environmental issues to how we raise our kids and the impact of social mores on the nuclear family, but at the core it's about a family with heart, strange as they may be.
Oddly relatable misfits, the tight-knit Oblong clan lives in a toxic valley downstream from your typical industrial waste site, which has caused a variety of bizarre physical and emotional abnormalities. At the head of the dinner table is the loving, limb-less, tirelessly upbeat patriarch Bob Oblong (voiced by Saturday Night Live's Will Ferrell) and his adoring, alcohol- and tobacco-addicted, bald but beautifully wigged wife Pickles (voiced by Jean Smart). Their children include emotionally and behaviorally disturbed son Milo, conjoined twins Biff and Chip, and four-year-old daughter Beth.
The WB's edgy and satirical animated comedy is set to premiere on Sunday, April 1st, but will air not once, not twice, but three times -- at 7:30, 8:30 and 9:30pm Eastern Time. It will settle into its 8:30pm time slot the following week on Sunday, April 8th.
"The Oblongs is an off-center show and we've matched it with an off-center scheduling strategy that is not only compatible with April Fool's Day, but will get the unique comedy the sampling it deserves," said Jordan Levin, Co-President, Entertainment of The WB. "This sharp comic parable of society's ills is a unique look at the caste system in America, which should be relatable to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, or at the very least, lived in a nuclear waste site."
According to The WB, Jean's character, Pickles Oblong, is "a devoted wife, homemaker and 'fairly good mother.' Raised in the hills, Pickles was headed for a life of blue skies, beautiful homes and a loveless marriage of convenience. All that changed on the day in high school when she saw Bob Oblong 'hanging none' at the Hill Valley Beach. Instantly smitten, she has been by his limbless side ever since. Following her heart has only cost Pickles her friends from the hills, her sobriety and her hair -- but she is exceedingly happy with her family, cigarettes, alcohol and wigs nonetheless."
So set your TIVO this Sunday to the WB (at your choice of three times!!) for the premiere of The Oblongs, because this is one series premiere you don't want to miss!
**For the most timely updates on Ms. Smart's projects and activities, please visit Smart Stuff: Officially Jean Smart.
**Sources: The WB Publicity and Warner Bros. Online: The Oblongs. Photo credit: TM and © Warner Bros. Television. The Oblongs is created by Angus Oblong and Jace Richdale and is executive produced by Richdale, Bruce Helford and Deborah Oppenheimer for Oblong Productions, Inc. in association with Mohawk Productions and Jobsite Productions, distributed by Warner Bros. Television.
...Richard Gilliland (J.D. Shackleford)
No, Richard Gilliland's not been missing or anything -- and his name has even popped up once or twice in "Belled" in the past -- but we thought it would be fun to share this little tidbit on an upcoming TV appearance.
Richard recently filmed an episode of the CBS comedy Becker, which stars Ted Danson. Scheduled to air April 9th in the episode "You Say Gay Son, I Say Godson," Richard plays on old friend of Becker who gets the shock of his life when he finds out his son -- who happens to be Becker's Godson -- is gay. So tune in to Becker, and watch for more regular updates on Richard in future editions of "Belled."
Don't forget to Email "Belled" with reader feedback and to tell us where you think the "Designing Women" characters would be today for future issues!
Quotes from the Article
Test your DW knowledge by identifying the episodes for these referenced quotes.
(53) "He said he dated the Doublemint Twins --- as if someone like me who's ridden on a float with the Vice-President of the United States is gonna be impressed by something like that."
(54) "One thing you don't want to do is to get her tickled. She throws herself on the floor and starts rolling around acting like Frankenstein."
(55) "Suzanne doesn't mean to be selfish; she just doesn't think. I've seen her stretch out on airplanes --- actually lie across people. Or put her purse on top of them."
(56) "[Charlene] is the kind of woman who would have dated Lee Harvey Oswald in high school."
* Answers will appear in the next issue.
Trivia Answers from Issue #13
(49) What was the name of Meshach's program on the Travel Channel?
Meshach's Hidden Caribbean
(50) What is the name of the independent film that Meshach didn't know the finished title for?
Friends and Family
(51) In which DW episode did Bernice start singing "Black Man, Black Man" to Anthony?
"Just Say Doe"
(52) In which DW episode did Suzanne actually tell Anthony that she loved him?
It was after she shot him in "Anthony's Graduation"