My, How They Kiss and Talk

TV Guide Cover A Southern Gentleman Finds the Ladies of 'Designing Women'
A Credit to Their Region

Source: TV Guide - July 2-8, 1988
Written by: Roy Blount Jr.
Photos by: Charles William Bush, 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 conversation.

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.


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