'Designing Women' Back in All Their Glory

Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - July 27, 2003
Written by: Joanne Weintraub

Years before "Sex and the City" was even a gleam in HBO's eye, there was a hit comedy about four urban single women who spoke their minds, liked their men and delighted in each other's company.

The 1986-'93 "Designing Women" featured Dixie Carter, Delta Burke, Annie Potts and Jean Smart as four members of an Atlanta interior design firm.

Despite the show's title, the women were rarely seen doing any designing. Their specialties were sisterhood and wisecracks, with creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason providing lots of the latter.

The series has gone on to a long, lucrative second run on the Lifetime cable network, which this week offers a 90-minute reunion party that's a cut above the average nostalgia number.

Looking at the clips, which show the actresses in royal blue and cardinal red polyester with shoulders you could land a plane on, it's easy to forget that "DW," in its day, looked and sounded fresh.

Its characters talked about things real women talk about, from politics to pantyhose. There's a clip from an episode where Mary Jo (Potts) deliberates getting implants that may be both the funniest and most honest discussion a TV character has ever had about breasts.

"DW" gloried in its Southern roots, just as Bloodworth-Thomason and all four stars flaunted theirs. The authentic accents and the Georgia references not only gave the show a strong sense of place, they put Southern and smart together in a way sitcoms rarely do.

Like another writer with a pronounced liberal slant, Aaron Sorkin, Bloodworth-Thomason had a weakness for impassioned speeches in the final act. It was hard to disagree with these ringing denunciations of sexism, racism, ageism, etc., but they were unforgivably stagy.

Apparently, though, even these sermonettes have their fans.

The special features an endearing bit of video from a gay bar in Atlanta where a dozen men gleefully repeat, word for word, a typically dramatic speech from Julia (Carter) that ends with the words: " . . . and that's the night the lights went out in Georgia!"

All four stars, along with co-stars Meshach Taylor and Alice Ghostley, are on hand for the party. So are Hal Holbrook, Carter's offscreen husband and "DW" beau; Gerald McRaney, who met Burke on the set and later married her; and Richard Gilliland, who romanced Potts' Mary Jo on the series but married Smart.

The subject of what the tabloids liked to call "Delta Meltdown!" is not avoided.

Several years into the series, Burke's weight rose and her spirits plummeted. By her own admission, she took too many pills, suffered serious mood swings and became nearly impossible to work with.

The story of her slide and her recovery will be familiar to "DW" fans from Burke's autobiography and countless magazine stories. Still, it's hard not to be touched when she tells her cast mates: "I thank you all for being so patient when I wanted to die."

When Burke's weight gain became hard to ignore, Bloodworth-Thomason wrote an unusual episode for her character, Suzanne, a former beauty queen who sashayed through life with an invisible tiara.

At her high school reunion, Suzanne confronted the snickers and jabs reserved for women who, like Burke, were once beauties and become the butt of jokes. It was a memorable episode, last-act speech and all.

After "Designing Women Reunion," Lifetime will air three episodes of the sitcom, beginning with the 1986 pilot at 8:30 p.m. Monday.


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