Season One, 1986-1987
Designing Women debuts on September 29, 1986 -- introducing the four ladies who will be the focus of the first five years; Suzanne Sugarbaker -- the spoiled ex-beauty queen with a slew of ex-husbands, Julia Sugarbaker -- her widowed elder sister with a sharp wit and flair for the dramatic, Mary Jo Shively -- divorced mother of two with great decorating skills but little self-confidence, and Charlene Frazier -- the sassy, naive office manager who always attracts the wrong men. Together, they run a newly formed interior design business, Sugarbakers and Associates, in Atlanta, Georgia, where -- aside from the occasional working -- the ladies debate the everyday dramas of being women in the South.
Created by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the series is one of the few sitcoms of its day that actually brings the viewers up to its level rather than talking down to its audience. Much of this first season is spent developing the unique personalities of each of the ladies and their constant internal debate over feminist issues. The dialogue is sharp, and interaction between the ladies seems natural with amazing chemistry between them.
A token male -- black ex-con delivery man Anthony is also added to the mix by mid-season, giving the ladies an alternate sounding board for many of their conversations. Originally only intended for one episode, Meshach Taylor makes such an impression on the producers that he is immediately asked to become a regular, and Anthony quickly becomes one the 'girls.'
Designing Women earns an immediate following and recognition as quality programming, which is made evident after CBS puts the show on the chopping block. The series gets respectable ratings until a time-slot change causes a major drop in viewership -- ultimately sending the show on hiatus to await its final sentencing.
Almost immediately, media watchdog group Viewers for Quality Television rallies the fans to petition advertisers and write over 50,000 letters to CBS. Relenting, CBS Entertainment President, Bud Grant, ceremoniously waives a white surrender flag from his office window and puts Designing Women back on the schedule.
Determined to use her series to enlighten as well as to entertain, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason immediately begins using the show to tackle some serious issues, such as breast cancer and sexual harassment, which gives credibility to the more sophisticated humor and deepens the bond between the characters. This first season's episodes focus strongly on the ensemble, giving the audience a taste of the comical blending of strong Southern personalities, and there is some fun character development as Linda and the actresses each attempt to find their niche.
Suzanne's expertise with men takes her one step too far when she gets herself involved with Mary Jo's ex-husband, and her own ex, Jack Dent the baseball pitcher, shows up after writing a racy book about his extramarital sexual encounters. Turning thirty forces Suzanne to deal with some of her own fears of being a washed up beauty queen, and a design house project burns to the ground when she tries her hand at decorating to prove she's more than just a bimbo front person for Sugarbaker's. She also agrees to be temporary foster mother to a Vietnamese boat child -- then has trouble giving the little girl up to her adoptive parents.
Julia is very dramatic and theatrical this season -- something we don't see enough of in later years. She has 'the' correct opinion on every topic and isn't afraid to say so. Things like her 19 year old son bringing home a 41 year old woman, or her beau taking on a beautiful young business partner give her great excuses to go into a fun tirade. Another fun episode pits Julia and Reese against each other after he is too quick to annul their hasty drunken nuptials. Julia doesn't even want to be married, but Reese had better damn sure want to be married to her!
Recently divorced Mary Jo is thrust back into the world of dating where she has to face her own sexual insecurities. Suzanne fixes her up with baseball recruiter, J.D. Shackleford, and she slowly steps into a new relationship, which includes dealing with his ex-wife, her own exhusband and all of their children. Mary Jo's father also makes an appearance this season with an interest in Charlene, and Mary Jo must fend off the unwelcome sexual advances of a client.
Meanwhile naive Charlene is suckered by a con man promising to make her a recording star. She is also stunned to find out that her best friend from high school is now a madam when Sugarbaker's is hired to decorate her brothel. Always the trusting one, Charlene suffers through a string of bad relationships, and then struggles with her own mortality when she
discovers a lump in her breast.
Other episodes this season include one where the ladies end up having their own slumber party after Suzanne's maid curses her dead by midnight, a New Year's episode where everyone is in fear of Charlene's absent date -- an escaped convict, a show where one of Charlene's boyfriends gets them arrested when he sells them stolen furniture, and the only appearance ever of Julia and Suzanne's much-mentioned mother, Perky Sugarbaker, in an episode where the ladies suspect Anthony of murdering one of their clients.
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