Season Six, 1991-1992
It was with great speculation and anticipation that the world awaited the premiere of Season Six. After all of the tabloid press over Delta Burke's exit, everyone sat perched on the edge of their seats as Designing Women's new characters hit the screen. The major and very risky cast changes were widely publicized, and the result was the highest ratings season in the history of the series. The hour-long premiere, which focused primarily on the introduction of Allison Sugarbaker, also served as a farewell for Jean Smart and attracted over 30 million viewers.
With Suzanne off to Japan, and Charlene relocating to England with her military husband and their daughter, the producers needed just the right blend of characters to fill their shoes, and the Thomasons decided that they wanted the new ladies to have personalities similar to their predecesors, allowing the series to carry forward with its four distinctive voices.
In steps Allison Sugarbaker, who bulldozes her way into the business after buying her cousin Suzanne out and tries to take control of Sugarbakers and Suzanne's house as well. Allison does not make any friends this way, and this, coupled with her 'Obnoxious Personality Disorder,' sets her up as the show's new antagonist and the butt of Mary Jo's jokes.
Country bumpkin Carlene Dobber takes over Charlene's place in the office, filling in for her sister while going to school in Atlanta. Having just left her husband and Poplar Bluff behind, the character of Carlene is much less refined than her sister, still displaying the naivete of Charlene, but with an extra wide-eyed innocence and fascination.
The overall controversy and curiosity regarding Burke and Smart's departures and the resulting cast changes send the ratings through the roof. Additionally, the new characters open up a ton of fresh
storyline possibilities and character development. And with Pam Norris now taking over as Executive Producer, the focus continues to shift more toward comedy over issues.
This season gives us many strong and memorable ensemble episodes, including one where the ladies and Anthony all get stranded in a prison rec room with the infamous T. Tommy Reed, a riotous episode where Mary Jo and Julia get trapped under the bed of a sexually insatiable local newscaster and his current lover, and one where the group must stay overnight in Carlene's new apartment in 'hell town' with a belligerent Bernice.
Other fun episodes include a look at the hot topic of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings as scribed by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the ladies getting stranded in the middle of a 'wild man' weekend, and Anthony getting locked overnight in the storeroom with Allison and Carlene.
Allison and Anthony start a war over Suzanne's house, both claiming the rightful lease, and with Allison trying to drive Anthony out with subtle torture. She is later proposed marriage and then left at the alter by her former boss in an attempt to humiliate her for testifying against him and sending him to prison. She also gets swindled out of her investment in a supposed 'art' film, landing the entire Sugarbakers team in a biker gang movie.
Julia must face re-entering the world of dating after losing both Hayden and Reese -- at one point going on a sympathy date with Rusty the Electrician (a fun non-romantic date which leads to a spectacle of events). Later in the season, Julia is torn about pushing her son from the nest after he comes home to escape his floundering marriage, and she goes into battle with a lush washed-up stage actress when she becomes involved in community theatre. Julia also starts to question her own desirability as she faces the possibility of a hysterectomy.
Still wanting to have a baby, Mary Jo starts visiting a sperm bank and addresses her own fears about becoming a parent again. With Annie Potts expecting, a baby storyline is in the works, but plans to have the unmarried Mary Jo get pregnant are scrapped when Murphy Brown, the series that airs directly before Designing Women, decides to air a similar storyline. So, while Annie Potts spends much of the season wearing over-sized sweaters to disguise her changing body, her character is forced to endure both a visit from her immature pig of an older brother (and his odd attraction to Allison) and developing a new adult relationship with her mother.
Carlene starts attending college with some financial assistance from Allison, who acts more like her parent than sponsor. Meanwhile, Anthony tries to use Carlene to get a better grade from his law professor, but only after she makes him pretend to be her boyfriend to impress her ex-husband. Carlene also gets bamboozled by a competitor masquerading as a 'groupie' when her entry for the Official Theme for Atlanta makes the finals. She also volunteers to lead a pack of rowdy Girl Scouts on a trip to the woods and ropes the ladies into assisting her.
Anthony, meanwhile, gets his prison past dragged up when he is accosted by racist mall cops and the ladies hold a media-covered sit-in to protest. As the season ends, he also announces his engagement to the wealthy and pretentious Vanessa Chamberlain, with whom the ladies assumed he was only conducting business.
And the adorable Alice Ghostley earns an Emmy Nomination this season for her portrayal of the outlandish Bernice, who gets a little nuttier this year with her strange crush on Anthony -- randomly bursting into her now infamous song, Black Man, Black Man!
In spite of the higher ratings and some brilliantly funny episodes -- many of which surpass the quality of last season -- by the end of the year it looks as though the show is again floundering for direction. With the series focused more on humor and tugging less at the viewers' heartstrings, very little vulnerability or depth is written into the new characters. As a result, the same audience that saved the series from cancellation in Season One is now responding negatively -- particularly to Allison. Also, fan favorite Annie Potts gets limited exposure and misses the season's final episodes because of her real life pregnancy, and the season finale threatens us with making Jackee of 227 fame (who plays Vanessa Chamberlain) a regular member of the cast next season.
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