Women of the House, 1995
It had been almost four years since we last saw Suzanne Sugarbaker spread across the sofa at Sugarbaker's Design Firm, and even longer since Delta Burke and the Thomasons made a very public end to their personal and professional relationship. Following Designing Women and Evening Shade, Linda and Harry Thomason had been very active in the Presidential Campaign of longtime friend Bill Clinton, and they were now ready to put their political experiences to work in a new series.
Women of the House was to be a situation comedy centering on the flamboyant Suzanne Sugarbaker as a United States Representative -- while serving as an opportunity for the Thomasons and Delta Burke to restore their relationship. CBS executives were skeptical of the reunion after the media circus surrounding Delta's last season on Designing Women and her subsequent departure from the series, but after meeting with Linda and Delta agreed to the project.
The setup is simple; Following the death of husband #5 -- a United States Congressman, Suzanne takes over his seat in the House of Representatives as a favor to the Governor of Georgia until an election can be held. Working under her are three very different women; her Administrative Assistant, Natalie Hollingsworth, is an uptight working woman determined to make it to the top despite her continuing relationship with an imprisoned married Congressman. Sissy Emerson, her Press Secretary, is a former staff writer for the Washington Post whose life has gone downhill since she began drinking. Lastly, wide-eyed receptionist Jennifer Malone is a frail housewife and mother whose philandering husband has just run off with another woman. Much of the show's comedic conflict centers on the constant power struggle between conservative Natty and Democratic Sissy (Patricia Heaton and Teri Garr) -- allowing for a debate atmosphere in which Linda Bloodworth-Thomason can express her political views. It is decided that the character of Suzanne will remain an Independent, but she enjoys a much maligned friendship with President Clinton and is never concerned with being politically correct, leaving the zaftig ex-beauty queen constantly persecuted by the press and the Washington regime.
Hard core Designing Women fans miss the Suzanne/Julia interaction, and continuity-wise, the series takes a lot of liberties with Suzanne's history; Since she left for Japan to be closer to her mother, she has been married twice and independently adopted a little girl named Desiree. A new Sugarbaker sibling, developmentally-challenged brother Jim, is created for the series and then only seen once following the pilot episode. Suzanne also states that her housekeeper Sapphire Jones has been her "mammy" and taken care of her her entire life, but there was no mention of Sapphire during the five years that Consuela worked as Suzanne's maid on Designing Women. And although Julia's name is mentioned briefly in two episodes, it is only Dash Goff and Anthony that actually make appearances.
The series receives few warm reviews, despite some incredibly witty dialogue and brilliant delivery -- particularly from Teri Garr and an adorable Valerie Mahaffey. Many critics slam the show, claiming that Linda Bloodworth-Thomason is trying to clone Designing Women and get a few jabs in at the Washington establishment for the treatment she and Harry received as friends of President Clinton. Looking back at all the criticism, Linda even admits that she might have been better off writing an op-ed piece rather than involve a whole series and network.
Besides the lukewarm reception, the show seems plagued with problems right from the beginning. The character of Suzanne's rival, Congresswoman Seizmore (played by Susan Powter), is reduced to a guest appearance when Linda opts to go with the ensemble format so successful on Designing Women. The Jennifer Malone role is supposedly written for actress Julie Hagerty, but fill-in Valerie Mahaffey brings so much energy and charm to the character that when Hagerty later takes over, her portrayal is painfully awkward. Hagerty lasts only two episodes. Mahaffey agrees to return for one last episode before the show is put on dreaded hiatus due to low ratings, returning to the network with unaired episodes five months later -- minus the Malone character. In her place is a new "Generation X" intern, Veda Walkman.
Then the series is yanked from CBS again after network censors insist on cutting the crucial epilogue scene from the episode Women in Film. Linda and Harry Thomason are publicly vocal about the scene's importance and insist that the one-minute montage featuring enactments of women being brutally tortured, raped, and murdered is needed to drive home Linda's message about the abuse of women in the film industry. The national headlines and controversy surrounding CBS's decision prompt LIFETIME Television to air the episode in its entirety along with the three other unaired episodes (all aired out of production order) on a Friday night dubbed An Evening of Women of the House, with Delta Burke popping in between episodes as the hostess.
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