Why 'The Golden Girls' are still golden : Pop Culture Happy Hour The sitcom The Golden Girls followed the adventures of four women who were living together in Miami. The women were Dorothy (Bea Arthur), Sophia (Estelle Getty), Rose (Betty White), and Blanche (Rue McClanahan). Betty White's death in December marked the passing of the last of the four actresses who made up this cast, each of whom won an Emmy for her work on the show. It's a fine time to take a look at what is, for a lot of us, an old favorite.

Why 'The Golden Girls' are still golden

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"The Golden Girls" followed the adventures of four women who were of a certain age living together in Miami - Dorothy, the sharp-tongued one, Blanche, the sexy one, Rose, the innocent one, and Sophia, the one who said whatever was on her mind. Betty White's death in December marked the passing of the last of the four actresses who made up this cast, each of whom won a primetime Emmy for her work on the show. It's a fine time to take a look at what is, for a lot of us, an old favorite. I'm Linda Holmes, and we're talking about "The Golden Girls" on today's POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

Here with me is NPR's White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe. Hello, Ayesha.


HOLMES: So "The Golden Girls" ran from 1985 to 1992. The women living in the house where Dorothy, played by Bea Arthur, who was a divorced teacher; Dorothy's mother, Sophia, played by Estelle Getty, loves her stories about back in Sicily; Rose, played by Betty White, a widow who grew up extremely wholesome in St. Olaf, Minn.; and Blanche, played by Rue McClanahan, a sexy Southern belle who was also a widow and who owned the house. Set in Miami, the show followed their dating lives, their family lives, their work lives, and it also touched on a lot of issues of the day, like AIDS and sexual harassment, immigration and illnesses, including chronic fatigue syndrome. It spawned a couple of different spinoffs, including "The Golden Palace" and "Empty Nest." And it twice won the Primetime Emmy for outstanding comedy series.

Ayesha, I'm ready for you to tell me what is it about the show? Why do you love it?

RASCOE: Oh, my goodness, where do I begin? When it first came on, I was very young.

HOLMES: Right.

RASCOE: And I was actually scared of the theme song because there's this point where Dorothy sticks her, like, fist to her mouth, and I thought she was, like, putting her whole fist in her mouth. And so I would run away screaming when the theme song came on (laughter).


RASCOE: Yes, this is how deep the memories go (laughter).

HOLMES: This is my favorite story about "The Golden Girls" anyone has ever told me.

RASCOE: So I was afraid of the theme song when I was young. But when I got to, like, middle school, I started watching "The Golden Girls" again, and I realized it was just so funny. Like - and I loved the banter and I loved their friendship. And, like, I would watch it in the evening. I would watch it at night. It came on at, like, 11. And so, like, every day throughout middle school and high school into college and into my adult life, I was watching "The Golden Girls." It just became a part of my life and, like, what I just did, right?

HOLMES: Yeah. One of the things I respond to about these characters is that they are - in a way, they all have complexities. They all have things that will surprise you about them. But they're also very true to the comedy of who these women are. And in a way, it's - you know, it's always nice to have characters where you're like, she could do anything. Like, she could change in some massive way. But they were very consistent in the kinds of jokes that these characters made. It was a little bit on rails. And if you're really good at it, then that works really well. Like, they really knew how to write those super dry barbs for Dorothy. They really knew how to write those, you know, silly comments from Rose that indicated that she only sort of understood what was going on. I think they had a lot of fun writing particularly the Sophia.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yes.

HOLMES: Because the gag about Sophia in the pilot - which is kind of dark in some ways. But the gag about Sophia is that she's had a stroke that has specifically affected the part of her brain that is her filter, essentially.


RUE MCCLANAHAN: (As Blanche Devereaux) It's me, Blanche.

ESTELLE GETTY: (As Sophia Petrillo) You look like a prostitute.

BETTY WHITE: (As Rose Nylund) Oh, the way she talks.

MCCLANAHAN: (As Blanche Devereaux) She can't help it.

WHITE: (As Rose Nylund) Oh, I've known plenty of women who have had strokes. Some of them were in very bad shape. But they're still ladies.


HOLMES: I don't know how real that is and I don't know how - as I said, it's kind of dark.

RASCOE: It's kind of dark.

HOLMES: But essentially, it was an excuse for the comedy of, you know, she says some ridiculous thing about someone or about a situation that other people would be too polite to say.

RASCOE: Yes. She was just - she was the one who would really throw some very sharp barbs at the other women. And the thing that I liked about - like, yes, it was very consistent, but I feel like you know the characters so well that they feel real to you. And then the other thing that I loved about it is that there was never - for me, it didn't go downhill. You know, oftentimes when you have a long-running sitcom, it's like, oh, I didn't like that season; oh, that's when they really ran out of ideas. And, look, they did some crazy stuff. But there isn't, like, a season or a thing where I'm like, I can't watch this. This is - I don't like the season.


RASCOE: All of it was good to me, like - which is rare, I think.

HOLMES: Yeah. They were part of, you know, an era in television where you would have these sort of issue-oriented sitcom episodes. But I think a lot of theirs were pretty good. I think a lot of theirs were pretty sensitive because one of the things I think they often took advantage of was the fact that, you know, the story was about these women who were a little bit older. So they had an opportunity to say, hey, you know, you might not be used to gay couples or interracial couples or whatever. If you have this discomfort, here are these women kind of running up against whatever discomfort they may have or not have. You know, I watched one the other day where Dorothy's friend, who is gay, comes to visit. She's a lesbian and her partner has just died. It is a dated episode. There are things that get said in that episode that would not be said now. However, there is an effort to kind of show that this woman is, like, a perfectly normal, lovely woman who is just as much in grief for her partner as these women in the cast were for their husbands when they died. I think they were doing their best for the time that it was, but you can still see, like, how dated it is in a lot of ways.

RASCOE: There is a great joke in that episode where - that you're talking about where, you know, Dorothy's friend was gay. Blanche thinks that Danny Thomas is Lebanese (laughter).

HOLMES: This is one of the best. As a matter of fact, I want to play that clip.


MCCLANAHAN: (As Blanche Devereaux) I mean, I've never known any personally, but isn't Danny Thomas one?


BEA ARTHUR: (As Dorothy Zbornak) Not Lebanese, Blanche.


ARTHUR: (As Dorothy Zbornak) Lesbian.

MCCLANAHAN: (As Blanche Devereaux) Lesbian. Lesbian.

HOLMES: The way that Blanche says lesbian.


RASCOE: Lesbians. And then she's so angry because she was interested in Rose...

HOLMES: In Rose.

RASCOE: ...And not in her.

HOLMES: Right.

RASCOE: And she was like, what?

HOLMES: They expect Blanche to, like, potentially be scandalized by the fact that she's a lesbian, but Blanche is just scandalized...

RASCOE: (Laughter).

HOLMES: ...That she's interested in Rose rather than her.


HOLMES: You know, like we're saying, these - I think especially most comedies of the '80s and '90s - it does not hold up. It is very dated. However, I think for the time, they at least attempted some stories that were trying to be aware of the world around them a little bit. But the thing that is most surprising to me about it when I look back on it now is that anybody made a show that was just older...


HOLMES: ...Single women because these women all have love lives, romantic lives at different times, some more than others. But they all have, you know, relationships. They all want companionship. I suppose less so Sophia, but they all have sex lives.

RASCOE: Although Sophia did get it in. She did (laughter).

HOLMES: She did - briefly, as I recall (laughter).

RASCOE: Yeah, she got it in at times (laughter).

HOLMES: She did. But they all have desires that I think it was uncommon to see expressed at that time. The interesting thing about it is that I forgot until I went back and was watching it again that there was an episode where Blanche took a pregnancy test.

RASCOE: Yes (laughter).

HOLMES: ...Because they were older, but people will frequently bring up - and it is true - Rue McClanahan was only about 50 when this show started. So they were older than people on television, but they were young enough that she took a pregnancy test, you know?

RASCOE: Yes, and that was where she talked about menopause, which is another thing that you don't often see (laughter) portrayed on, you know, network TV or in TV. But this idea of her going through menopause and what her period meant to her - so there are little smatterings of that sort of thing.

HOLMES: And the other thing that strikes me when I go back and look at it is that it was not uncommon for the stories to touch on their financial precarity as older women, that one of the reasons they all lived together was to save money, to save costs. You know, Dorothy was looking after her mother. And they would worry at different times about benefits and health coverage and being able to support themselves.

RASCOE: I mean, that's a huge - like, caretaking in this country is a huge issue. It can devastate families, devastate your finances. Like, that's what they were talking about and kind of bringing a light to that issue of, like, older people in this country don't necessarily have it easier.

HOLMES: Yeah. And, you know, they did have a lot of normal problems, right? And you brought a clip of an episode about sexual harassment. I want to play that.


MCCLANAHAN: (As Blanche Devereaux) And I'd study even harder. In fact, you made me so mad I decided to get an A on this test come hell or high water. And I think I did. I, sir, am a lady, maybe not the smartest lady in the world, but I do know that my self-respect is more important than passing your damn course. So you, sir, can kiss my A.

HOLMES: Blanche.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Every time Blanche gives this speech, i'm like, yeah. Like, I mean, it was so empowering to me. Like, you know, I'm not someone who has always stood up for myself or always had, like, the biggest voice. And so seeing Blanche, like, stand up for herself - this man had said, oh, if you sleep with me, I will give you an A. And obviously, Blanche is very sexual. That's the whole joke of the show. But in this case, she's like, no, like, you're not going to use your power over me. I sleep with who I want to sleep with. Like, and I mean, I love that they made that point. And also, she said, look. I can do this. So kiss my A.

HOLMES: Kiss my A.

RASCOE: Oh, my goodness. I love it.

HOLMES: One of the things I love about Blanche is that although Sophia definitely teased her about how many people she slept with...


HOLMES: ...But she never really changed. Like, they never said, like, she's not going to do this anymore because she's had some terrible consequence where it's like, oh, now I realize that I'm devaluing myself or whatever. Like, she stayed herself.


HOLMES: Did they shame her about it? Sure. Is that, again, a mark of the time? Sure. But she stayed herself. I mean...

RASCOE: Yeah, no, she stayed herself. And, I mean, there is this episode - she dates a guy who doesn't want to have sex on the first date. And, you know, he says that he wasn't used to that because he'd been with his wife for a long time. And at the end, he just gives her a kiss. And, you know, he said, I'm going to court you. I'm going to take it slow. And she does say, like, I think Rose or Blanche asked her, how does he make you feel? And she said, like a lady (laughter). Now, if anyone else said that, you would be like, oh, my gosh. But I think just Blanche with her delivery...

HOLMES: Absolutely.

RASCOE: ...Even the corniest of lines. It's retrograde, but it's like, aww.


RASCOE: Like a lady (laughter).

HOLMES: I want to ask you about the other clip that you brought, too, because one of the things we have not touched on that I want to touch on before we move on to our listener questions is they did occasionally bring in some impressive guest stars.

RASCOE: Yes. Burt Reynolds.

HOLMES: Oh, boy.

RASCOE: And this was the best guest star in my opinion because they win - Blanche wins three tickets to go see Burt Reynolds at some event. But that is not enough for everybody. And so they were going to leave Sophia out. But they end up getting arrested 'cause the hotel that they were at was a hotel for sex workers. And so then they end up in jail. Sophia comes down to get them. And so Sophia's like, oh, so I'm going to get one of the tickets. And they're like, no, get us out of jail. And this is what she says.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Where are your roommates, Mrs. Petrillo?

GETTY: (As Sophia Petrillo) They're not here.

ARTHUR: (As Dorothy Zbornak) Ma.


GETTY: (As Sophia Petrillo) Don't Ma me, you cheap floozy.


ARTHUR: (As Dorothy Zbornak) Ma, Ma - you would do this to your own flesh and blood?

GETTY: (Sophia Petrillo) You'll get over it, Dorothy. And if you don't, who cares? I'm on my way to see Burt Reynolds.


RASCOE: I mean, look. I crack up to this day.

HOLMES: Burt Reynolds.

RASCOE: But, you know, it's comfort food. It's comfort food for me.

HOLMES: Of course, of course. And speaking of guest stars, when we come back, we are going to talk about some listener questions that we received from all of you. So we'll be right back with that.

All right, let's get right to it. We are going to hear our first listener question.

LEAH: Hi. It's Leah (ph) calling from Victoria, Canada. And my question is if you were casting the four main roles of "The Golden Girls" with the four main hosts of POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, who would play what role?

HOLMES: Wow, OK. Now, first of all, I have to ask you, Ayesha, if you were going to be a golden girl, which golden girl would you be?

RASCOE: Oh, my goodness, I think about this a lot (laughter). You know, I would love to say Sophia 'cause she was my favorite, but I think really it would probably be Blanche. Or, you know, some days it might be Rose, but it probably - it really be Blanche. Like, just as the Southern belle, I'm a lady - not as sexual, although, you know, I'm cute, I'm sexy. Like, but I think that if I had to be somebody, I would probably be Blanche.

HOLMES: Yeah, I think Glen has to be Sophia. That's the wisecrackiest (ph).

RASCOE: I could see that.

HOLMES: I think Stephen would be Blanche because he's a flirt.

RASCOE: Yes. Yeah.

HOLMES: Aisha would be Dorothy. It's kind of the wise also-joke-maker, but put together with, like, great wisdom and knowledge.

RASCOE: OK, OK. That's good.

HOLMES: And that would make me Rose. And I lived in Minnesota, so I'll take it.


HOLMES: We don't map neatly.

RASCOE: I think most people don't. I could be one one day and one another day. You know what I'm saying? It's like, which golden girl am I today, you know?

HOLMES: We now have a message from Laura (ph).

LAURA: Hey, PCHH crew. I'm wondering, what is it about "Golden Girls" that has enabled it to transcend the notorious disregard that Hollywood has for stories about older people, particularly older women, so in terms of when it was originally picked up and how it became successful, but how it's still universally acclaimed to this day? I know the actors and the writing are great, but is there more to it that I'm not seeing? It's kind of an amazing outlier, right?

HOLMES: I mean, it is, I think. It's funny to be having this conversation in the same time as the "Sex And The City" sequel, which also finds women who are a little bit older who all have sex lives and things like that. But I think it is definitely very rare. I don't know what it is about it. What do you think it is about it?

RASCOE: Well, first of all, it was the powerhouse casting, right? Like, Betty White - who we can't do this without talking about how good Betty White is - Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, and then you had Estelle Getty. I think it's the amazing cast. And I think that the writing, like, when you look at it, there is like a rhythm to it, like, as a sitcom, where it's like boom, boom, boom, boom. Like, there is a musicality to it.


RASCOE: If that writing wasn't as sharp and as snappy...

HOLMES: Right, right.

RASCOE: ...It wouldn't be as easy to watch now, right? Like, the reason why you could just sit there and watch it - because it's almost like listening to, like, an old song you like.

HOLMES: Yeah, I think you're absolutely right to credit the cast. I mean, I think it's a fairly well-known story for people who love this show that Betty White had played a character similar to Blanche when she was on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." And Rue McClanahan had played a character more similar to Rose when she was on "Maude," which was Bea Arthur's show. And they made a pretty specific decision in this show that it would be better to kind of reverse those two actors, and you didn't feel like you were watching the dynamic from "Maude" again because they shook it up a little bit. And I think that - I think you're absolutely right that the casting is a huge, huge part of why it was so successful and why it's been so hard to duplicate. Like, the idea of getting a group like that together now is really difficult, which actually brings us to our final listener question.

HOLLY: This is Holly (ph) from Mebane, N.C., and I would love if you would cast a reboot of "Golden Girls," who would be in it and why?

RASCOE: First of all, I know Mebane because I'm from North Carolina, so hey, Holly.


RASCOE: You might know some of my peeps.

No reboots, first of all. I think "Golden Girls" is one of a kind, one of a moment for all the reasons we talked about, and you cannot redo it. But if you were...

HOLMES: If you were.

RASCOE: ...I have some ideas.


RASCOE: I think it would be great to get some older Black women actresses that are pretty amazing, that are really - also really fun.

HOLMES: Sure, yes.

RASCOE: So Loretta Devine...


RASCOE: ...'Cause she's super funny.

HOLMES: Of course.

RASCOE: Jackee Harry.

HOLMES: Oh, delightful.

RASCOE: Super funny.

HOLMES: My favorite. Could not be happier that, like, now I see her on Twitter all the time...


HOLMES: ...Being awesome and funny. Love

RASCOE: Jenifer Lewis. In addition, Sheryl Lee Ralph.

HOLMES: Oh, yes.

RASCOE: I think you take those, like, four and throw them in a show, you're going to get comedy gold. Like...

HOLMES: Now I want that show.

RASCOE: And they're not all just super older. But, you know, like, some of them are different ages.

HOLMES: We're greenlighting this show right now.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yes.

HOLMES: I'm sure I could think of one, but I can't think of one that's as good as that. So I'm just going to endorse yours, and Holly can just know that this is our proposed next...

RASCOE: Similar show, yeah.

HOLMES: Similar show to "Golden Girls." Do you want them to live in Miami, or do you want them to live somewhere else?

RASCOE: They can live in Miami. They have to have a lanai. That's my only requirement (laughter).

HOLMES: Yes, as long as they have a lanai, they can live in Miami.

Well, we want to know what you think about "The Golden Girls." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter - @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Ayesha, thank you so much, as always, for being here.

RASCOE: Thank you for having me. Like I said, it's an honor. You know, rest in peace to Betty White. And to all the golden girls, thank them for being my friends for so long.

HOLMES: Absolutely. All right, we will see all of you right back here tomorrow.


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