Sisters were doing it for themselves, Southern-style, in Designing Women. Even more so than prime time contemporary The Golden Girls, Designing Women was all about “woman power” (a more sophisticated version of “girl power,” don’t you know), as displayed through a quartet of sassy, brassy and classy Atlanta, Georgia women.
The setting was Sugarbakers, an interior design firm founded by the cracklingly smart and sharp-tongued Julia Sugarbaker, a widow. Beauty queen sister Suzanne Sugarbaker was the firm’s pretty public relations face, backed by the combined alimony of three ex-husbands. Divorced mother of two Mary Jo Shively and sweetly naïve business manager Charlene Frazier rounded out the Sugarbakers partnership, while ex-con Anthony Bouvier served both as a jack-of-all-trades around the office and as the token male in a sea of x-chromosomes.
Designed for as much as by women, the sitcom found that tricky balance between saucy humor and moments of “reach for the hankies” tenderness, earning itself a fiercely loyal crew of fans. CBS briefly cancelled the show in the midst of its debut season, but a torrent of angry letters made them change their mind in a hurry (yet more evidence of that aforementioned “woman power”).
The show stayed in the lineup, and its cast of characters grew deeper in every sense of the word. Well, except one. Bird-brained customer Bernice Clifton came into the Sugarbakers world in Designing Women’s second season, and her eccentric behavior made her an instant fan favorite.
Meanwhile, the five regulars showed new sides of themselves (Julia wasn’t really so tough, nor was Suzanne so shallow), and new beaus were brought in for several of the stars. Julia had a close relationship with Reese Watson until he suffered a fatal heart attack in the show’s fifth season, while Charlene found a happier fate with her eventual husband, Air Force Captain Bill Stillfield. Mary Jo began seeing J.D. Shackleford early on, while Suzanne’s most durable relationship was with her pet pig, Noel.
After five successful seasons, Designing Women was a prime time institution, but a major shakeup was about to hit Sugarbakers. The show’s producers wanted Delta Burke (Suzanne) to lose weight in order to keep up her character’s “sexpot” image, but Burke had no such plans. The two sides battled all summer, and by the start of the fall season in 1991, Suzanne had sold her shares in Sugarbakers to overbearing cousin Allison Sugarbaker. Jean Smart (Charlene) left the show that season as well, and Charlene’s even more naïve cousin Carlene came in to replace her. Allison left after one season, and headstrong Texan B.J. Poteet bought out her share (after nearly winning the entire company from Julia in a poker game).
For the show’s seventh season, Anthony (who had been made an official partner a few years back) married Etienne Toussant, an aggressive showgirl. Designing Women ended its original run after this final season, but it was an instant winner in syndication. The show still has a core of loyal fans, and Suzanne was spun off into her own series, Women of the House, in 1995. While the spin-off didn’t make it past its debut season, Designing Women remains a favorite of Southern belles, independent women, and pretty much anyone who appreciates the snippy banter and sexual innuendo of four designing women.
USA / CBS – Columbia / 163×25 minute episodes / Broadcast 29 September 1986 – 24 May 1993
Creator: Linda Bloodworth-Thomason / Theme Music: Georgia on My Mind performed by Louis Armstrong (first season), Doc Severinsen (second and third seasons), Bruce Miller (fourth, fifth and seventh seasons), Ray Charles (sixth season)
Dixie Carter as Julia Sugarbaker
Delta Burke as Suzanne Sugarbaker
Annie Potts as Mary Jo Shively
Jean Smart as Charlene Frazier
Meshach Taylor as Anthony Bouvier
Julia Duffy as Allison Sugarbaker
Jan Hooks as Carlene Dobber
Judith Ivey as B.J. Poteet
Sheryl Lee Ralph as Etienne Toussant
Douglas Barr as Bill Stillfield
Priscilla Weems as Claudia Marie
Brian Lando as Quentin
Scott Bakula as Ted
Eileen Seeley as Tammy
Lexi Randall as Rana Oliver
Gerald McRaney as Dash Goff