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What’s On, TC?: Gilded Reflections

I was in the seventh grade when I watched my first episode of The Golden Girls. I was sitting on the living room couch with my older cousin watching television when she switched to the Hallmark Channel, where they are always playing some made-for-television movie so formulaic it might have been written using Mad Libs. A girl from [state in New England] meets a guy who works in [outdoor profession] just in time for [commercialized holiday]; they fall in love, get married, have [number] children, and spend the rest of their comfortable lives tucked away in their [log cabin/farmhouse/McMansion], basking in mushy bliss. Bleh.

I expected more of Hallmark’s bland, cheesy fodder when I heard the opening notes of The Golden Girls’ theme song. The TV blazed orange as a Miami sunset spilled onto the screen, with the dark silhouette of an airplane slicing through the horizon’s fiery gradient. My cousin asked if I had ever seen the show before, and I told her I hadn’t.

“You’ll love it,” she probably told me, but I couldn’t hear her over the tender voice ­– which I would eventually identify as Cynthia Fee’s – singing those famous lines: “Thank you for being a friend…”

That episode I watched was the first of the show’s third season, which premiered more than three decades ago. The Berlin wall was still standing, the Soviet Union was not yet dissolved, and Blanche Devereaux, one of the show’s four “Golden Girls”, was preparing for a rummage sale.

Blanche was played by Rue McClanahan, who perfectly captured the essence of the flirtatious southern belle. After the sudden death of her husband, Blanche begins advertising for potential roommates. This is how she meets Rose Nylund (Betty White), the sweet and slightly doltish Midwesterner, and Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur), the recently-divorced New Yorker with an acerbic wit. After a stint in a nursing home following a stroke, Dorothy’s Sicilian mother Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty) joins the three other girls, rounding out an ingeniously dynamic yet well-balanced cast in television history. And none of the main characters are younger than forty-five.

In my maiden episode, “Old Friends”, Blanche accidentally gives away Rose’s beloved childhood teddy bear to a member of a Girl-Scout-type troop. The main storyline, however, revolves around Sophia’s newfound friendship with a man she meets at the boardwalk by the beach.

“Is someone sitting here?” Sophia asks the man, pointing to the visibly empty half of his bench.

The man, who is around Sophia’s age, responds with a question of his own: “Cataracts or glaucoma?”

So begins their quarrelsome yet loving friendship. Over the next few weeks, Sophia and this man, Alvin, meet daily at the boardwalk. They establish a routine: they split an Italian sub for lunch, laugh at clueless beachgoers, talk about their deceased spouses, and try to remember the names of people they both may (or may not) know. Their relationship seems effortless yet secure, both silly and profound. It almost feels like they are falling in love.

Meanwhile, Blanche is trying to console Rose over the loss of her teddy bear without admitting her responsibility for his disappearance – a classic Blanche maneuver. What Blanche doesn’t tell Rose is that Daisy, the girl now in possession of the bear, is holding it for a ransom of a new Schwinn bicycle. The episode deftly switches between these two narratives, never resting long enough to bore the viewer, but always offering a meaningful advancement of the plot.

The next time we see Sophia and Alvin on the boardwalk, they’re as jovial as ever – until Sophia asks about Alvin’s late wife, Edna. Alvin seems confused by her question, as if he doesn’t remember the woman Sophia is talking about, not even her name. He becomes overwhelmed with emotion, eventually breaking down into tears, and leans on Sophia’s padded shoulder ­– it is the ‘80s, after all – for support. Sophia holds him gently as the screen fades to black.

We return to the living room of the house, the nucleus of the show’s storytelling. Daisy is negotiating with Blanche and Dorothy for Fernando’s – yes, the bear’s name is Fernando – return. Rose arrives home in the middle of this conversation, ecstatic to find Fernando but confused as to why Daisy has him.

Rose reminds me strongly of my grandmother: caring, sentimental, and a bit of a pushover sometimes. Blanche explains that she was the one who gave Fernando to Daisy, and that Rose cannot expect a little girl to give back a new toy. This time though, Rose puts her foot down. “Just cut the crap and get back the damn bear,” she demands. Watching this mini-drama of the bear play out, I begin to wonder how many such incidents in my grandmother’s life I was even aware of. What portion of the countless side-plots that compose her day do I miss while being here, at college, four states away?

When we return to the boardwalk, Alvin arrives late and is clearly agitated. He is upset to find Sophia sitting in his usual spot on their bench and begins to berate her. Sophia is dumbfounded when Alvin accuses her of only thinking about herself; he shouts that he hadn’t gotten on the wrong bus, but that it was the driver’s fault he had gotten lost. Clearly, something is not right, and Sophia is shaken by the incident.

It is later revealed that Alvin has Alzheimer’s disease. Some days for him are better than others, Alvin’s daughter tells Dorothy, but he will eventually have to stay with a relative in New York for full-time care.

The Golden Girls never shied away from the harsh realities of aging – in fact, that is one of the show’s greatest strengths. Sophia is sorry to hear that her young friendship will soon come to an end. “People think if you live to my age, you should be grateful just to be alive. That’s not how it works,” Sophia tells Dorothy.

“You need a reason to get up in the morning. Sometimes, even after you find one, life can turn right around and spit in your face,” she says.

There are literal tears running down my face at this point. A kernel of guilt sprouts in my stomach as I wonder: when was the last time I called my grandmother? (By the way, if you are asking yourself this question, the answer is always “too long ago”).  

The Golden Girls can be heartbreaking at times, but it is never without hope. Alvin does move away one day; Sophia realizes this when she waits late into the evening for him to show up, and he never does. So much of getting older seems to revolve around loss: losing your friends, your family, your hearing, your mind, your dentures. Is there anything to gain? Or even just to preserve?

Rose tells us: yes, there is. Near the end of the episode, it seems that Rose is willing to give in to the unfair demands of someone younger and let Daisy have the teddy bear. At the last second though, Rose rescues Fernando from Daisy’s tiny grasp and pushes her out the front door. “Sometimes life just isn’t fair, kiddo,” she tells the girl, grinning as she slams the door shut. It seems that some things – if we are willing to hold on to them – we may never lose.

If you, like me, have gone a significant portion of your life without knowing who the Golden Girls are, go watch their show and be amazed at how hilarious, wistful, and poignant a twenty-five-minute episode can be. Now that I’ve seen every episode at least twice, I’ll be busy watching reruns – and maybe doing something else too.

“Hey, Nana? It’s TC. I’m great, how’ve you been?…”

See the debut piece of TC’s column, in which he reviews Black Mirror S4E1, “USS Callister”: Toxic Masculinity – In Space!

To suggest a show or episode for review, contact TC Martin at thomas.c.martin@yale.edu.