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Golden Girl Gone Wild: Hot Betty-White-on-SNL Action!

May 22, 2010

Okay. Apologies for the titillating sensationalism. The real title of this article:

Not Fading Away: Thank You For Being a Friend

Thank You For Being A Friend, Golden Girls

You're a pal and a confidante, Rose Nylund

It always amuses me when something or someone I’ve been following ends up front-and-center in the public eye. Case in point: Mary Tyler Moore Show and Golden Girls alum Betty White.

I’d not been stalking Betty or anything. Nothing weird or sexual (this time). What I had been doing is watching a lot of Golden Girls reruns prior to her winning performance as host of Saturday Night Live on May 8. When I say “a lot,” I mean  several episodes, every day. Some in the morning, some in the late evening. Many. I even had a picture of The Girls on my cell phone for a while.  Yeah, that bad.

How the bloody hell did I find time to do this? Well, let’s just say that I was on involuntary sabbatical from my job shoveling ones and zeros from one end of a screen to another. I had some time on my hands. Given the circumstances, for a while, watching some familiar faces on TV while I passed and re-traced my steps through various and varying stages of grief wasn’t the worst way to trudge through a bad time.

As I refamiliarized myself with the kissing cousins of utter aimlessness and daytime TV, I found myself working my way through episode after episode of old sitcoms I’d watched when I wore a younger man’s clothes. I won’t jeopardize further your already precarious opinion of me by listing them–at least not here, not now–but two of the three shows I watched consistently during those first few stunned weeks were (I’m sorry) Saved By The Bell and The Golden Girls.

I can’t explain the former, other than with the week defense from a paragraph or so back. I needed comfort food for the eyes, I guess. Familiarity. No alarms and no surprises, please.

I watched both shows quite a bit as a kid. I loved the Golden Girls, especially. Dorothy Zbornak‘s quick wit, Rose Nylund‘s charming naiveté and good-heartedness, Blanche Devereaux‘s fiery wantonness, and Sophia Petrillo‘s acid-tongued pragmatism made for good ensemble comedy.

It didn’t hurt that it was developed and written by some of the same creative forces that brought us groundbreaking fare like daytime drama parody Soap, which featured outlandish characters, snappy writing, and thoughtful treatment of controversial issues like homosexuality, social class, infidelity, and new-agey cults. Younger readers may have missed this show even in reruns; if you didn’t watch TV Land or Comedy Central in its golden age, you might have missed your last (non-Netflixed) opportunity to see Billy Crystal‘s break-out small-screen role as openly gay (and intentionally over-the-top) Jody Dallas. He, and the show, are marvelous.

At some point, I stopped watching Saved by the Bell. For various reasons, most of them obvious, it got very boring  very quickly, its familiarity soon turning to contempt.

I did not stop watching Golden Girls–at least not until the resumption of gainful employment encroached on my sad-sack tube time. It endured as a show that entertained me and soothed me in some needed way, and I can finally explain why.

Golden Girls, while a situation comedy capable of all the same hackneyed pitfalls and necessary superficiality, addressed many of the same “serious” issues as its forebear, Soap, and by design.  The hook in this case was that its central protagonists/antagonists were all older women–a “wacky” soap-opera family was traded for “wacky” ladies sharing a home. But, for every ridiculous mistake or flash of ignorance by Rose, for every ill-advised tryst with Stan, for every questionable cross-over headscratcher (Empty Nest pilot, I’m looking at you), you had at least one episode that dealt with meaningful social issues. Golden Girls dealt in a frank and often funny way with sexual indiscretion, senility, unrequited love, ethnic heritage and immigration (“picture it, Sicily…”), AIDS, death, single parenthood, cheesecake quality control, and many other meaningful, substantive matters of the heart and human condition.

Saved By The Bell, unlike our Girls, has aged poorly.  Honestly, it was bad to begin with. At least, that was the conventional wisdom of then as well as now. Most people who were my age the time of SVTB’s, ahem, zenith looked at it as a show to secretly love and publicly hate. Nearly everybody watched it, and nearly everybody pretended they didn’t, blaming a dimmer sibling for it ever having the chance to offend their discriminating tastes.  Many of us were watching Bugs Bunny cartoons and the original 90210 in addition to Zack Morris, Kelly, et al, so  taste is relative, no?

But where Warner Brothers taught us how to solve vermin infestations with dynamite, and 90210 may have helped us grapple with budding sexuality amid social class contortions and Colour Me Badd, Saved By The Bell is curiously devoid of, well, anything that really matters to people of any age.

Sure, occasionally the gang might have to think about the fact that someone at Bayside might have a crummy home life, or maybe Slater’s military-minded father is a bit of a short-sighted prick, or perhaps dicking around with others’ money on the stock market might be risky, and, gee, wasn’t the girl at the mall cute for a homeless person? But, the show rarely got much deeper than that.

This was also by design, sad to say. Saved By The Bell came into being largely as a pet project for NBC honcho Brandon Tartikoff. Essentially, SVTB’s roots are in some rose-tinted revisionism of Tartikoff’s school days of the mid-fifties; Squeaky-clean wholesomeness is given a 90’s veneer. As such, it remains relatively superficial and light-of-touch. Even when the Bayside bunch went to college, drug use (via an obsolete “rave” culture indictment), body image, and other “real” matters are treated with a kind of brevity and surface gloss that does everyone a disservice. Many chances to open discussions or educate or simply recognize shared struggles in an entertaining context  are blown when the show’s ostensible targets–the “yout’ of America” as Tony Soprano would say–sit right there, ripe for the discussing and the educating and the recognizing, hearing nothing.

On the other hand, Golden Girls’ audience was older adults, I assume female, although my entire family watched and enjoyed it during its run. You could assume that the characters on the show might have Things figured out pretty well by their ages, that they have a handle on life’s sometimes cruel twists and turns. You would have assumed wrong. What makes The Golden Girls refreshing and entertaining–what makes it endure–is that it turned assumptions about older people, about older women, upside down. It held serious matters that affect all of us up to scrutiny and stopped to quip, but not to flinch.

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