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Series / Designing Women

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Southern-Fried Golden Girls.

"And I was left only to pick up an abandoned handkerchief and savor the perfumed shadows of these women... these southern women. This Suzanne. This Julia. This Mary Jo and Charlene."'
"Dash Goff, the Writer" (Season 2, Episode 6)

A 1986–93 Work Com created by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, about four Southern women who operate an interior design company in Atlanta, Georgia. The cast included:

The cast was rounded out by ex-con Anthony Bouvier (Meshach Taylor), Bernice Clifton (Alice Ghostley), and a steady parade of children, boyfriends, ex-husbands and assorted oddballs. After half the cast left in 1991, some new characters appeared to replace them, but they were not as well-received. The series aired on CBS from September 29, 1986 until May 24, 1993 and spawned an unsuccessful spin-off (Women of the House).

And THAT was the night the tropes got listed in Georgia!

  • A-Cup Angst: Mary Jo gets an episode about whether or not to get breast implants.
  • Accidental Marriage: Julia and Reese go through a whopper of one in "I Do, I Don't." When she embarrassingly mistakes his anniversary gift for an engagement ring, they decide on the (... drunken) spur of the moment to get married anyway. It lasts about 24 hours.
  • Actor Allusion: In the Pilot episode, Julia tells Suzanne, "If sex were fast food, there'd be an arch above your bed!" Dixie Carter said the same line to Delta Burke in the short-lived sitcom Filthy Rich a couple years prior.
  • Added Alliterative Appeal: Mary Jo once caused the company to lose a lucrative client when she suggested to the woman that maybe the chairs she picked out would be better suited for someone with about 50 pounds less bulk. When she's trying to justify this to Julia, she says the chairs the woman picked out were dainty little things made with peacock feathers and when the client picked them out, all she could picture was the newspaper headline: "Fat Feathered Fanny Falls Through Floor."
  • Advertised Extra: Anthony in certain season 1-2 episodes in the syndication cut.note 
  • An Aesop: Frequently, and many delivered by Julia, who often served as something of a mouthpiece for show creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. Her fiery rants touched on all kinds of issues, from sex education and sweatshop exploitation to inane magazine editorials.
    • Mary Jo and Charlene got to handle a few of their own as well. An especially poignant plot involves Charlene deciding to leave her church, all while teaching the audience about gender equality in the clergy.
  • Arch-Enemy: It was pretty much Allison vs. Everyone during her brief tenure on the show.
  • Artistic License – Law: Suzanne receiving alimony payments from multiple ex-husbands would not have been possible in the state of Georgia (where the show took place); the law states that once the spouse receiving the payments remarries, the other party is free of the obligation. But of course, that wouldn't be as funny.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Julia and Suzanne rarely saw eye-to-eye on anything and argued frequently, but one of the show's most memorable moments proved just how much Julia loved her baby sister. Video of the speech here.
  • Babies Ever After: Charlene gave birth to baby Olivia less than a year after marrying Bill.
  • Bad Santa: In one episode, Suzanne hires a mall Santa to slip into Mary Jo's house and make her son believe that Santa is real. Santa proceeds to rob Mary Jo blind.
  • Big Beautiful Woman: Suzanne.
  • Big Fancy House: Julia's stately home, which doubled as the company's office, and was once even listed on the Atlanta Register of Historic Homes, right up until the tourists snapped the last of Julia's straws.
    • Suzanne's home was pretty big and fancy itself (in fact, the home used in establishing shots of Suzanne's house is actually a photo of the Arkansas Governor's mansion.)
  • Birth-Death Juxtaposition: In "The First Day of The Last Decade of The Entire Twentieth Century", Charlene gives birth to baby Olivia shortly after an elderly patient, Miss Minnie, passes away and is lead to Heaven by an angel portrayed by Dolly Parton.
  • Bitch Alert: Allison Sugarbaker. As Anthony put it, Leona Helmsley in Tinkerbell's body.
    • Suzanne is portrayed as this early on, in the Pilot episode both Julia and Mary Jo call her one.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Heather McFall, a one-off character who appears in "All About Odes to Atlanta." When she shows up at Sugarbaker's to help the ladies win a singing contest, she is as sweet and shy and helpful as can be. It doesn't last.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: Charlene, Allison, and BJ were blondes; Suzanne, Julia, and Carlene were brunettes. Mary Jo was the lone redhead, although every few episodes or so her hair would look almost dark enough to be brown, and later, every once in a while it would almost look blonde!
  • Brainless Beauty: Suzanne Sugarbaker
  • Brainy Brunette: Julia Sugarbaker
  • Breakout Character: Suzanne, who gains a more prominent role in the series as it progresses and eventually got her own spin-off. Delta Burke was earned two consecutive Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in 1990 and 1991 for per portrayal of Suzanne, the only one of the female leads to be nominated for the award. This has been said to have angered her co-stars and sparked the behind-the-scenes conflicts that lead to her departure in 1991.
  • Celebrity Cameo: The show had a smattering of celebrity appearances over the years, although possibly the most memorable is Dolly Parton as Charlene's "guardian movie star" when she's in the hospital to give birth.
    Ray Charles: "I thought that was pretty good!"
  • Can't Hold His Liquor: Mary Jo, in spades. One beer and she gets extremely loud, aggressive, and obnoxious.
    • This characteristic yields particularly disastrous consequences in "Nightmare from Hee Haw," when her yelling attracts the attention of four hillbillies spoiling for a fight ...
  • Catchphrase:
    • Suzanne's "Excuse me....EXCUSE ME!!!"
    • Anthony always referred to his time in prison as "my unfortunate incarceration."
  • Character Filibuster: When Julia begins her "Terminator" rants, the show stops so everyone can listen.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: While the Frazier sisters had their moments, Bernice Clifton takes the prize here. The only thing keeping her from being truly dim are her rare profound moments.
  • Coincidence Magnet: Charlene and Anthony tended to have all kinds of weirdness happen to them. Julia lampshades this more than once.
  • Deep South: The Frazier sisters hailed from Poplar Bluff, Missouri. This is a case of Write What You Know , as Linda Bloodworth-Thomason is also from Poplar Bluff. And the Sugarbaker's staff have several Deliverance-like encounters with the hillbilly Jones clan. Stereotypes of Southerners are frequently discussed and examined on the show.
  • Downer Ending: The episode "The Candidate" featured a misogynistic, homeless-hating councilman who was also adamant about having prayer in schools. This of course infuriated Julia who decided to run against him. In spite of his manipulative and pandering nature and Julia raising some good counter-arguments to his platforms, he wins by a landslide.
  • Drop-In Character: Bernice did not work at Sugarbaker's, nor did she have a financial stake in the company, yet she spent much of her time there (much to the annoyance of the others, particularly Anthony).
    • Lampshaded in that Perky, Julia and Suzanne's mother, asks them to keep an eye on her friend Bernice, since Perky herself is always out of the country.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness:
    • The first two seasons have a different theme song and title card than the more memorable ones used in seasons 3-5. The early title cards and theme can only be found on the DVD releases, as all the syndication episodes utilize the season 3-5 title card and themes.
    • Mary Jo has a frumpier appearance in the first season than in later episodes.
    • Suzanne is noticeably skinnier in the first season and doesn't have as extravagant hair, makeup and outfits as she has in seasons 3-5.
    • Similarly, in the first season - especially in the first half of the first season - Suzanne is portrayed more as a catty Bitch Alert who regularly makes life difficult for Mary Jo. The conflicts with Mary Jo vanish after the first few episodes and her "bitch" persona generally disappears as the first season progresses. Starting in season 2, as Suzanne's descent info Flanderization begins, her behavior takes on more of a buffoonish quality that makes her come across more as a spoiled, pompus idiot rather than someone who is intentionally acting maliciously. This all occurs as she gains weight, takes on a more extravagant, exaggerated appearance, and becomes further removed from her salad days as a beauty queen, giving her character development some reverse parallels to The Nutty Professor.
  • '80s Hair: Thankfully toned down by the end of the series.
  • Flanderization:
    • Suzanne undergoes this as the series progresses. She gains a significant amount of weight, begins wearing more extravagant clothing, hair and makeup and behaving in a more buffoonish and slapstick manner, especially starting in season 3. As this coincided with Suzanne emerging as the show's Breakout Character and Delta Burke earning two consecutive nominations for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in 1990-91 (the only one of the female leads to earn a nomination), it can be seen as the rare case of Flanderization improving a series.
    • This is cranked up several notches in the final two seasons, and as such Charlene and - to a lesser extent - Suzanne escape the worst of it (having both been written off the show by the sixth season). But poor Julia and Mary Jo have their flaws and eccentricities magnified to cartoonish proportions - especially in the final season - with Julia's political posturing going from just stern and opinionated to downright obnoxious grandstanding and with Mary Jo's going from being openly insecure and occasionally snarky to being a complete neurotic mess susceptible to delusions of grandeur. This is on full display in "Mary Jo vs. The Terminator" (Mary Jo and Julia spending an entire episode feuding over the proofreading of a letter, and with their final argument nearly turning physical) and "Shovel Off to Buffalo" (Mary Jo believing that the face of Elvis appeared on her snow shovel and has the power to heal the sick, and - right before exiting Sugarbaker house with a group of Elvis pilgrims - calling a skeptical Julia over to smack her upside the head and yell "I HEAL your attitude!").
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Suzanne and Julia, respectively, fit the trope in assorted ways.
  • Fur and Loathing: Spoofed in an episode when unapologetic fur-wearer Suzanne sports a mink coat in a fashion show, runs afoul of protesters, and gets her arm broken. She has to spend a week in the coat and never wants to see a mink again.
  • Gay Aesop: Combined with AIDS to boot, and Julia chewing out a client.
  • Genius Ditz: Every once in a while, when Julia, Charlene and Mary Jo were confused by something, Suzanne would be the one who figured it out, leaving the other three to wonder how they'd missed such an obvious fact.
    • In "Anthony and Vanessa" (Season 4 Episode 18), Vanessa, Anthony's silly girlfriend during a few episodes, figures out the mystery of a plumber's sagging pants that's perplexed the cast. It's the weight of the tools in his belt.
  • The Ghost: Consuela, Suzanne's maid.
  • Girl With a Gun: Suzanne is a member of the NRA and owns multiple firearms.
  • The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: Surprisingly averted; Julia and Suzanne may snipe at each other occasionally, but they are absolutely devoted to one another. It probably helps that Julia was twelve years old when Suzanne was born, so they went through puberty at different times and Julia in many ways was as much of a parent as a sister.
  • Good Victims, Bad Victims: The show had an infamous Very Special Episode in which, after agreeing to plan a funeral for a gay man terminally ill with AIDS, the main characters come up against a bigoted woman who believes AIDS is "killing all the right people" (homosexuals and drug users) and God's way of eradicating sinners. Julia retorts that, if this were true, the woman herself would have contracted it by now. The writer of the episode ("Killing All The Right People"), heard somebody say this about AIDS victims in the hospital where her mother was getting treated for it (having been infected due to a blood transfusion) and wrote her outrage about it into the story.
  • Happily Married: Charlene and Bill; Julia and her now-deceased husband were also this.
  • Heroic BSoD: In "There She Is," Suzanne's locked into this upon learning she must relinquish her 1975 Miss Georgia crown.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Charlene was naive to a fault, and so was the target of quite a few sleazes, including the con man who tried to sell the firm stolen furniture, and the "promoter" who was going to make her a country star. She had terrible taste in men too, until she met her husband.
  • Humble Pie: Julia occasionally had to eat a slice or two. For instance, the time she strutted down a fashion show runway with the back of her dress tucked into her pantyhose.
    • And then there was the time she got her head stuck in a banister at the governor's mansion.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Allison was so obnoxious that everyone hated to give her the satisfaction of agreeing with her, but her no-nonsense New York cynicism was occasionally right.
  • Mars and Venus Gender Contrast: One of Julia's most memorable rants is on this very subject.
  • Middle Child Syndrome: An unusual example. The episode "Oh, Brother" introduces the audience to Clayton, the half-brother of the Sugarbaker sisters; the sisters are twelve years apart in age and Clayton falls almost exactly in between. He explains to the other characters that most people don't know he exists because when he was conceived, the girls' parents were legally separated and their father became involved with his mother for a time, but later reunited with his wife and had Suzanne. In addition to this trope, Clayton has a history of mental illness and being The Alcoholic, but his sisters are clearly very fond of him and vice versa.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: Naturally, Anthony was completely innocent of the crime that caused his "unfortunate incarceration". He spent the entire run of the series getting his life back in order (earning his GED, going to college, becoming a partner in Sugarbaker's, etc.) and trying to put his past behind him. This fact did not stop Suzanne from constantly expressing her displeasure with having a black ex-con around the office, and generally using any excuse to bring up the fact that Anthony served time in prison. She did get better about it as the series progressed and and she and Anthony developed a more meaningful relationship.
  • The Mistress: Spoofed in an episode aptly titled, "The Mistress." Sugarbaker's is hired to decorate both the home of a wealthy married man and the condo where he keeps his mistress. The women are eventually so disgusted by the mistress that they tell her off in an attempt to defend the wife, but it turns out they have the situation entirely wrong, and so Hilarity Ensues.
  • Mood Killer: When Bill returns from serving in the Gulf War, Charlene emerges from their bedroom wearing a silky negligee and a large yellow ribbon tied around her waist, which she teasingly invites him to remove. Then Mary Jo lets herself into the house, destroying the moment - and proceeds to do so several more times over the next few days, because Charlene can't seem to find a good way to tell her that she and Bill want to be alone. (Why Mary Jo herself couldn't figure out that Charlene would want to be alone with her freshly-returned husband is another matter entirely.)
  • No Bisexuals: In one episode, Suzanne mentions that she told some guy's parents that he was bisexual, adding, "I always tell the parents. And I'm not sorry. I don't believe in bisexuals. I figure the rest of us have to choose, so why shouldn't they?"
  • Not What It Looks Like: Anthony has walked into the Sugarbaker's at inopportune moments quite a few times.
  • Odd Couple: For a time, Allison and Anthony reluctantly share Suzanne's home after her departure and attempt to force each other out. Hilarity Ensues.
  • Odd Friendship: Despite their many differences and occasional unpleasant encounters (including an accidental shooting), Suzanne and Anthony become very close friends during the series - so close, in fact, that Anthony once refers to himself, somewhat confusedly, as Suzanne's "best girl friend." They even had a reunion on the spinoff.
  • The Old Convict: T. Tommy Reed, legendary former cellmate of Anthony's during his "unfortunate incarceration." He was so menacing and had been around so long he exerted a weird kind of authority over the cell block, which he used to enforce strict etiquette rules and occasionally force the other inmates to partner him in ballroom dancing.
  • Pet the Dog: Suzanne to the Vietnamese boat child Li Ning in "Oh Suzannah", which was the beginning of a significant amount of character development.
  • Prepositions Are Not to End Sentences With: If someone calls on you for this, correct the sentence with calling the Grammar Nazi a fitting name.
  • Pretty in Mink: Except for the instance of the other trope, Suzanne wore furs with no comment. And, on rare occasions, so did the others.
  • Put on a Bus: Suzanne moved to Japan and Charlene moved with her husband to England at the start of season 6, due to Delta Burke being fired and Jean Smart deciding to leave the show. Suzanne's departure was only mentioned, while Charlene stuck around for just one more episode to unceremoniously drop the news of her leaving.
    • Cousin Allison withdraws all her money from the business and runs off to buy a Victoria's Secret franchise in between seasons 6 and 7, and thereafter is never mentioned again.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Suzanne.

  • Real Life Writes the Plot:
    • Jean Smart discovered she was pregnant the day that Charlene and Bill's wedding episode was filmed. Rather than stick her in a bunch of baggy clothes, Charlene was written to have gotten pregnant on the honeymoon, and baby Olivia was born the following New Year's.
    • "They Shoot Fat Women, Don't They?" was specifically written so Delta Burke could respond to all the tabloid heckling over her weight gain.
    • Also, the show's highly-acclaimed episode "Killing All The Right People" was made in response to both the AIDS crisis and a remark that co-creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason had overheard a woman make at the hospital while she was with her own dying mother, who had contracted the disease through a blood transfusion.

  • Rules Lawyer: One of the reasons Allison alienated both other characters and many viewers; she was extremely uptight and rigid about procedures.
  • Scary Science Words: Played for drama when Julia Sugarbaker goes to confront an incompetent doctor after his bad advice and subsequent dressing down of Charlene Frazier over wanting a second opinion nearly caused Charlene to ignore a potentially malignant lump on her breast. Julia calls the man out on using his assumed authority and medical jargon to intimidate his patients into blindly trusting him while assuming none of the risk himself, a practice that already cost another friend of Julia's her life via breast cancer. When the Doctor attempts to justify his "wait and see" advice with yet more jargon, Ms. Sugarbaker informs him that she grew up in a medical family and such terms hold no fear for her, but she has a few of her own for him, such as "medical malpractice lawsuit."
  • Shoo Out the New Guy: Julia Duffy replaced Delta Burke at the start of the 6th season as the Sugarbakers' prissy cousin, Allison. The character, who was basically Duffy's Newhart character Stephanie with a southern accent, was very poorly received and was gone by the 7th season premiere. Creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason blamed herself and the writers for not creating a more multi-dimensional character for Duffy to play. Jan Hooks was more successful as Jean Smart's replacement and was kept around for the final season.
  • Silver Vixen: The episode in which Julia's son gets married, and she's feeling her age. In response, she gets drunk and sings a very sexy "Sweet Georgia Brown" as seen here. Then she wakes up with his college roommate.
  • Smurfette Principle: Inverted, with Anthony as the only male character in the main cast.
  • Soapbox Sadie: Julia Sugarbaker's soapbox tendencies continued well past her teenage years. Also subverted with Suzanne's monologues about such things as beauty and proper Southern values.
  • Southern Belle: Suzanne Sugarbaker especially and in particular, but really, all of the female main characters fit the bill one way or another.
    • The show puts a button on this in an episode spoofing Gone With the Wind, when each lady imagines what she'd be like as Scarlett O'Hara.
  • Spin-Off: Women of the House, in which Suzanne's latest husband — a Congressman — has died, and she moves to Washington to serve out the remainder of his term. It ran for one season in 1995.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Carlene Dobber for Charlene Frazier-Stillfield. Their similar first names are even lampshaded by Mary Jo in the season 6 premiere.
    • Although Carlene was not among the family we met when Charlene's family comes to visit.
  • Theme Tune: "Georgia", by Ray Charles, and done as an instrumental in some versions.
  • This Is for Emphasis, Bitch!
    • Mary Jo gets one in the pilot. Suzanne starts dating Mary Jo's ex. Mary Jo says "Have a wonderful time," as Suzanne is running out the door. She adds "Bitch," after the door closes.
    • Mary Jo gets another one while she and Julia are fasting for two days and donating the money for famine relief.
    Mary Jo: "Do you think chewing sugarless gum [counts as eating]?"
    Julia: "Yes I do, and when I get back I'm checkin' your breath."
    [Julia exits]
    Mary Jo: (weakly) "Bitch!"
    • During another episode, Charlene tells an old Southerner joke. It goes like this: "A woman says to a Northerner, 'Where y'all from'? The Northerner says, 'We're from a place where they don't end a sentence with a preposition.' The Southerner says, 'Where y'all from, bitch?'"
  • Tranquil Fury: When Julia gets this way, you know she's about to deliver one of her famous rants. One of the most notable examples is in "Killing All the Right People", when she's hired by a gay man suffering from AIDS to plan his funeral. An old friend of hers, Imogene, gets wind of it and outright tells the man to his face that he brought his illness upon himself, and then title drops the episode in regards to her feelings on the matter, leading to this:
    Julia: Imogene, I'm terribly sorry, I'm gonna have to ask you to move your car.
    Imogene: Why?
    Julia: Because you're leaving.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Tony and Cassandra Hall, or a Mary Jo likes to call them, "The Most Repulsive Couple in Atlanta." They are nouveau-riche white trash imports from Beverly Hills, who frequently employ Sugarbaker's. If there's an especially tacky piece of decoration hanging around the office (say, a piano with the faces of the Beatles painted on it), you can bet it was ordered by Tony and Cassandra Hall.
  • Vacation Episode: Quite a few, sometimes together with all the love interests to boot.
  • Very Special Episode:
    • "Killing All the Right People" was one of the first TV episodes to address the AIDS epidemic.
    • "They Shoot Fat People, Don't They?" sees Suzanne feeling very sorry for herself for having too much to eat until she meets a refugee from an African famine. The episode was written in response to Delta Burke's weight being the subject of much tabloid mockery.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: One of Carlene's boyfriends is this.
  • With Friends Like These...: In one episode, Julia's efforts to make sure she gets to attend a deeply desired event are thwarted continuously by Charlene's informing on her, well-intentioned as it may be. At the end of the episode, when Julia finally leaves for her event, the others have to lock Charlene down to prevent her from doing it yet again.
  • Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: Mary Jo has—or had—an Uncle Dude in the "Big Haas & Little Falsie" episode (Season 3, Episode 5). He died & left her a nice hefty inheritance. She considers a breast augmentation & wears a prosthetic bra for a "preview" before her plastic surgery, which she reconsiders by that time.
  • You're Drinking Breast Milk: Suzanne did this in one episode, unwittingly helping herself to some of Charlene's breast milk in Julia's refrigerator.