Designing Women

From Academic Kids

Designing Women was a U.S. television sitcom that centered around the working and personal lives of four women in an interior design firm in Atlanta, Georgia. It aired on CBS from 1986 to 1993.

Sisters Julia Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter) and Suzanne Sugarbaker (Delta Burke) are polar opposites. Julia is an extremely outspoken liberal intellectual; Suzanne is a sexy, flashy, wealthy, self-centered former beauty queen. They are constantly at personal odds but have launched Sugarbaker Designs, an interior design firm. Julia manages the company while Suzanne is mostly a financial backer who simply hangs around and annoys everyone.

The staff was rounded out by the practical designer Mary Jo Shively (Annie Potts) and the ditsy office manager Charlene Frazier Stillfield (Jean Smart). Also on hand was Anthony Bouvier (Meshach Taylor), a black man and former prison convict, and Bernice Clifton, an absent-minded and kooky neighbor played by acting legend Alice Ghostley.

The series immediately attracted critical plaudits and a fiercely devoted cult following, but the ratings were poor. CBS nearly cancelled the series, but were bombarded with letters and phone calls and gave the show another chance. The second season was a hit and the program remained successful for many years.

Usually the plot revolved around some sort of a professional or personal crisis of one (or all) of the characters intertwined with a larger moral battle. For example, in one episode, Julia is upset about a newsstand in the neighborhood that puts pornographic magazines on open display. When she cannot lobby to force their removal, she ends up plowing into the newsstand with her car. Designing Women also featured discussions of controversial topics such as homosexuality, racism, dating clergy, and hostile societal attitudes towards the overweight.

The program became infamous for the righteous monologues delivered by Julia in indignation to other characters whom she felt were perpetuating injustices on women (or others.) Dixie Carter, a staunch Republican, had little use for what she saw as liberal hysteria and made a deal with the producers that for every speech she gave, Julia would get to sing a song in a future episode.

There was great controversy surrounding the show in 1991 because of the abrupt dismissal of Burke, a pivotal part of the series. Burke was fired because she had put on weight and was considered a detriment to the show; the producers wanted her to lose weight and go on a diet, which led to many arguments between Burke and the producers. In the show, her character of Suzanne moved to Japan and sold her part of the design business to her wealthy cousin Allison Sugarbaker (Julia Duffy). At the same time, Smart left the show to be replaced by Jan Hooks as Carlene Dobber; Smart's character, Charlene, moved to England where her husband was stationed and her sister, Carlene, took over her job. The character of Carlene was very similar to Charlene; however, Allison was a prim and proper conservative who proved the foil to uber-liberal Julia. Although the ratings were still good, many believed Duffy was not working out and she was fired. The final season featured acclaimed theater actress Judith Ivey as Bonnie Jean "B.J." Poteet, a rich widow who invested some of her millions in the business and tried to get them to laugh and not take themselves so seriously. Ivey's presence was not enough to prevent a ratings slide and CBS cancelled the series in 1993.

Show creators Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason were strong supporters of longtime friend and then-Democratic nominee for President of the United States, Bill Clinton. One episode revolved around Julia getting stranded in the airport while attempting to attend Clinton's first inauguration.

The theme song of the program was "Georgia On My Mind". In early seasons, the theme was instrumental including a version by trumpeter Doc Severinsen, but in the later seasons, it was performed vocally by Ray Charles.

Delta Burke reunited with the Thomasens and CBS to reprise the Suzanne Sugarbaker character for a short-lived 1996 sitcom, Women of the House, in which Suzanne's latest husband died and she won his seat in Congress.

Designing Women has been rerun continuously on the Lifetime cable network for over a decade. The ratings were so strong that finally in 2003 Lifetime reunited Burke, Potts, Smart, Carter and Taylor for a reunion special, which also featured interviews with the Thomasens and various writers.


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