In 5 To Watch, five writers from The A.V. Club look at the latest streaming TV arrivals, each making the case for a favored episode. The reasons for their picks might differ, but they can all agree that each episode is a must-watch. In this installment: The Golden Girls, all episodes of which are now streaming on Hulu.
When Hulu announced it would begin streaming all seven seasons of The Golden Girls on Galentine’s Day, fans stocked up on the cheesecake and tissues. Susan Harris’ NBC sitcom was a revolutionary show for so many reasons, not least of which was proving that there was life after marriage, careers, and even children. Sixty became the new 20 (okay, maybe 30), as we watched Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia deal with what was almost a second adolescence. They struggled to find careers, romance, and general fulfillment. What they found instead were substitute teaching and museum gigs, as well as many men—lots and lots of men. But their suitors were secondary to their friendships; these Girls were really each other’s greatest loves. The series played with that dynamic throughout, teasing just how permeable those boundaries were. Here we revisit five of our top picks. Read on if your heart is true, you’re a pal and a confidante.
Like Bea Arthur’s previous starring vehicle Maude, The Golden Girls had a penchant for taking on social issues not often discussed in primetime during its era. “Isn’t It Romantic?,” the second-season episode, featured an out and proud lesbian and nodded to the Sapphic subtext of the series itself. Dorothy’s longtime friend Jean (Lois Nettleton, who scored an Emmy nod for her role) comes to visit. The two friends agree to keep Jean’s sexuality a secret (Sophia, of course, always knew), not because it’s a problem but because Dorothy thinks Rose won’t get it. But when Jean falls for Rose, she decides to confess her love to the lovingly daft Girl. Neither Jean nor her sexuality are at any points the butt of the episode; instead she’s treated with respect. “Jean is a nice person. She happens to like girls instead of guys. Some people like cats instead of dogs. Frankly I’d rather live with a lesbian than a cat. Unless a lesbian sheds. Then I don’t know,” Sophia says. The jokes tend to be on Blanche (Rue McClanahan), who is pissed that Jean doesn’t have a thing for her, and Rose (Betty White scored an Emmy nomination for this episode, although she lost out to her castmate McClanahan). In one fantastic exchange, that takes place in Dorothy’s bed no less, it’s revealed that Blanche doesn’t know the difference between a lesbian and the Lebanese. Rose eventually lets Jean down gently, by saying she doesn’t share her feelings but she’s flattered and proud to be the object of her affection. Maybe St. Olaf’s favorite daughter isn’t that dumb after all.
The heart of The Golden Girls was always the experiences and emotions shared by this group of women. The sex puns and St. Olaf references were grounded by the show’s dedication to honesty around its central characters. In “Old Friends,” Sophia befriends Alvin Newcastle, an old man she meets on the boardwalk. Of course, the outspoken Sophia can’t help but bring up the fact that the man is black, but the episode isn’t focused on their differences or any racial intolerance. While a lesser sitcom would’ve focused on “jive turkey” jokes and Sophia’s colorblindness, Golden Girls gives their friendship actual meaning and depth for Sophia. Sophia doesn’t always fit into the stories the other Girls are dealing with–in this episode, they’re desperately trying to get Rose’s teddy bear back from an evil Sunshine Cadet–but “Old Friends” is one of the first chances we get to really see Sophia interact with someone outside of the household. The episode’s fake boardwalk background is overshadowed by the amazing performances of Estelle Getty and Joe Seneca. In fact, Getty’s performance in the episode would go on to win her an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress. Their relationship is beautifully developed in a short amount of time–they crack jokes, they share food, and eventually they have a fight. When it’s revealed that Alvin suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and only has a few months before he’s sent to a nursing home, the heartbreak is undeniable. The final shot of Sophia, alone on the boardwalk, serves as a reminder that these women have lost so many loved ones and friends in their lives, but continue to persevere, highlighting just how important their friendship with each other is.
There’s no way to know for sure if The Golden Girls writers meant to title the 20th episode of the fourth season “High Anxiety” on purpose, but I wouldn’t put it past a show that continually proves itself to be wryer than the average sitcom. “High Anxiety” hits peak Golden Girls—an episode wherein half the Girls engage in a wacky subplot (Dorothy and her mom star in a commercial!) and the other half deals with one of life’s cruelest jokes: addiction (Rose is addicted to painkillers!). The Golden Girls’ appeal lies in its transcendence of novelty. They’re not just “old women saying outrageous things for laughs,” because these “old women” are never the butt of the joke, but fighters in the ring throwing out the punches. Equally impressively, the show never placates itself with easy outs to very real problems. So instead of “an old lady has a drug problem LOL,” “High Anxiety” is respectful of the severity of Rose’s addiction—and subsequent anxiety about trying to quit—without preaching or underselling the difficulty of the task. Even though the gang bands together to keep Rose from popping pills for one night, it’s obvious that their collective chutzpah isn’t enough to help her. And Rose’s takeaway after a month in rehab isn’t that she’s “cured,” but that she can live without painkillers day by day. Plus, you get Estelle Getty storming off the pizza commercial’s set, slinging an ice cold Al Capone jab: ”There’s two things a Sicilian won’t do: Lie about pizza and file a tax return.”
1980s sitcoms were rife—nay, lousy—with “very special” flashback episodes, where clips from previous installments hung like dead fish over five minutes of new “present day” material. The Golden Girls was one of the first to subvert this lazy trend with “Valentine’s Day” by flashing back to past antics previously unseen. When their respective V-Day dates are MIA, the girls hit the kitchen to nosh on desserts and reflect on memorable Valentine’s Days from their collective yesteryears. Sophia harkens back to a sweet, albeit possibly fictional, incident involving her late husband, Sal; car trouble; a well-hidden box of chocolates; and the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. (The woman had a stroke; let’s not take to memory shaming.) There’s the story of how Rose accidentally booked the girls on a Valentine’s Day retreat at Sunny Meadows, a clothing-optional resort. Do they eventually get naked at the worst possible moment? You betcha! And there’s that time they hit the drugstore for some pre-Valentine’s Day cruise sundries. Even women in their twilight years need to buy protection, and we’re not just talking sunblock; to quote one of the show’s most memorable Dorothy lines, “Condoms, Rose! Condoms! Condoms! Condoms!” Surprisingly, it’s saucy Blanche who provides the episode’s most touching Valentine’s Day memory: the evening she inadvertently helped a gay man pop the question to his sweetheart on the anniversary of her late husband’s proposal. Memories can be worth revisiting, and 30 years on, “Valentine’s Day” reminds us The Golden Girls was a heck of a lot racier, funnier, and more socially conscious than we tend to recall.
The Golden Girls taught us that the families we create are just as important as the ones we’re born into—in fact, they’re sometimes preferable. Dorothy and Sophia never had a completely amicable relationship. As the eldest Petrillo kid, it was Dorothy’s responsibility to look after their widowed mother in her twilight years—this despite obviously not being Sophia’s favorite. And as quick-witted as Dorothy could be, she usually fell short of her mother’s zingers, which was a tough task given their significant height difference. Their frequent sparring blew over as quickly as it began, though, with “Pussycat” and “Ma” making up by episode’s end. But what makes this late-season, late-series entry different is that it suggests that there are some offenses that can’t be forgiven. Dorothy learns her mother sent her senior prom date away; big deal, right? That was decades ago. But for Dorothy, this was the moment her self-esteem took a nosedive, and it took her years to recover. It’s part of the reason she ended up with Stan. When Sophia explains it was because the guy wasn’t showing her daughter the proper respect, Dorothy realizes that her mom’s always been looking out for her best interests. You’ll get misty-eyed watching Dorothy finally go to the prom and return to tell her mother all about it.