I still remember what I said on the occasion of the DVD release of the first season of The Golden Girls back in 2004: “Eat your heart out, Ozu.” Here is the result of an email volley with another cheesecake-eating friend of mine.
01. “Till Death Do We Volley” (S4, E19) — A lot of my choices have some dramatic or emotional heft to back up the punchlines, but this one is just a classic piece of sitcom writing from start to finish, with a perfect series of one-ups between Dorothy and the somewhat terrifying woman who was Dorothy’s rival in high school (Anne Francis, in full ’80s butch fettle) and a reasonably twisty plot, given this is after all The Golden Girls and not Mulholland Drive. The bitchy quips between the two in this episode are fantastic. (“The way you picked yourself up after getting dumped by Stan, boy, I envy you your gumption.” “And I your breast implants.”) And Dorothy’s poker face throughout the whole episode is flawless. Plus, the best Sophia fart joke of the series. (“You’ll have to excuse Sophia.” “Oh, you heard that? I thought I was safe backed up against these pillows.”) Bonus: Blanche admitting that she loved her family and they had a few dollars but, “when you get down to it, basically they were trash,” but not before sniping to Dorothy, “I’m sorry if we can’t all come from places as socially acceptable as … Brooklyn.” If I’m looking to show off what made this one of the great sitcoms that still stayed well within a potentially constricting format, this is the episode I choose.
02. “Ebbtide’s Revenge” (S6, E12) — It’s no secret that Sophia is my least favorite of the four main characters, but in this case her antagonism just makes the moment she lets the facade drop all the more powerful. Structurally, this is a replay of the “Good Times” episode when Florida seems to be refusing to cry for her dead husband, but this episode goes much deeper into the nature of grief beyond the denial stage. Even beyond the obviously touching GLAAD Award-ish affirmation of Phil’s cross-dressing, the episode taps into that regret we feel about the feelings we withhold from people, only to realize too late that they were standing in the way of fully realized relationships. Rue McClanahan, Betty White and Bea Arthur were all consistently great throughout the series. But none of them ever delivered a moment as unexpected and raw as Estelle Getty’s admission of parental shame. I’ve admittedly never been a “drama trumps comedy” personality, but that’s about the only explanation I can think of why this heartbreaking episode didn’t flat-out take first place.
03. “Journey to the Center of Attention” (S7, E19) — By the last season, the bloom was definitely off the rose (and the Sophia). But there were a handful of episodes that got fresh mileage out of subtle twists on the characters’ traits. And, in the case of this particular episode, offered the most rewarding switcheroo in the show’s history. Blanche comes to terms — kicking and screaming, at that — with the fact that Dorothy has a talent for attracting men that she herself can’t hope to compete with. And what a beautiful talent it is. Bea Arthur’s performance of “What’ll I Do” is an astonishment, effortlessly moving from quiet melancholy into a totally unexpected punchline — when she decides, after noticing she’s entranced the entire room, to have another go around with the song, a moment that prefigures the final episode’s bittersweet long goodbye gag.
04. “Isn’t It Romantic” (S2, E5) — The three episodes I’ve listed so far all spotlight Dorothy in a vital if not necessarily central role. I make no bones about it, she is the engine of the show for me. That said, Blanche often sneaks up from behind as the show’s secret MVP, the middle ground between Dorothy’s infallible intelligence and Rose’s geniality. Blanche isn’t the focus of this episode; Rose is. But Blanche gets the episode’s best punchline, when she reacts badly to the news that Dorothy’s friend Jean is in love with Rose. “To think that Jean would prefer Rose to me? That’s ridiculous!”
05. “Job Hunting” (S1, E22) — Clearly one of the earliest episodes they shot (actually, it looks like it was taped concurrently with the pilot), this episode boasts a much looser structure than virtually every other episode in the series, predominately because of the extended midnight snack session that serves no plot function, but is instead used to shade three still-new characters. Like many of the best episodes of Norman Lear’s ’70s sitcoms, “Job Hunting” plays like a showcase one-act play. “Alright, so you’re a few years older. So am I, so is Blanche. Alright, so you’re a little thicker around the middle. So is Blanche!”
06. “My Brother, My Father” (S3, E17) — More episodes than not, I regard the arrival of Stan at the girls’ doorstep with about as much enthusiasm as Dorothy. Usually, the writers would use the occasion to fall back on a string of cheap toupee jokes, but this is one of the few episodes where the writers manage to come up with zingers worthy of their animosity. (“I’ll have to bring out the big gun.” “You’re wasting your time, Stanley. I’m familiar with the big gun.”) Uncle Angelo became a nuisance in the last season, too, but at least this first time around, the cliches hadn’t gotten stale. Also, Blanche, dressed as a nun and carrying her clothes: “We’re collecting lingerie for … needy … sexy people.”
07. “Dorothy’s New Friend” (S3, E15) — Dorothy’s foibles are usually dismissed as evidence of her rule over the roost. She’s the smartest, the most sensible and the most responsible of the quartet. That’s why the other three always take cheap shots at her physical beauty or perceived lack thereof. (“It’s not easy living with someone so perfect,” Blanche explains in the episode where the four visit a psychiatrist.) This episode finds a more elegant means of highlighting Dorothy’s character weaknesses: Barbara Thorndike, Dorothy’s seeming intellectual equal who is also, as it turns out, a total bitch about it.
08. “Wham, Bam, Thank You, Mammy” (S6, E5) — One of my favorite guest stars ever is Ruby Dee as Blanche’s mammy, who arrives after Big Daddy’s death to tell an unreceptive Blanche that her father, well, had a touch of Jungle Fever. She requests a trinket from Big Daddy’s belongings. “The Bible?” “No thanks, I don’t drink.”
09. “The One That Got Away” (S4, E3) — The one where Blanche is reunited with the one man that wouldn’t sleep with her and committing to finish the job even when he shows up fat, bald and still disinterested. I will never come up with a fake name more delicious than Ham Lushbough. Better fat jokes, on the whole, than “Blanche’s Little Girl,” too.
10. “Dancing in the Dark” (S5, E8) — I love when glimmers of Sue Ann Nivens peek through the Rose facade, as when she sets up Blanche with Miles and then, behind her back, asks Dorothy “Can you believe that backstabbing slut?”
“Joust Between Friends” (S2, E9) — “Eat dirt and die, trash.”
“Blanche’s Little Girl” (S3, E14) — The surfeit of cheap fat jokes from Sophia sour the proceedings a bit, but this is a solid demonstration of the maxim that honesty is always better than lies via withholding.
“Scared Straight” (S4, E9) — Rue’s theory that gay men like Blanche so much because she is, for all intents and purposes, a gay man is a tad objectionable, but it gets a nice test drive in this episode when her basically identical brother Clayton turns out to be gay.
“Not Another Monday” (S5, E7) — Geraldine Fitzgerald reading off the list of foods she’s going to order before killing herself: “I’m having the shrimp cocktail, the cream of mushroom soup, asparagus with hollandaise sauce, and a filet mignon.” Also, Dorothy interrupting a Rose story with the promise: “I’m going to cut out your tongue.”
“Henny Penny Straight, No Chaser” (S6, E26) — “Help. The outlook is drear.” Great capper too, with Blanche being unable to get totally out of character.
Top 5 Worst Episodes
01. “Fiddler on the Ropes,” a.k.a. “Hath Not a Cuban Eyes?” Gag me with a boxing glove.
02. Any episode dealing with Stan and Dorothy’s slummy apartment complex they ran together toward the end of the run.
03. “The Days and Nights of Sophia Petrillo,” a.k.a. the one where the writers just stuffed all their unused stories and sketches into an otherwise wheel-spinning mess of an episode.
04. “Mister Terrific,” a.k.a. the one that I believe actually references a Maude episode, but is still tonally awkward and has some of the sloppiest blocking ever (the sequence on the ledge, which is problematic enough even without the amateurish blocking).
05. “Questions and Answers,” a.k.a. the one where Jeopardy tells Dorothy that America would hate her. Yeah, I’m sure that’s why the show was among the top-rated in America for the first six seasons.
Honorable Mention: “Ladies of the Night,” a.k.a. the one where Sophia leaves the three of them in jail and Burt Reynolds stands still for about a minute while the audience goes nuts for no apparent reason.