With “Designing Women Live” opening this weekend at Onstage Atlanta, it’s as good an excuse as any to revisit some of the classic sitcom’s best episodes. Since singling one out as the best can be as dangerous as getting between Suzanne Sugarbaker and a mirror, here’s our Top Ten Essential Episodes for veteran fans and newbies, and reasons why (in order of appearance over seven seasons):
1. “Designing Women” (1986): The pilot episode that quickly established the characters (much married Suzanne met and quickly got engaged to plucky divorcee Mary Joe’s ex) and gave viewers a first taste of Julia’s soon-to-be-legendary “Terminator” speeches. Who can forget her evisceration of the toupeed lout who tried to pick them up during a meal: “And I want to thank you, Ray Don, on behalf of all the women in the world, for your unfailing attention and concern.”
2. “Old Spouses Never Die” (1987): An hourlong episode that took on the subject of breast cancer and, almost as significant, some doctors’ patronizing approach to women who dared to question their own treatment. When trusting-to-a-fault Charlene discovers a lump, her doctor dismisses her concerns and then drops her as a patient when the other women insist she get a second opinion. Another memorable Julia speech: “You’re a seemingly kind, benevolent authority figure who tells women to let you do their worrying for them. Well there’s just one thing wrong with that, Dr. Mitchell; you don’t have to do the dying.”
3. “Killing All the Right People” (1987): The first series to have an AIDS storyline, which was still a largely taboo topic on television. When a friend is diagnosed, he asks the devastated women to help plan his funeral; Mary Joe is subsequently emboldened to speak up at a PTA meeting in favor of educating teens on condom use: “We’re talking about preventing deaths. Twenty-five thousand Americans have died, and we’re still debating. Well, for me, the debate is over.” Bonus reason to watch: The friend with AIDS was played by guest star Tony Goldwyn, now better known as “Scandal’s” whiny President Fitzgerald Grant.
4. “Stranded” (1987): One of the first, always funny episodes involving an out-of-town design convention. This time three of the women fly ahead while Anthony and Suzanne follow in the van. When a blizzard forces them to share a motel room, the vain former beauty queen and the overly conscientious ex-con both let their guard down and a strange and beautiful friendship is born.
5. “Oh Brother” (1988): Julia and Suzanne’s rarely-mentioned half brother, Clayton, is released from a mental hospital and comes to Atlanta with dreams of becoming a standup comic. The family moments are poignant, the jokes are funny and best of all, Clayton is played by legendary Atlanta Journal columnist —and world’s most authentic Georgian — Lewis Grizzard.
5-1/2. “The Return of Ray Don” (1988): Not a deeply significant episode so much as a just plain funny one as the tables are turned on the “Terminator” for once. Suzanne’s accountant absconds with her money and the IRS impounds her home. Julia tries to intercede on her behalf with the only IRS man she knows: Ray Don. Turns out he has a long memory.
6. “How Great Thou Art” (1988): In this episode of one of the few sitcoms to regularly address the importance of religion in people’s lives, especially in the South, the minister at Charlene’s longtime church leads a rally against women being allowed to become ministers. It leads to a crisis of faith for Charlene, who asks the minister why God wouldn’t possibly want women to spend their lives preaching? “I don’t think we should question his wisdom” he says. Responds Charlene sadly, but resolutely: “I’m not. I’m questioning yours.”
7. “Getting Married and Eating Dirt: (1988): The plot hardly matters (wacky old Bernice temporarily goes Bridezilla). It’s the subplot that’s resonates with Southerners, specifically Julia’s scathing phone message for that very personification of Yankee evil, a New York Times editor. Horrified that the paper of record has printed an article perpetuating the myth that Southerners eat dirt, Julia reels off a 200-word tirade conceding locals eat barbecue, fried pies, okra and maybe “a Yankee or two for breakfast . . . but —- God as my witness – — we have never, I repeat, NEVER EATEN DIRT!!!”
8. The Rowdy Girls (1989): The “Designing Women Live” folks say this is one of the episodes they get the most requests for — most likely because it has a funny scene where the women perform as the Supremes at a charity show. Yet people may have forgotten about the more serious plot: Charlene’s cousin is married to a successful, seemingly loving man who turns out to be physically abusive. It was an early, refreshingly nonmelodramatic TV portrayal of what happens to someone caught in the cycle of domestic violence — and the people who try to help them escape.
9. They Shoot Fat Women Don’t They (1989): Ex-beauty queen Suzanne has gained a lot of weight when she shows up at her high school reunion and ends up being voted “Most Changed.” She knows it wasn’t meant kindly, but makes a speech that shows how much she’s grown as a person: “When I look around this room tonight, I don’t see receding hairlines and the beginnings of pot-bellies and crow’s feet……. I just see all the beautiful faces of old girlfriends and sweet young boys who used to stand on my front porch and try to kiss me goodnight. And you can remember me any way you’d like, but that’s how I’ll always remember you.”
10. Fore (1991): When the ultra-exclusive Beaumont Driving Club begs Anthony to join, he quickly figures out why: They’re using him in order to add one (figurehead) black member so the club can qualify as a stop on the PGA tour. Rather than get angry, he uses them back. When his invitation to a formal event never arrives, he shows up anyway, dances with the prettiest women and poses with other members for society column photos. It’s funny as hell and a clever take on racial stereotypes and segregation that still goes on sometime in “polite” society.