'Golden Girls' legacy endures long after show

Published: Sunday, January 9, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 8, 2005 at 10:45 p.m.
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From left, Rue McClanahan, Betty White and Bea Arthur were stars of one of television's favorite comedy series, "The Golden Girls."

Compiling a list of the most influential sitcoms of the last two decades shouldn't be all that controversial a task.
Do ''Seinfeld'' and ''The Cosby Show'' deserve a place in the pantheon? Absolutely. Should ''Friends'' and ''Everybody Loves Raymond'' make the cut? Sure, why not.
But what about ''The Golden Girls''?
At first glance, a comedy about four sassy, silver-haired ladies living together in Miami would seem to be the antithesis of groundbreaking. The series, which ran on NBC from 1985 to 1992, has a new DVD out. The show was always a consistent crowd pleaser, never placing lower than 30th in the Nielsen ratings in any of its seven seasons, but it didn't yield any standout episodes or memorable catchphrases. Nor was it intended to.
''I've always just preferred to write about older people,'' says Susan Harris, creator of ''The Golden Girls.'' ''They have stories to tell, and young ones don't.''
But a review of the roster of talent that ''The Golden Girls'' cultivated tells a story of its own, one about a show with a more enduring and creative legacy than its subject might suggest - a series that has revealed itself to be a finishing school for some of the biggest talents working in television.
''I thought I was going to school every day,'' says Marc Cherry, the creator and executive producer of ABC's runaway hit ''Desperate Housewives,'' who wrote for ''The Golden Girls'' from 1990 to 1992. ''No one has ever enjoyed getting up and going to work as much as I did on that show.'' At 27, with just one previous television writing credit on his resume (a short-lived urban dramedy called ''Homeroom''), Cherry and his writing partner at the time, Jamie Wooten, were invited to write a free-lance ''Golden Girls'' episode by the show's producers. Though their sample script (a fantasy in which Dorothy dreams she visits heaven and hell) was never produced, it earned them staff positions on what was then Cherry's ''all-time favorite TV show.''
Other famous ''Golden Girls'' alums were attracted to the show by the studio behind it: Witt-Thomas-Harris Productions - formed by Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas and Harris - was a powerhouse of television in the '70s and '80s, and known as much for its pedigree of established hits (including ''Soap'' and ''Benson'') as for taking chances on young, untested talent.
''It was one of the great pleasures and fear-inducers of writing for television,'' says Christopher Lloyd, who was hired as a ''Golden Girls'' staff writer at 24, and who would go on to win five consecutive Emmys for outstanding comedy series as the executive producer of ''Frasier.'' ''When they'd say, 'We need a new scene here, you've got from now until midnight to write it,' that's scary and tragic if it stinks, and exhilarating if it works.''
Mitchell Hurwitz, the creator and executive producer of the Fox sitcom ''Arrested Development,'' was something of a golden boy at ''The Golden Girls,'' having joined the series as a production assistant when he was 23 and risen through its ranks to become a producer by 26. By then the show was in its concluding seasons, and writers felt that they had more freedom to experiment in their scripts - a freedom Hurwitz said he was eager to exercise when he wrote the show's final episode, in which Bea Arthur's Dorothy was married to a character played by Leslie Nielsen.
''I wrote a scene where we could hear their thoughts as they were getting married,'' Hurwitz recalls. ''She goes, 'I feel like he knows me so well, he can hear everything I'm thinking,' and then we cut to Leslie Nielsen, and he goes, 'Yes, Dorothy, I can.' I always felt like I compromised the end of the series with that one daft 'Police Squad!' joke.''
When ''The Golden Girls'' ended in 1992, Lloyd, Cherry and Hurwitz were hired to produce ''The Golden Palace,'' a ''Golden Girls'' spinoff for CBS in which Rose, Blanche and Sophia managed a hotel. The show was canceled after its first season. Hurwitz then worked on ephemera like ''The John Larroquette Show'' and ''Everything's Relative,'' while Cherry rotated through flops like ''The Five Mrs. Buchanans'' and a sitcom about flight attendants called ''The Crew.''
Through the years they each came to realize how they had been spoiled by the accomplishments of ''The Golden Girls'' and the strength of its cast, and that simply working on another network series wouldn't be enough to satisfy them: ''You have to have an idea,'' Cherry said, ''and the idea has to be something different, and you have to have something to say.''
As he enjoys just the second hit show of his career - another consistent Top 10 smash that, by the way, also happens to be about four strongly defined women - Cherry said he could now better appreciate what he regarded as the key to the success of ''The Golden Girls'': ''Find out which segment of the population is being underserved, and then come up with a show that not only they will like, but other people can click into.''
That philosophy, he said, influenced almost every element of ''Desperate Housewives,'' down to its title. ''Had I called the show 'Wisteria Lane,' we would not have the ratings we have,'' Cherry said. ''By calling it 'Desperate Housewives,' a whole lot of women went, 'Someone's writing something that may have to do with what I'm feeling.'''
While the connections between the lovingly ad-hoc clan of ''The Golden Girls'' and the hopelessly dysfunctional Bluth family of ''Arrested Development'' may not be as immediately apparent, Hurwitz said that ''The Golden Girls'' had a profound influence on his new series as well.
Witt, the executive producer of ''The Golden Girls,'' said he wasn't surprised that so many of his youthful hires grew up to become major players. (In addition to Cherry, Hurwitz and Lloyd, Tracy Gamble is the co-creator of the ABC sitcom ''8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter,'' Barry Fanaro wrote the screenplay for ''Men in Black II,'' and Mort Nathan was recently tapped by Fox to develop a military sitcom called ''Spirit of Freedom.'') ''They were driven almost to the point of obsession to get the show right,'' he said. ''There's a term in the industry, 'baby writers,' for guys who come on staff too soon without any experience, but that didn't apply to them.''
It certainly doesn't now: at a recent event honoring the DVD release of the first season of ''The Golden Girls,'' Cherry was reunited with the series' stars Arthur, Betty White and Rue McClanahan. ''Rue took my face in her hands,'' Cherry recalled, ''and she goes, 'Oh my God, you're middle-aged.' ''

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