In glancing at tomorrow’s new DVD releases, one title jumped out as being worthy of our little spotlight: yes, tomorrow marks the unveiling of Designing Women: The Final Season . Not that the ’92-’93 year was one of their best — it did feature the third and decidedly lesser version of the cast (Delta Burke and Jean Smart 4eva) and the writers were kind of running on fumes. Still, mediocre Designing Women is better than none at all; this was, after all, one of the best female ensemble shows in TV history. We nearly called it the best, and then realized what a tall claim that is. In contrast to the moving pictures, where you can barely find two important women’s roles in the same movie, television is full of crackerjack female ensembles; we’ve assembled our ten favorites after the jump, and if you’re the kind of person who thinks Sex and the City will be on it, you should prepare yourself for disappointment now.
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s humdinger of a sitcom ran seven seasons, from 1986 to 1993, and carved out its own niche as an improbable but effective mixture of spiky attitude and Southern charm. Dixie Carter, Delta Burke, Annie Potts, and Jean Smart may not have gotten along smoothly off-camera, but their distinctive, well-defined personas bounced off of each other beautifully, spicing up the already tart dialogue provided by Bloodworth-Thomason and her writing staff. The last two seasons, with Burke and Smart replaced by Jan Hooks, Julia Duffy, and Judith Ivey, suffered from the loss of the OG (ODW?) cast, but when this show was on, it was hard to beat.
The Golden Girls
A year before Designing Women, another four-woman sitcom made a splash, albeit one with a slightly older quartet at its core. NBC’s The Golden Girls (which ran seven years, plus an additional season in spin-off form) featured Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty as a quartet of Miami retirees. The types were broad — the dingbat, the seductress, the crank, and the straight woman — but the pitch-perfect cast played them with gusto, and the tight scripts (by creator Susan Harris and a writing staff that included future Arrested Development creator Mitchell Hurwitz, Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry, Modern Family co-creator Christopher Lloyd, and Tom Whedon — Joss’s dad) were like joke machines that kept on cranking.
Arguing about Girls was one of our favorite spring pastimes, but now that the dust has settled on season one, it would be nice to think that the vocal critics of its supposed nepotism, narcissism, and racism could at least join us fans in admitting that it centered on four uncommonly interesting and funny performers. Lena Dunham’s self-effacing weirdness only grows more endearing, Alison Williams is fascinatingly unpeeling Marnie’s insecurities and edge, and Zosia Mamet has turned out to be the show’s secret comedy weapon. Okay, Jemima Kirke’s Jessa is still a little fuzzy. But hey, they’re one season in, for heaven’s sake.
What’s that? Too soon? Our crowning of a show that’s only aired four times thus far is perhaps a tad premature? But they’re all so good: Sutton Foster’s snappy delivery is perfection, Kelly Bishop is, well, Kelly Bishop (which is to say, great), and there are already some interesting dynamics happening within the four dancers (well-played by Kaitlyn Jenkins, Bailey Buntain, Emma Dumont, and Julia Goldani Telles). Fine, fine. It’s too soon. Instead, we’ll stick with…
…Bunheads co-creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s breakthrough series, the charming, smart, and riotously funny story of a once-teen mom and her now-teen daughter making their way in the sleepy town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut. The show had its share of male characters (and well-written ones to boot), but its heart lie in examining the complicated relationships between mother and daughter Lorelai (the inimitable Lauren Graham) and Rory (Alexis Bledel, the charmer), between Lorelai and her mother, rich socialite Emily (the great Kelly Bishop, again), and between Lorelai and Rory and their best friends, Sookie (a pre-Bridesmaids Melissa McCarthy) and Lane (Keiko Agena). It’s a terrific show, and one that stands up to repeat viewings — as long as you steer clear of its unfortunate, Sherman-Palladino-free final season (shades of Designing Women).
Fox’s five-season sitcom marked Queen Latifah’s transition from musician to actor, but that’s not the only reason to value it; back when the network saw a way to establish an audience by appealing to the underserved African-American demo via shows like In Living Color, Roc, and Martin, it a big deal for a show to center on one black woman, to say nothing of four of them. Stars Latifah, Kim Coles, Erika Alexander, and Kim Fields fell basically into the character types established by other four-handers like Designing Women and The Golden Girls, but established an easygoing chemistry and a unique style for their groundbreaking program.
It’s easy to forget that when Marc Cherry’s comedy/drama premiered way back in 2004, it was a smart and sexy satire of soap operas; later, it just became one, and then became a parody of itself. Still, even when the wheels fell off the wagon, the show’s terrific cast — Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, Marcia Cross, and Eva Longoria—brought their A-game, and some of those later episodes did offer some (admittedly guilty) pleasure.
The Facts of Life
Y’know, you take the good, you take the bad, etc. In the case of this venerable sitcom, we must insist that “the good” was the season two through six cast: Lisa Whelchel as Blair, Nancy McKeon as Jo, Mindy Cohn as Natalie, Kim Fields as Tootie, and (of course) Charlotte Rae as Mrs. Garrett. And, yes, even those years haven’t held up particularly well. But The Facts of Life is comfort food for us ’80s kids, and we knew those girls like they were our own classmates.
Much like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which it bore a more-than-passing resemblance to), this eight-season supernatural series was less about monsters and more about relationships and sharp, funky dialogue. Cast members Holly Marie Combs, Alyssa Milano, and (first) Shannen Doherty and (later) Rose McGowan delivered on the show’s base premise — eye candy witches! — but also made room for the show’s subtler themes of sisterhood and sibling rivalry.
The Ellen Burstyn Show
Apologies for pulling out an all-but-unknown here, but your film editor is still mad, a quarter century after the fact, at ABC for pulling the plug on this warm and funny sitcom after a mere 13 episodes. Why did they do so? We’re gonna go ahead and blame it on Lucy: the network slotted Burstyn to air in the slot following Lucille Ball’s much-ballyhooed, then much-loathed return to network television, Life with Lucy, and that show was so toxic, viewers didn’t stick around. They would have found a delightful series that cast Burstyn as a university professor sharing a home with her mother (shades of Golden Girls!), her daughter, and her young grandson. Easy premise, sure, but the cast was unbeatable: in addition to its Oscar-winning lead, it had the untouchable Elaine Stritch as her mom and a young Megan Mullally as her daughter. In spite of that great cast, its abbreviated run and relative obscurity means you can’t find it anywhere — not on DVD, barely on YouTube — so you’re just going to have to take my word on this one.
Those are our favorite female TV ensembles — what are yours?