‘Women’ Keeps Grand Design in Perspective : Television: Delta Burke, Jean Smart are gone but not forgotten as ‘Designing Women’ begins the fall season with an hourlong episode--and two new faces.
The opening sequence for this season’s revamped “Designing Women” says it all: The camera pulls back on a spare, ultramodern, white set with no furnishings save a grand piano, where Ray Charles is singing “Georgia on My Mind.” Four women in brilliant, single-shade evening gowns and a man in a tuxedo rest against the piano, their clothes providing the only spots of color as Charles sings.
There is no trace of Delta Burke or, perhaps more significantly, the languid voluptuousness represented by Suzanne Sugarbaker, the character Burke played until being fired after a well-publicized falling out with the show’s creator, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, and her husband, producer-director Harry Thomason. Five years into its run, this “Designing Women” is going to be “New South,” as the region’s highly educated, skyscraper-surrounded intelligentsia calls itself.
With Julia Duffy, formerly of “Newhart” and “Baby Talk,” and Jan Hooks, a five-year veteran of “Saturday Night Live,” replacing Burke and Jean Smart, who is leaving the show to spend more time with her family, half of the popular program’s female cast has been replaced.
And while actress Dixie Carter’s metaphor for the ensemble as a musical quartet, with each woman representing a different instrument, still holds--she describes the four as cello, viola, violin and flute, with the sharp-edged character of Suzanne previously representing the flute--the music looks to be a little louder this year, with the parts somewhat more distinct.
Duffy, who as the departed Suzanne’s cousin Allison Sugarbaker is an overbearing, over-educated newcomer bent on controlling the Atlanta design firm run by the four women, plays a more shrill flute than the caustic but languid Burke. And Hooks--who plays Karlene, the younger sister of Smart’s departing character of Charlene--portrays a character who is even less sophisticated than the one she replaces, giving her viola a louder and slightly different counterpoint to the rest of the group.
If the new players work out--they get their first test in an hourlong episode at 10 tonight--it could mean renewed success for the CBS series, whose cast remains anchored by Carter as Julia, the older and wiser Sugarbaker sister, Annie Potts as designer Mary Jo and Meshach Taylor as former deliveryman and now part-owner Anthony.
But if the music is off, “Designing Women” risks a great deal: Popular not only as a first-run series on CBS but in syndicated reruns as well, the program’s boisterous run could end with little more than a whimper.
Creator Bloodworth-Thomason, who wrote most of its first 60 episodes, said that her aim is for the redesigned women to carry on much like their predecessors.
“ ‘Designing Women’ is going to basically remain the show it has always been,” Bloodworth-Thomason said. “The people who have left, although their characters will be missed, their voices will still be heard.”
For example, she said, the cast will discuss the character of Suzanne, who, according to the script, has gone to Japan, and her eccentricities will continue to affect the action in her absence. And Smart, who will appear in tonight’s season opener before her character departs for London, may reappear occasionally as the season progresses.
In addition, Bloodworth-Thomason said that the new players will carry on in the comedic veins forged by Smart and Burke.
“There are certain characteristics that Suzanne Sugarbaker had that her cousin, Allison Sugarbaker, will also have,” she said. “I had to have that vain, selfish voice as a foil for the other women. And I purposely had Charlene’s sister, to whom she’s very close, move there, so (Karlene) is just a more outrageous Charlene.”
The new season will focus more on comedic interaction among the four women and Anthony than on the issues that have marked some of the program’s earlier years, Bloodworth-Thomason said, partly in order to integrate the new characters and partly because the show’s executive producer, Pamela Norris, has been concentrating more on entertainment than issues.
According to Norris, who for the last year has run “Designing Women” so that the Thomasons can spend more of their time working on “Evening Shade,” which they also produce for CBS, viewers will see mounting tension between Allison and the rest of the cast. As the season progresses, Norris said, Allison will visit a psychiatrist in Atlanta who will diagnose her with “Obnoxious Personality Disorder,” a fictional ailment that Allison will use as a crutch for her unpleasant behavior.
Julia, the Dixie Carter character, will begin to date in the wake of the death of her longtime beau, played by Carter’s real-life husband Hal Holbrook. (Holbrook left the series for a regular role on “Evening Shade.”)
Mary Jo will try to conceive a child through artificial insemination, and Karlene will attempt to adjust to life after Poplar Bluff, Mo., where she left behind a former husband who was “the No. 1 import-export auto dealer in all of Southern Missouri.”
But Taylor, whose character of Anthony has progressed from his earliest days as an ex-convict deliveryman to a part owner of the business and a law student, said that the biggest changes on “Designing Women” will be behind the scenes.
“The most significant difference is the lack of pressure on the set,” Taylor said. “Because of what was going on in the press and the problems our producers and Delta were having with each other, it was very tense all the time. This year, with the new people and the lack of tension, it’s making it a lot easier to get to the funny stuff.”
It’s been nearly two years since the tension between Burke and the Thomasons exploded into the news media and onto the set. Before she was fired at the Thomasons’ behest last spring, the feud had become so much a part of the show’s daily life that, according to Bloodworth-Thomason, Burke more than once made her entrance at tapings with her fist raised to the studio audience in an aggressive salute.
By last spring, the situation had erupted into all-out war, with CBS backing the Thomasons, who were trying to fire Burke, and the studio, Columbia Pictures Television, behind Burke. According to sources, the studio tried to fire the Thomasons, cutting their salaries in half while they were on vacation and replacing Norris with “Anything but Love” producer Janis Hirsch. But when the Thomasons refused to leave--reportedly saying that they would work for nothing--and the network backed them, it was Burke who was given the boot.
According to her agent, Martin Hurwitz, Burke learned that she was being let go only after a publicist on the set of “Love and Curses,” a television movie that the actress was filming with husband Gerald McRaney, was overheard gossiping about it. Burke declined to be interviewed for this story.
For the most part, the cast was reluctant to talk about the past year and the traumatic rancor between the Thomasons and Burke.
“If life has taught me anything, it has taught me to embrace change, whether it looks very appealing at the time or not,” Potts said.
“It was particularly hard for me, and, of course, for Linda (Bloodworth-Thomason),” said Carter.
Bloodworth-Thomason, Carter said, who had been accused by Burke of being cruel to her on the job, “is a good woman. She and Harry are extremely generous and thoughtful people in ways that are not designed to show and that most people don’t even know about.”
The couple are putting young women from Arkansas and Missouri through college through a nonprofit foundation, and have paid for hospital bills and airplane tickets home for employees who were short on funds, she said.
Taylor maintains that “everyone came out of (the turmoil) basically with what they wanted.”
“Delta wanted her own show, and now she has a great contract with Universal to develop that show,” he explained. “And Harry and Linda wanted back to be able to have control of the show they created, and they have that. Jean (Smart) wanted to spend more time with her baby and she’s been able to do that.
“So my whole take on the whole thing from last year is that nobody died, and everybody got what they wanted in the end. You have to go through changes to get what you want anyway.”