"The Golden Girls" has a delicious case of bad manners. NBC's new situation comedy, premiering at 9 tonight on Channel 4, seems certain to take honors, such as they are, as the funniest program of the new season. The reason it works so well is that performers and script are ideally matched; they join forces to obliterate resistance.
Zingers and stingers are delivered not just ferociously but also lovingly by an awesome quartet: four women liberated the hard way. Two are divorced, one is widowed and one is inexplicably on the loose (like a toxic leak), and they are played with almost brutal bravado by the towering Beatrice Arthur (as a teacher divorced after 38 years of marriage), Betty White (as a dizzy divorced "grief counselor"), Rue McClanahan (a too eagerly romantic widow) and Estelle Getty (as Arthur's proudly cantankerous mother).
Almost at once you tend to root for them, in part because encountering characters of advanced years on a TV sitcom is ipso facto refreshing, but also because four women living together in Miami deserve every break they can get. This is sitcom coping at its most polished, shined up by Susan Harris, creator of "Soap," and produced by old "Soap" hands Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas. This show is much better than "Soap" because the characters have human dimension. They aren't just snide cartoons.
Arthur's bull's-eye punch line delivery is as good as anyone's in this area since Eve Arden. The chief lament of her circumstances, she notes early in the premiere, is that in Miami, "all the single men under 80 are cocaine smugglers." The character played by Betty White has been made unnecessarily fog-brained, but White gives the part all the spacey dignity she can muster. McClanahan is essentially straight lady to the others.
Getty's deadpan stands out in the hyperbolic surroundings, and her character seems the most cherishable, if only because we expect old ladies to be devastatingly blunt. A stroke has destroyed "the part of her brain that censors what she says," McClanahan is called upon to explain -- a totally unnecessary justification for Getty's acidic nifties.
Harris is shameless. She'll stoop to bathroom humor in a minute, but as rattled off by Getty, even these references have an authentic earthiness. A homosexual housekeeper, prominent in the original pilot version of tonight's premiere, has been trimmed out of most of the action. This may be just as well, since token gay characters have become a Harris cliche' and she uses them in somewhat the way racial minorities were used in films of the 1930s and '40s. Still, there was something sweet in the Getty character's references to the fellow as "the fancy man."
Directed by the dean of sitcom directors, Jay Sandrich, the "Golden Girls" premiere is highly recommendable and incorrigibly funny. But the series faces practical problems. Saturday night is an unlikely night for an adult comedy (which this is -- at least, it's about adults), and the program is incompatible with all those that precede and follow it on NBC's schedule. Then, too, it appears unlikely that all possibilities inherent in the situation and characters for cheap laughs and crude gags will be disregarded.
Still, when McClanahan is called upon to dole out the eleventh-hour formula warmth tonight, and tells her friends, "You're my family, and you make me happy to be alive," even this hokey sentiment seems to wash. "Golden Girls" at least makes you happy to be alive in front of a television set, and that's not an accomplishment to be sneezed at. '227'
NBC has not provided an advance copy of tonight's "227" premiere (at 9:30 on Channel 4), but a look at the series pilot suggests this will be a humdrum sitcom without a clear sense of purpose, except to give Marla Gibbs an array of pompous targets to skewer. 227 is the street number of an apartment building in "a changing neighborhood" of Any City USA, and Gibbs plays one of the more outspoken tenants.
In the pilot, Gibbs and a close pal played by Alaine Reed tarried too long on the front stoop of the building watching the world go by but not getting much involved in it. Most of the insults were directed at Jackee Harry as Sandra, the building's resident gold-digging tease. Quips fall where they may, and on "227," most of them fall into the land of no return.