"Designing Women," which premieres tonight at 9:30 on Channel 9, is the only new CBS show predicted by ad agencies and other industry forecasters to be a potential hit. Interviewed in the new Channels magazine, CBS chief programmer Kim LeMasters says, "The CBS show I feel strongest about is 'Designing Women.' I think it's wildly funny and different in tone."
Different in tone, yes. Funny, yes. Wildly funny, no. The best lines have already been quoted in clips and promos: "Suzanne, if sex were fast food, there'd be an arch over your bed." The designers of the title are four single women (one has been divorced three times) operating an interior decorating business out of an Atlanta town house and convening regularly for dissertations on men, women, sex and survival.
The premiere, written by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason -- coexecutive producer with her husband Harry Thomason -- has plenty of crackle and snap, but lacks heart, something the show's obvious model, "The Golden Girls," does have. As an addition to pop literature about women in groups, "Designing Women" appears more derivative than innovative, but being derivative hardly ever hurts in prime-time television.
One problem is that while Dixie Carter, as lusty and waspish Julia Sugarbaker, is a large, distinctive, formidable comic character (she has a withering stare and a leveling voice, or maybe it's the other way around), her three partners verge on the indistinguishable. On the premiere, the joke lines given one might as well have been given another.
Even Julia's character is perhaps more stereotype than invention, but at least that's acknowledged in the show. "You know, Julia, you remind me more and more of Bette Davis every day," says Jean Smart as Charlene. "I know," Julia says. "I remind everyone of those big-shouldered broads."
The quartet is completed by Delta Burke as Julia's younger sister Suzanne, and Annie Potts as Mary Jo Shively, the relative innocent of the group. In the plot tonight, Suzanne decides to date Mary Jo's ex-husband. This gives Potts the funniest and sharpest scene on the show, when she confronts her ex with this development.
She is trying to make a great show of being civilized and sophisticated, but when she says, "Comme say, comme ca," and her ex-husband notes, "I think that's comme ci, comme ca," she snaps, "How DARE you correct me?" And all happy hell breaks loose. Potts is delightful.
Otherwise, the humor on the premiere is self-consciously racy. A reference to "one of those electric personal massage deals" obviously means a vibrator; a nurse is described as having "life-threatening breasts"; and Julia tells a man that she'd like to have his "little wahoo mounted and hung" over her fireplace.
When Suzanne says of a doctor, "He can't retire -- he's been my gynecologist for years," Julia cracks, "Let him go; he's paid his dues."
Smarting from advance criticism about the slightly smutty tone, CBS offered the second episode of "Designing Women," which airs next week, to be previewed with the premiere. Here the ribaldry is subdued and more attention paid to character development.
There is a long discussion of sexual exploitation and when the subject gets to "spread-eagled" models in girlie mags, Carter as Julia brings up Hugh Hefner and wonders aloud, "How come we haven't seen his little wahoo with a staple in the middle?" Apparently "little wahoo" will be a continuing refrain, if not indeed a theme, of the series.