For gays of a certain age, a flute-dominated theme song, soaring shots of Miami Beach and a sea of tropical floral prints used liberally for both upholstery and apparel meant just one thing: The Golden Girls was on. The NBC sitcom initially seemed like an unlikely hit, considering the premise — four female semi-retirees move in together to share a house in Southern Florida — but with a powerhouse cast, singular writing and a fearlessness when it came to discussing subjects otherwise taboo on television, The Golden Girls quickly became a critical and popular success.
Jim Colucci was a closeted teenager when the show came on the air in 1985, and like many other gay boys of his generation, he spent Saturday nights in front of the television waiting for the zingers so expertly thrown by cast mates Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, Betty White and Estelle Getty. Three decades later, Colucci has written what is likely to be the definitive record of the Emmy-winning comedy, Golden Girls Forever: An Unauthorized Look Behind the Lanai. Thanks to meticulous research and more than 100 interviews with the show’s creators, writers, producers, directors and actors, plus famous fans who help explain how The Golden Girls has influenced them, Colucci has put together a comprehensive history of a female-driven, gay-adjacent sitcom that still plays well today.
From the first few moments The Golden Girls aired, the sitcom revealed its connection to gay audiences, even if the show was created by a straight woman and written by mostly hetero men. “It had a really smart repartee,” Colucci explained, noting that the characters were so well defined that the dialogue often included drag queen-like reads, where four female leads routinely offered witty comebacks that had the audience rolling. “The library was always open on The Golden Girls,” he noted. “I always thought as a gay teen that was the world I wanted to live in. For one thing, just on the surface, the gay audience is always attracted to a great one liner. Plus I loved the fabulousness. They always looked flawless, with their hair and makeup looking spectacular even if they had gotten out of bed for a piece of cheesecake in the middle of the night. Now the styles may look outdated, but you can’t argue that they always looked head-to-toe flawless.”
The perceived notion that a gaggle of bitter gay comedy writers had to have been behind the dialogue and storylines is actually a myth. Colucci learned from Marc Cherry, a gay man who wrote on the show’s fifth season with his fellow gay writer Jamie Wooten, that the expectation was the show’s writers room must be some huge queer party. But Cherry (who went on to create Desperate Housewives and Devious Maids) came onto the show to find a bunch of straight guys coming up with lines for slutty Blanche, wisecracking Sophia, ditzy Rose and the queen of all comebacks and asides, the cynical Dorothy. Cherry, who told Colucci he initially thought he had walked into the wrong writers room, realized there was some special magic, because when Bea Arthur as Dorothy says a line written by some straight guy, “it comes out gay.”
In terms of heavy subject matter, The Golden Girls had the ability to cover topics that no other show on at the time could discuss so frankly. When it came to homosexuality, aging, dating, sex and AIDS, there was seemingly nothing The Golden Girls couldn’t say. It’s shocking to think that even though the AIDS crisis began in 1981, The Golden Girls”was only the second sitcom on US television to tackle the disease when it featured an AIDS-related storyline in 1990 (the first was the equally fabulous and outrageous Designing Women).
“The show was very, very progressive,” Colucci explained. “Writers on the show have told me they had a special license and duty to tackle issues America needed to hear, but no one had the balls to do it. They had found that for some reason audiences are more willing to accept more risqué dialogue from an older lady. As a successful show, they were allowed to get away with things, but I think even the more conservative viewers were probably more receptive to the messages coming through. So I think that if another show had tried to preach at Middle America, audiences would have balked. But because it was their beloved Golden Girls, the message got through.”
The Golden Girls also avoided the 1980s’ “a very special episode” trope, where sitcoms often laid out heavy-handed bromides on some serious subject, only to lose all sense of humor about itself and be little more than a half-hour long public service announcement. “I think some shows that took on issues did it in such a topical way that they now come off as period pieces,” Colucci explained. “Despite the ’80s clothes, they presented issues based in their characters and not as something going on in the world, so they made it timeless.” The character Blanche was given a gay brother, but Colucci argues the brother’s story was always made to be about his relationship to his sister, so any discussion came from a very organic place already deep in the show. “They kept it within the family,” he said.
For Colucci, beyond the biting humor and timely discussion of important issues, there was an underlying sense of self about the characters that he feels still resonates with many LGBT people today (besides being available on-demand, episodes are regularly scheduled on three cable networks, including Logo, where the show brings in solid and younger-skewing ratings). “There is this idea that you won’t grow old alone, and just like gay people, who often build their own surrogate families, so did the girls,” he explained. “Here were the four of them, who chose to be together as a family, and they were going to stick through it. They were in one house, where it was safe, it’s always fun, and you could always be fabulous.”