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Designing Women

Designing Women

Category: Sitcom

Created By: Linda Bloodworth-Thomason

Stars: Delta Burke (1986-1991), Dixie Carter, Annie Potts, Jean Smart (1986-1991), Meshach Taylor (Mr. Right on Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide), Julia Duffy (1991-1992)(also seen on The Bob Newhart Show), Jan Hooks (1991-1993), Judith Ivey (1992-1993)

Country of Origin: United States

Number of Seasons: 7

Number of Episodes: 163

Producers: Bloodworth-Thomason and Mozark Productions

Associate Producers: Columbia Pictures Television, Columbia TriStar Television, and Sony Pictures Television

Original Channel: CBS

Original Run: September 29, 1986 to May 24, 1993

Followed By: Women of the House

Designing Women was an American television sitcom that centered around the working and personal lives of four women in an interior design firm in Atlanta, Georgia. It aired on the CBS Television network from September 29, 1986 until May 24, 1993. The show was created by writer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who wrote many of the episodes in the show's initial seasons.

Designing Women Premise

Sisters Julia Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter) and Suzanne Sugarbaker (Delta Burke) are polar opposites. Julia is an elegant, outspoken liberal intellectual; Suzanne is a rich, flashy, often self-centered former beauty queen and Miss Georgia World. They are constantly at personal odds but have launched Sugarbaker Designs, an interior design firm. Julia manages the company while Suzanne is mostly a financial backer who simply hangs around and annoys everyone under the guise of being the firm's salesperson.

The pragmatic designer Mary Jo Shively (Annie Potts), and the sweet-natured but somewhat ditzy office manager Charlene Frazier Stillfield (Jean Smart) were initial investors. Later in the series, another staff member, Anthony Bouvier (Meshach Taylor), became a partner. Anthony was a former prison inmate and the only man on staff. (The story behind Anthony's prison sentence was not told until the third season, at which point it was revealed that Anthony was falsely accused and convicted of a robbery, but was released after being cleared of the crime.) Bernice Clifton, an absent-minded friend of the Sugarbaker sisters' mother played by Alice Ghostley, also appeared frequently.

Designing Women Cast departures

Designing Women changed premise in seasons six and seven, when Delta Burke's character of Suzanne moved to Japan and sold her part of the design business to her wealthy cousin Allison Sugarbaker (Julia Duffy). At the same time, Jean Smart chose to leave the show and was replaced by Jan Hooks as Carlene Dobber; Smart's character, Charlene, moved to England where her husband was stationed and her sister, Carlene, took over her job. The character of Carlene was very similar to Charlene; however, Allison was a prim and proper conservative who provided a bossy foil to the liberal Julia. Despite series-high ratings, the changes were critically panned and many felt that at that point the series had "jumped the shark". The Allison character was unpopular with audiences and Duffy was let go at the end of the season.

The final season of Designing Women featured Judith Ivey as Bonnie Jean "B.J." Poteet, a rich Texas widow who invested some of her millions in the business (the role was initially offered to Bonnie Hunt, who turned it down). Ivey's presence brought a new and well-rounded element of intelligence and humor to the show. BJ was presented as a friend of Julia and unlike the other cast members, was completely capable of standing up to Julia. However, these replacements could not stop the ratings slide which caused CBS to cancel the series in 1993. (CBS' decision during the 1992-93 season to move the show from its previously successful Monday night timeslot, following Murphy Brown, to Friday nights was said to also play a role in the ratings decline.) The series received no formal series finale, concluding with an hour-long special in which the principal characters, while redecorating a Plantation House, envision what their lives would have been like if they had been characters in Gone with the Wind.

Annie Potts announced in 1993 that she would leave Designing Women after the seventh season. However, this turned out to be the show's last season, so there was no need for her character to be replaced.

Cancellation and timeline of events

The show was a reunion of sorts for several members of the cast and crew. Burke and Carter had both been members of the short-lived CBS sitcom Filthy Rich, which was written by Bloodworth-Thomason. Meanwhile, Potts and Smart had appeared in a pilot for ABC in the prior season.

When the show debuted in CBS's Monday night lineup in 1986, it garnered respectable ratings; however, CBS moved the show several times to other time slots. After dismal ratings in a Sunday night time slot, CBS was ready to cancel the show, but a viewer campaign saved the show and returned it to its Monday night slot. The show's ratings solidified, and it regularly landed in the top 20 rankings. 

The theme song of the program was "Georgia on My Mind". During the first five seasons, the theme was instrumental including a version by trumpeter Doc Severinsen; for the sixth season it was performed vocally by Ray Charles. The song was dropped in the seventh season and the credits rolled over the actual episode instead, following the industry trend at the time.

The exterior of the house seen in the series as the location of the Sugarbaker design firm is the Villa Marre, a Victorian mansion located in the historic Quapaw Quarter district in Little Rock, Arkansas. Additionally, the exterior of the home of Suzanne Sugarbaker seen in the series is the Arkansas Governor's Mansion, also in the Quapaw Quarter. Both homes are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Designing Women Framework and content

The plot played the four principal characters against each other, and frequent visitors Anthony (in initial seasons; he later became a regular cast member) and Bernice, as they dealt with a professional or personal crises.

Although it was a traditional comedy, and often included broad physical comedy, Designing Women was very topical (particularly in episodes written by Bloodworth-Thomason herself), and featured discussions of controversial topics such as homosexuality, racism, dating clergy, hostile societal attitudes towards the overweight, and spousal abuse.

The program became noted for the monologues delivered by Julia in indignation to other characters, a character trait that began in the second episode, when Julia verbally castigated a beauty queen who had made fun of Suzanne. That speech, which Julia ends by emphatically saying, "And that....was the night....the lights....went out.....in Georgia!" became a fan favorite. (In the reunion special for the show, the cast remarked that the speech is often recited word for word in gay clubs and bars.) Dixie Carter, a registered Republican, disagreed with many of her character's left-of-center commentaries, and made a deal with the producers that for every speech she gave, Julia would get to sing a song in a future episode.

There was great controversy surrounding the show in 1991 because of the abrupt dismissal of Burke, a pivotal part of the series. Burke was fired, and alleged that her dismissal was due to her having gained a substantial amount of weight, while producers claimed that Burke was let go due to her "argumentative" behavior and for creating discord on the set. The ensuing squabbling was covered amply in the tabloid press, but despite that, the show reached its pinnacle of popularity that year (the year-end Nielsen ratings ranked Designing Women as the number 6 show). It fell out of the top twenty next year and the show concluded its seven-year run.

Delta Burke reunited with the Thomasons and CBS to reprise the Suzanne Sugarbaker character for a short-lived 1996 sitcom, Women of the House, in which Suzanne's latest husband died and she won his seat in Congress.

Designing Women Episodes

Episode list

Key episodes

The Beauty Contest (Season 1)

Killing All the Right People (Season 2)

The Rowdy Girls (Season 4)

They Shoot Fat Women, Don't They? (Season 4)

Political views

Show creators Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason were strong supporters of longtime friend and then-Democratic nominee for President of the United States, Bill Clinton. One episode revolved around Julia getting stranded in the airport while attempting to attend Clinton's first inauguration. Additionally Charlene mentioned working for Clinton during his Arkansas governorship. Yet another Clintons-related joke was the introduction of the prissy character, Allison Sugarbaker, who makes it quite clear to rest of the Designing Women cast that she attended Wellesley College (Hillary Clinton's alma mater).

Julia also expresses her admiration for former president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalyn, and is very upset in one episode when her service for jury duty prevents her from attending a function for Habitat for Humanity at which the Carters were to appear. She is later very flattered to discover that the Carters have sent her a videotape that they made specifically to thank her for her support of Habitat.

Other appearances

From 1991 to 1992, CBS aired reruns of Designing Women on its daytime schedule at 10 a.m. (EST). Designing Women was rerun continuously on the Lifetime cable network for over a decade.

The ratings were so strong that finally in 2003, Lifetime reunited Burke, Potts, Smart, Carter and Taylor for a retrospective special, Designing Women Reunion, in which they shared memories from their time on the series, and also featured interviews with the Thomasons and various writers. However, despite its popularity on Lifetime's schedule, the show left the network on August 4, 2006. The series started on October 2, 2006, on Nick at Nite and has since moved to TV Land. The series also aired on ION Television, Mon-Thurs at 7:00 & 7:30 p.m. ET. [1]

Burke and Carter later reunited when Burke guest starred on Carter's subsequent series, Family Law in 2002. Burke also did a guest spot on Annie Potts' subsequent series, Any Day Now.


A number of changes to Julia Sugarbaker's house were seen over the years. During the pilot, the entry foyer had a closet and the main stairway was separate; in subsequent episodes, the closet was eliminated, and the stairway opened up onto the foyer. The door behind the kitchenette to the left of the set was sometimes described as leading only to a store room, and at other times, was said to lead to the storeroom, as well as Julia's kitchen and dining room. (The dining room was shown in a couple of episodes.)

During the pilot, Julia, Suzanne and Charlene addressed Mary Jo as "Jo", but for the rest of the series, they called her "Mary Jo".

Sugarbaker was presumably Julia's maiden name (as it was also Suzanne's name), though she was often incorrectly addressed as "Mrs. Sugarbaker". (Women retaining their maiden names are generally addressed as Miss or Ms, regardless of their marital status.)

Opening Credits

During the first two seasons, photos of the four principals were shown along with groupings of items that depicted their characters (Suzanne's beauty crown and pageant clippings, Julia's elegant Wedgewood tea set and a photo of her son; a photo of Mary Jo's children, and her interior design sketches; Charlene's adding machine, her cat and a publicity photo of Elvis). Music was an instrumental of "Georgia on My Mind", performed by Doc Severinsen. (Meshach Taylor was not credited as a regular cast member, only appearing in the closing credits of episodes in which he appeared.)

Seasons three, four, and five also featured a Doc Severinsen recording of "Georgia on My Mind", though a jazzier version than the previous recording. Glitzy head shots of the actors were used, with Mechach Taylor appearing as a regular cast member. Season six (the first season without Burke and Smart) featured the cast members, elegantly dressed, gathered around a piano, as Ray Charles performed "Georgia on My Mind".

During season seven, the opening credits were eliminated, with just a few bars of "Georgia on My Mind" playing, as "Designing Women" and the names of the actors quickly scrolled across the bottom of the screen at the beginning of the first scene.

Designing Women Casting

Main cast

Dixie Carter as Julia Sugarbaker McElroy

Delta Burke as Suzanne Sugarbaker Goff Dent Stonecipher (Seasons 1-5)

Annie Potts as Mary Jo Jackson Shively

Jean Smart as Charlene Olivia Frazier Stillfield (Seasons 1-5)

Meshach Taylor as Anthony Bouvier

Julia Duffy as Allison Sugarbaker (Season 6)

Jan Hooks as Carlene Frazier Dobber (Seasons 6-7)

Judith Ivey as Bonnie Jean "B.J." Poteet (Season 7) Recurring cast

Alice Ghostley as Bernice Clifton

Hal Holbrook as Atty. Reese Watson (Julia's boyfriend, Seasons 1-5)

Richard Gilliland as James Dean 'J.D.' Shackelford (Mary Jo's on-again off-again boyfriend, Seasons 1-5)

Douglas Barr as Colonel William 'Bill' Stillfield (Charlene's boyfriend and later husband, Seasons 2-5)

Sheryl Lee Ralph as Etienne Toussaint-Bouvier (Anthony's wife, Season 7)

Priscilla Weems as Claudia Marie Shively (Mary Jo's daughter)

Brian Lando as Quinton 'Quint' Shively (Mary Jo's son)

Scott Bakula as Dr. Theodore 'Ted' Shively (Mary Jo's ex-husband, Seasons 1-3)

George Newbern as Payne McElroy (Julia's son, Seasons 1-2; 4; 6)

Olivia Brown as Vanessa Hargraves (Anthony's on & off-again girlfriend, Season 4)

Notable guest stars

Dolly Parton guest starred as herself, appearing in Charlene's dream as her Guardian Movie Star, in a double episode that aired January 1, 1990, entitled "The First Day of the Last Decade of the Entire Twentieth Century."

Gerald McRaney (also seen on Major Dad) made a couple of appearances playing Suzanne's ex-husband, novelist Dash Goff. (He and Delta Burke would subsequently marry.)

Sherman Hemsley and Della Reese portrayed the Toussaints (Anthony's in-laws) in a 1993 episode.

Kim Zimmer played Charlene's cousin Mavis Madling, who was a victim of spousal abuse in the episode "The Rowdy Girls".



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