Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Me and Bea

It was bound to happen once: along about 1990, in a law school class, trying to make a point about domestic relations law, I riffed the line "I gave you the best years of my thighs."

And set off a minor firestorm, but it's not quite what you think. You think I'm saying "I got MauMaued by a bunch of humorless bitches," but it really wasn't like that at all. I said "firestorm," but I could better have said "crossfire." Anyway, the point is that for the next several days, the bulletin board (this was before Web 2.0) overflowed with pitch and catch, slash and grab, duck cover about the (in)appropriateness of what I said--men and women (for whatever it may be worth) on both sides. As I told one of my colleagues at the time, had I known I was going to set off such spirited discussion, I might have done it on purpose.

Eventjually somebody else committed some other outrage and life moved on. What brought it to mind just lately was one particular item from the bulletin board array, offered as if the ultimate game-breaker. That item was (I quote in full): "he got it from the Golden Girls!"

Translated, I take the writer was saying: anything so prepackaged, insipid, anodyne, as a line from a mainstream sitcom is certainly not off limits in a law school classroom.

The writer had his facts right: I did get it from the Golden Girls; I think it was Bea Arthur's Dorothy, which would be why it came back to mind in the week of Bea Arthur's death. It's not as if I was a regular watcher of the Golden Girls: I was not part of its prime demographic, after all. But you didn't have to be a regular watcher to get the drift. The setup was straightforward enough: four not-young women cope with each other and life. But what may have been more important was the content. I suspect the Golden Girls did as much as any one show to regularize the style of sitcom insult comedy.

Oh, sure, there had been insult shows before, not least Dorothy's comedic godfather, Archie Bunker. But these were ladies, after all--and apparently the point worth establishing this coming-out party was that ladies could be just as waspish, rude and dismissive as men.

Oddly enough, Troy Patterson at Slate picks on this most unfortunate characteristic as the pivot point for his nostalgic mash note: Golden Girls," he gushes, "boasted characters who were sharp in their humor and secure in their freedoms, which included the freedom to be mean."

Well, they were mean, all right. And I suppose I should be glad that they felt free to be so (just as an aside, I never much enjoyed Archie Bunker, either). But Patterson unintentionally boots the pins out from under his own argument by recalling what else was on TV in those days: Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, The Cosby Show and Cheers. I think almost any one would agree that every one of those shows offered writing (if not plot or character) that was more original, provocative and durable than what you saw in Golden Girls.

I don't suppose I would get all shirty on this point were I not looking back from the standpoint of 2009. The sad fact is that Golden Girls can be seen in retrospect as a harbinger--a show that had little to offer aside from insult, thus setting the path for a TV smorgasbord where the sitcom table is nothing but a mass-production insult machine.

I certainly don't want to savage Bea Arthur: she was an inimitable talent with a long and memorable career. With Maude and Dorothy, she created unforgettable characters, and changed the way we see ourselves. Too bad she (and, ahem, I guess "I") didn't have better material.

1 comment:

Toni said...

It's too bad that the Golden Girls type of sit-com won out over The Cosby Show type of sit-com, but I suppose insults are easier to write and so are a more cost-effective form of comedy when the networks make up their writers' budget.

I'd only add that I still think "I gave you the best years of my thighs" is damn funny even though, as a former dean of students at the aforementioned law school, these were the types of professorial comments that helped turn me prematurely gray as students would descend en masse to my office demanding that I right some imagined wrong, refusing to see any connection between thighs (or whatever the remark of the week was) and what came to be my most treasured defense: academic freedom.