Everything good has to start somewhere, and for beloved TV shows, that usually means the pilot episode. Often written and filmed long before the rest of the series, and subject to tinkering by networks and creators before the show can continue, the TV pilot is a fascinating creature. Even more so when the show goes on to be a huge hit and continues for years, embedding itself in the cultural consciousness.
The fun thing about revisiting the pilots of long-running shows is in seeing which elements changed and evolved from the original concept, and which were present from the jump. In this new Primetimer feature, we'll look back at pilot episodes of some of the most culturally sticky TV shows in recent memory and see how their initial offerings hold up. First up:
THE SHOW: The Golden Girls
THE EPISODE: "Pilot" (a.k.a. "The Engagement")
AIR DATE: September 14, 1985
Rather than tell the origin story of how Blanche (Rue McClanahan), Rose (Betty White), and Dorothy (Bea Arthur) became roommates (that would be handled in the Season 1 finale/faux clip show "The Way We Met"), the Golden Girls pilot begins as the girls have already been living together, though two rather momentous events occur that threaten to shake up that arrangement, in good and less-good ways. First is that Dorothy's mother, Sophia (Estelle Getty) shows up, her retirement home (RIP, Shady Pines) having burned down. Then Sophia just sort of stays.
The development that really threatens to upset the applecart is when Blanche tells the girls that the man she's seeing (isn't she always) has proposed to her, and she's considering saying yes. Dorothy and especially Rose begin to worry what will happen to their living situation if Blanche gets hitched. It's not exactly the most suspenseful situation — the writers obviously aren't going to blow up the central premise in the very first episode — but it lets the show depict just how much this living arrangement means to its central characters, and it gives Dorothy plenty of frustrated moments with Rose as she tries to keep her from telling Blanche not to marry Harry.
In the end, Harry is revealed to be a bigamist (by guest star Meschach Taylor as the cop, a year before the premiere of Designing Women), and Blanche takes comfort in the friendship of her roommates.
As is the case with many TV pilots, The Golden Girls' pilot is thick with explicit nods to the show's theme of older women pressing on with their lives and seeking second chances at love, finding fulfillment in their jobs, and taking comfort in their friendships. As a result, this episode focuses more heavily and explicitly on their feelings about aging than the show would moving forward. Dorothy talks about trying to relate to her twentysomething co-workers only to be shocked by the old-lady reflection in her mirror (this leads to the episode's biggest laugh with the classic Rose line, "Who was it?").
Rose gets a monologue that pretty much lays out the show's theme as plainly as you could want: "It's not fair. We get married, we have kids, the kids leave, and our husbands die. Is that some kind of a test? You don't work that hard, you don't go through everything you go through to be left alone. We are alone, Dorothy, we really are. Our families are gone, and we're alone. And there are too many years left, and I don't know what to do." Sure, Sophia cuts into the sentiment by snapping "Get a poodle," but it's still the essence of The Golden Girls right there: these women whose life circumstances left them alone, banding together to help each other make the most of all those years they have left.
The four main characters are all essentially who they are: dim-but-sweet Rose, wise-but-caustic Dorothy, hot-to-trot Blanche. But their characters aren't quite refined yet. Blanche's southern accent isn't as pronounced as it will later become, for one thing. And while Dorothy's short fuse at Rose's meandering thought process is present, Arthur hadn't quite yet perfected the snap of Dorothy's comebacks. The most noticeable rough edges are on Sophia, though. After she arrives from Shady Pines, Blanche makes sure to remind Rose (and alert the audience) that Sophia survived a stroke that disabled the part of her brain that self-censors, which is why she's always popping off insults. While it's true that Sophia never exactly stopped calling Rose dumb or Blanche a slut over the course of the series, there is an extra edge to this early version of Sophia that feels extra mean. That edge was smoothed just a bit as the series went on, to the character's benefit.
Still, it's remarkable how fully formed this show already is from its first moments. The dynamic between Dorothy, Rose, and Blanche is there from the very first episode. No, we don't get any St. Olaf stories yet, nor are we asked to picture Sicily in any time period. But the characters and relationships are pretty spot-on from the show's first moments.
And of course there's that theme song, which not only sets the perfect tone, but in this episode, actually shows us the scenes we'll see repeated in clip form in the credits over and over and over again. Dorothy flinging Rose into that walk-in closet finally has some context!
The biggest curiosity in The Golden Girls' pilot is, of course, the presence of Coco (Charles Levin), the girls' live-in gay cook. He's never seen again after this pilot, likely a casualty of network notes. And while it's hard to look at the long history of The Golden Girls and wish there had been another regular character in the mix, it's fun to imagine what might have been. Coco doesn't get much to do in the episode, besides carry out a platter of iced tea or offer to whip up some enchiladas. In fact, his main purpose seems to be as fodder for Sophia to make some really insensitive gay remarks, so maybe Coco's ouster wasn't all bad news.
So much of the girls' home in Miami eventually became iconic, and from the very first episode, both the living room and the celebrated lanai are exactly as we remember. The kitchen looks mostly the same, except the stove is awkwardly aligned along the fourth wall rather than on the far right side of the room. The true gag, however, is Blanche's bedroom, with a kind of sultry rainforest decor that moves seamlessly from her bedspread up the wall and generally looks like she's halfway to transforming into Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy from Batman & Robin at all times.
The Golden Girls is streaming on Hulu
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.