Friday, June 14, 2024

The Golden Girls: The Engagement (aka The Pilot)



Written by: Susan Harris

Directed by: Jay Sandrich

Airdate: September 14, 1985

A television pilot, I have found, is not set in stone. Many things can be changed with regards to characters, sets and backstories. The Engagement, the premiere episode of The Golden Girls, would see characters that disappeared and never mentioned again. It was a good way to set things up, though with some curious moments.

Blanche Hollingsworth (Rue McClanahan) has surprised her two housemates, substitute teacher Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur) and grief counselor Rose Nylund (Betty White) with news that she got engaged to Harry (Frank Aletter). This news comes as a surprise to their gay cook, Coco (Charles Levin). This news is particularly upsetting to Rose, who fears that she will have to find a new place to live as she, like Dorothy, rents her room from Blanche, whose house they live in.

Another surprise comes when Dorothy's mother Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty) shows up unexpectedly. The retirement home she lived at has just burned down. Sophia instantly dislikes Harry, while Rose becomes quickly suspicious of him. Blanche nevertheless decides to get married quickly at her home. She gets a sad surprise when a cop (Meshach Taylor) comes to tell her that Harry has been arrested for bigamy. Devastated, Blanche retreats from the world until she realizes that her friends have helped her through this crisis. With that, they begin their new adventures.

The Engagement, as I said, sets up the scenario that would hold The Golden Girls together, with some future alterations. We learn that Rose has been a widow for 15 years, that Dorothy had a shotgun wedding and that she is from Queens. We also learn that Dorothy's ex-husband is 65. 

If we go by the original airdate, that means that Charlie Nylund died in 1970. Dorothy's ex, whom I do not think was named in The Engagement, would also have been born in 1920. As a side note, Herb Edelman, who would play Dorothy's yutz of an ex-husband Stanley, was born in 1933. Bea Arthur was born in 1922. 

One of the biggest things that stuck out to me is a bizarre editing choice. When Blanche announces her sudden engagement, there are three other people in the room: Dorothy, Rose and Coco. When we return from commercial, Coco is suddenly gone with only Dorothy and Rose in the living room. He and Sophia appear later in the scene, but I am surprised no one noticed how Coco was in and then out.

Perhaps this is for the best, as Levin's Coco was dropped from the series after his debut. His character, it should be noted, was not only heard from again but never mentioned again. I think that once people saw how well Getty worked well as the blunt Sophia, Coco was unnecessary. Moreover, I think that having any man, even a gay man, would have been distracting and not well integrated in future episodes. It makes sense to have the mother of one of the characters there. What would Coco do with this mix?

I also find that Coco would have suggested that the three women were more affluent than future episodes suggest they were. I do not know if The Golden Girls thought about such things as "representation" with Coco. I do think that it is amazingly progressive to have a gay character at all on a television comedy. He was, however, something of a stereotype: the slightly effeminate houseboy.  

The Engagement has two scenes that are trimmed from the reruns that I see. There is an extended section on the lanai with Dorothy, Rose and Coco discussing Blanche's whirlwind romance. The last scene with Dorothy, Rose and Sophia again on the lanai before Blanche emerges from her room is also longer than on reruns. 

Many Golden Girls fans complain that the geography of Blanche's house makes no sense. The Engagement makes the house more sensible, as we find that Blanche's room is located stage right where the cast goes out to the lanai. Even with that however, the actual layout would be highly illogical if one thought on it.

What I found was that The Engagement worked best when we get dramatic moments. The scene where Dorothy reads Harry's note to Blanche is well-acted by both Arthur and McClanahan. The visual gags of Dorothy attempting to silence Rose is also funny. Getty does great work in her bluntness. Levin did as much as he could as Coco, though he was given little to do.

Sometimes though, it looks like Arthur's Dorothy is almost too dominant, close to bellowing her put-downs and sarcastic remarks. Still, one has to remember that everyone is still getting their bearings. 

The Engagement ends up a good start to The Golden Girls. There is still work to be done, everything from character names and makeup work to removing Coco. While not laugh-out loud funny, The Engagement has good moments of humor and heart that make it a good but not great debut.


Next Episode: Guess Who's Coming to the Wedding?

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