This July, one of the most beloved, well-crafted, character-driven sitcoms will finally be complete on DVD thanks to Shout Factory, when Season 7 of "Designing Women" is released.
In 1992 "Designing Women" was coming off its highest ratings in the series' history following the replacement of half the cast, including the show's big breakout character. A remarkable achievement in lieu of the fact that one of the replacements was very poorly received by audiences. The producers decided to let Julia Duffy go because they felt the show was tarnished by such an unlikeable character. In the years since, it seems unanimous that it was the writing and NOT Duffy's performance that caused the backlash.
For Season 7, veteran stage/character actress Judith Ivey was brought in as the now-revolving fourth member of Sugarbakers (rumour has it after Bonnie Hunt turned down the part). As extremely-rich-but-down-to-earth widow B.J. Poteet, Ivey is a terrific addition to the seasoned cast, creating a colorful, charismatic character with a fleshed-out backstory but the addition of B.J. unfortunately throws the show off-kilter and it's now unbalanced like a table with only three legs. It's sad to see a series that has carefully developed it's characters for six years suddenly toss all their history aside to get some cheap laughs. With new writers and Norma Safford Vela now producing, that's exactly the problem with this final season. The show becomes a frustrating mass of contradictions that alienated all except the most devoted fans. The new Friday night timeslot no doubt cost "Designing Women" a large chunk of their audience too (the show plunged from #6 to #67 in the Nielsen's resulting in CBS cancelling it in Spring 1993).
We open the season with Sugarbakers in dire financial straits because Allison (Julia Duffy) pulled her money out in the middle of a recession. A chance meeting has B.J. Poteet (Judith Ivey) winning the business from Julia (Dixie Carter) in a card game which sets up the premise for this third (and final) incarnation of the show. With B.J. now aboard as the direct and sensible one, Julia has devolved from the dignified, authoritative and savvy leader to an insufferably superior, petulant shrew, though the writers at least try and attribute the change in behavior to menopause. Carter is obviously relishing the chance for the character to show some wild abandon, but the change leaves long-time viewers bewildered. Mary Jo (Annie Potts) also gets more cartoonish and over-the-top, but ironically Carlene (Jan Hooks) gets toned down somewhat. Delivery and timing of all the ladies is still razor-sharp and Ivey's transition into the group is flawless; it's the scripts that let them down.
Anthony's engagement to Vanessa Chamberlain (Jackee Harry) is now history--too bad because she could have perfectly filled the void left by Burke/Duffy--so Sheryl Lee Ralph joins the cast during a November Sweeps two-parter in Las Vegas that has Anthony marrying her character (showgirl Etienne Toussant) in a drunken quickie ceremony we the audience never see. The addition of Ralph is another nail in the coffin because she's a very poor substitute for the show's "diva" slot. Etienne's personality changes from sharp-cookie to airhead depending on the needs of the script and she seems a better fit for any show on the WB network--not one of CBS's most prestigious comedies.
So to sum it up--yes, Season 7 is a mess, but it is not without a few good points. Alice Ghostley is on board for more than half the episodes and our "little fruitcake" Bernice is as flaky as ever. Next, the hair, makeup and wardrobe this season is absolutely gorgeous. With B.J.'s millions, it makes sense for Ivey to be dressed to the nines in designer chic every episode, but I guess the producers didn't want the others to look cheap in comparison, so even student/part time receptionist Carlene is decked out in expensive business suits. Carter looks younger here than she did in Season One and Potts' flaming mane was never as ORANGE as you'll see it here (she cut it all off when filming was over to begin her new stint on CBS' "Love and War" which had taken over DW's former Monday-night berth).
This is a most uneven season because while it has its share of clunkers, a few are actually some of my favorites of the entire series. "The Woman Who Came to Sugarbakers" features a great turn from bombastic guest star Pat Carroll as Julia's schoolmistress and some of Bernice's most hilarious lines ever. "The Lying Game" has Carlene turning the tables on her crossdressing boyfriend; "Love Letters" is a showcase for Ivey's years of theatre training; "Sex, Lies and Bad Hair Days" expertly draws on the show's basic premise of "get four women together and listen to them talk".
Like Seasons 5-6, the comedy is at the forefront but the quality of humour this final go-round has degenerated into that of cheap boob jokes. Those who loved the more thoughtful, sedate ambiance of Seasons 1 and 2 will likely be repulsed by this; fans of more crass comedies like "Will and Grace" or even "Hot In Cleveland" will enjoy it more.
And so Season 7 leaves fans in a quandary--we have a fabulous welcome addition with fun-lovin'-good-'ole-Texas-gal B.J. but her arrival throws the whole balance off and the show is left spinning its' wheels. It certainly deserved the same proper closure that "The Golden Girls" finale brought to their show. Script quality aside, it's fantastic to finally see one of my all-time favorites complete on DVD. Once again, the cover art is a little off to diehard fans as Carter's image is actually from a Season Five photo session but it's no biggie, just sayin'! Thanks AGAIN, Shout Factory, for yet another rescue mission!