As Harris told The New York Times just after The Golden Girls’s premiere, “There is life after 50. People can be attractive, energetic, have romances. When do you see people of this age in bed together? Eventually on this show, you will.’’ And: We did!
But: only eventually. The sex stuff doesn’t show up too much in the pilot. The episode instead finds Blanche—already comically vain, but not yet fully Samantha Jonesed—being proposed to by, and considering marriage to, a gentleman named Harry. Blanche has only known him for a week, and Rose is suspicious of his motives. Rose also has a vested interest, the episode makes clear, in Blanche staying single: Blanche isn’t just Rose’s friend, but her landlord. (“We can’t afford to buy a house!” Rose wails to Dorothy. “What do we have for collateral—a gay cook?”) Things are resolved in a way that would become a tried-and-true formula for the show: The man turns out to be caddish, the engagement ends up broken, things conclude with a reaffirmation of sisterhood and friendship and some choice bits of sarcasm from Sophia.
But the real focus of the episode is aging, as seen most superficially through discussions of wrinkles and youth-envy and the gradual suddenness of “goldenness.” (Dorothy tells Rose about conversation she had with fellow teachers at the school she works at—women in their 20s—and how at home she felt with them. Then: “I got in the car, and caught a glimpse of myself,” she says, “and I almost had a heart attack. This old woman was in the mirror. I didn’t even recognize her.”) They make jokes about plastic surgery. (“Lord, I’d love to get a facelift by 8 o’clock,” Blanche tells the girls before a date with Harry.) There’s also a lengthy-to-the-point-of-awkwardness conversation about nighttime bathroom habits. (“Every morning like clockwork at 7 a.m., I pee,” Sophia confides to her new roommates, and to her new audience. She pauses. “Unfortunately, I don’t wake up ‘til 8.”)
Age, though, isn’t presented in the episode primarily as a physical phenomenon. It’s presented as a social one. “We were all so lonely, and then by a miracle we found each other,” Rose says, lamenting the effect that Blanche’s marriage will have on all of their lives. Dorothy points out that the “miracle” Rose is referring to consisted of the two of them answering the “roommates wanted” ad Blanche had posted in a grocery story. To which Rose responds:
To me it was a miracle. Because we’re happy. It’s not fair, you know: I mean, 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 we 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.
This is not the typical stuff of “fluffy ‘80s sitcom.” This is cultural criticism, and literature, and a plaintive request for empathy. Right off the bat, The Golden Girls is doing what Susan Harris promised it would: It’s exploring the often quite cruel treatment of older women at the smooth hands of a youth-obsessed culture. And it’s doing it with a mixture of seriousness and humor. (In response to Rose’s admission that “I don’t know what to do,” Sophia will suggest: “Get a poodle!”) What the pilot promises, though, and what the show delivered during its seven years on the air, is that Rose would figure out what to do with all those years she has left. She and her friends, and to some extent the rest of us, would figure it out together. Thirty years later, the show is still as groundbreaking as ever—both despite and because of the fact that its insights come from four women. Coco’s loss is our gain.