When the Fifth Golden Girl Was a Man Named Coco
The pioneering sitcom about four women and their shoulder pads premiered 30 years ago today. It went on to make television better for everyone.
The first thing you should know about the first episode of The Golden Girls, which premiered 30 years ago to widespread acclaim, is that one of the girls in question was actually, briefly, a guy. His name was Coco, and he was a cook, and he was gay, and he worked for Dorothy, Blanche, and Rose in their be-wickered Miami ranch house as a kind of friend-slash-manservant, and if you imagine Hank Azaria in The Birdcage, only slightly less flamboyant and slightly more amenable to the bathrobe-with-shoulder pads look, then you have a pretty good idea about Coco. The main thing Coco does in the Golden Girls’s pilot is to make his friend-bosses “enchiladas rancheros,” though at one point he also offers them tea and, when drama ensues, a lightly padded shoulder to lean on.
Coco—“the fancy man in the kitchen,” Sophia takes to calling him—was part of that first show, in some part, because The Golden Girls was so revolutionary. Its whole point, from its conception, was to be slightly subversive—it was to be about women, according to Warren Littlefield, NBC’s then-vice president for series, after “society has written them off, has said they’re over the hill.” A sitcom that didn’t just star women, but that starred only women! And: older women! This was a fairly new and weird thing in 1985, a thing that NBC executives weren’t sure, as the old saying goes, “America was ready for.” They needed some kind of buffer, they thought, to defeminize the whole thing just a little bit, to make it more 1985-America-friendly. They needed a man. But not a man who would bring sexual tension into the house: That was a job for Stan Zbornak and the parade of mostly expendable suitors who would cycle in and then out of the girls’ pink living room. The temporary solution was, as it so often will be, a manservant named Coco.
Come the second episode of The Golden Girls, though, Coco had disappeared with no explanation. The women were so strong on their own, NBC decided, that a man would not be required to make them America-friendly after all. Contributing to that decision was the addition, to the three primary cast members, of Estelle Getty, who guest-starred in the Golden Girls pilot as Dorothy’s mother—arriving at the house after her nursing home, Shady Pines, burned down—and who ended up uttering several of the sassy lines that were originally intended for Coco. (Blanche explains, in one of that episode’s rare moments of non-deft exposition, that Sophia is as wise-cracking and foul-mouthed as she is because a small stroke had “destroyed the part of her brain that censors what she says”; this medical explanation would, in later episodes, be conveniently forgotten.)
From then on, The Golden Girls—offering a template for Designing Women and Living Single and Girls and the now-countless other lady-driven shows that would follow—focused on four fully formed women, repeatedly acing the Bechdel-Wallace test. The Golden Girls would run for seven seasons, birthing spin-offs both long-running (Empty Nest) and not (The Golden Palace). It would help to launch the career of writers and producers that included Mitch Hurwitz, who would go on to create Arrested Development. It would give a young Quentin Tarantino the opportunity to extra as an Elvis impersonator. It would become beloved, commemorated in “Thank you for being a friend” tattoos and odes to Dorothy’s personal style and “which Golden Girl are you?” quizzes and “picture it: Sicily” jokes and speculative recipes for Rose’s “Gerneten-flüken cake.” Have you seen the Bea Arthur in Sleepwear with Shoulder Pads Tumblr? It’s awesome.
The most common thing that’s said about The Golden Girls’s legacy, though, is how progressive the series was—not just for its time, but for this one. The show, Tracey Ross put it, “stands out for being one of the last sitcoms where progressive values were part of the show’s DNA.” It made a point of representing (some of) the Americans who had traditionally been under- and un-represented in mainstream entertainment. A 2005 study, Mental Floss notes, determined that “more gays and lesbians watched The Golden Girls than the general population in any given week.”
The Golden Girls’s creator, Susan Harris, had previously created the progressive-for-their-time series Soap and Benson—she had also written the “Maude’s Abortion” episode of Maude—and she made sure that The Golden Girls featured storylines that involved the coming-out of gay characters, crime, abortion, sexual harassment, AIDS, otherness (late in the first season, Rose began dating a little person), and other hot-button issues, many of which remain hot-button today. (“Watch This: The Golden Girls Explain Same-Sex Marriage.”) Harris also made sure that the show dealt frankly with sex. The Golden Girls was an early Sex and the City, basically, the late-night OJs and pastel housecoats of Miami paving the way for the cosmos and stilettos of New York City. (As Rose summed it up, Charlottely, during a seventh-season episode: “Dorothy, you’re the smart one, and Blanche, you’re the sexy one, and Sophia, you’re the old one, and I’m the nice one.”) Refinery29 once calculated all the men the women slept with over the seven seasons of the show, concluding that, finally, Rose slept with 30, Dorothy with 43, Blanche with 165, and Sophia with 25.
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.