Designing Women

Golden Era: Clockwise from top, Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty, in Great Women of Television Comedy.Photo: NBC

As network presentations go, Great Women of Television Comedy sure beats dreaming up something new. A compilation of surefire bygone snippets, it’s undemanding of reviewers; all we have to do is describe what’s in it and complain about what isn’t. And it’s even easier on the audience—an hour and a half of used humor for those of us too impatient to sit through the setup for a sight gag or a punch line, and too lazy to watch Nick at Nite.

Great Women is loosely organized into sketch comedy, workplaces, TV wives, motherhood, and slapstick, which allows such on-camera guests as Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett, Marlo Thomas, Bea Arthur, Candice Bergen, Marion Ross, Linda Lavin, Ellen DeGeneres, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Jane Kaczmarek to babble on like Our Miss Brooks (though Eve Arden herself, I’m sorry to say, didn’t make the cut) about what we will shortly see, or just did. At this babble, Louis-Dreyfus excels, with a couple of barbs in her froth. Everyone else is too kind. Okay, I was overheard chortling, perhaps predictably, at Gilda Radner. And Lily Tomlin. And Carol Burnett, whose notorious send-up of Gone With the Wind should make it inadvisable ever again to look at the original. And Candice Bergen, about to give birth, screaming at Faith Ford: “Smother me with a pillow! … Do it for Betty Friedan!” But also, more to my own surprise, at the same old clips of Lucy making chocolate and stomping grapes. And Audrey Meadows giving as good as she got right back to Jackie Gleason. Plus a crash course in the wondrous pratfalls of Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams as Laverne and Shirley. The brief bits of Imogene Coca, from Your Show of Shows, brought tears to tired eyes. There is a lot more Sex and the City than Ally McBeal, and a lot more Katey Sagal than Tracy Ullman, and not nearly enough Gracie Allen or Helen Hunt compared with the excess of Roseanne. Was that Nell Carter flashing by? If not, why not?

You will compile your own list of the missing. (Offhand, without exerting, I noticed Gertrude Berg, Peggy Cass, Phyllis Diller, Nanette Fabray, Bonnie Franklin, Teri Garr, Joanna Gleason, Valerie Harper, Bonnie Hunt, Linda Kelsey, Cloris Leachman, Suzanne Pleshette, Annie Potts, and Martha Raye. The whole cast of Designing Women has disappeared down some memory hole. And what on earth happened to Blair Brown’s Molly Dodd?) But we do get Jean Stapleton, Phylicia Rashad, Jane Curtin, Rhea Perlman, Doris Roberts, and, thank you, Cynthia Nixon. Next up, I suppose, will be some digitizing legerdemain that remixes all our old favorites, young and old, dead or alive, into pastiche sitcoms, or maybe samplers; no new jokes need ever be written, nor any new comics ever be born.

Also making a comeback this week is Helen of Troy, with Sienna Guillory as the Tinkertoy of the Aegean. You may recall that Helen was almost always unwitting, a child of Leda ravished by the swanning Zeus, abducted hither and yon by goat-smelling Greeks, the lovely pawn in a cruel game played by mortal city-states and some of the least likable gods in anybody’s pantheon, and merely an excuse for Agamemnon’s power-grabbing and sibling-bopping, after which the House of Atreus took a bloody bath. With perfectly straight faces, Matthew Marsden impersonates Paris, Rufus Sewell is Agamemnon, John Rhys-Davies is Priam, Maryam D’Abo is Hecuba, Stellan Skarsgard is Theseus, James Callis is Menelaus, Joe Montana is Achilles, and Emilia Fox is the Cassandra to whom nobody ever listens.

The horse is nifty. And I remind you of something we too-easily forget: War took longer in those days. Paris had Helen for ten whole years before he had to pay Homer’s price. If only Leda had fought off the swan. I once wrote a poem about it, after too much Yeats: A sudden blow: the great wings beating still / Above the struggling maid. She wrings its neck / And flings it down and steps upon its bill, / And says: “You dirty bird!” / Après le kill, / She had it stuffed and set it on a shelf … / Poor Agamemnon had to stab himself.

Platinum (April 14; 9 to 10 p.m.; Tuesdays, 9 to 10 p.m. thereafter; UPN) is the first dramatic series devoted entirely to hip-hop and the cutthroat music industry that finds, records, and distributes it. With Jason George and Sticky Fingaz as the Rhames brothers trying to save their label from the gangsta competition. There is as much attitude here as there is noise, and it actually seems to signify.

Avoiding Armageddon (April 14–17; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) sits down with Walter Cronkite for a Ted Turner documentary that is alarmed about losing control of nuclear weapons, new varieties of terrorist attack, and what globalization is doing to homeland security.

Broadway Workshop (April 18; 10 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13), the season finale of the arts show EGG, follows a would-be Broadway musical from writing, casting, and rehearsing, until Alan Thicke, Amy Spanger, and Spencer Kayden have to face the public.

Ice Bound: A Woman’s Survival at the South Pole (April 20; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS) stars Susan Sarandon as Jerri Nielsen, the doctor who would discover at the South Pole not only a lump on her own breast, which she would have to treat herself during the long Antarctic winter, but also the remarkable community of “Polies” who rallied round to make sure she survived until a rescue plane arrived. Only a true story could be quite so remarkable, and Sarandon was an inspired choice to play the part.

Seabiscuit (April 21; 9 to 10 p.m.; Channel 13) jumps off from Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book to tell the story of an extraordinary horse and the unlikely people who turned him into an equally unlikely champion, exactly the sort of winner the Depression era needed.

Great Women of Television Comedy
Tuesday, April 15; 8 to 9:30 p.m.; NBC.

Helen of Troy
Sunday and Monday, April 20 and 21; 8 to 10 p.m.; USA.

Designing Women