Arts & Culture

In Praise of Designing Women

Just so you will know—and your children will someday know—you can stream all seven seasons on Hulu. Here, five super-fans share their favorite episodes—and explain why the iconic series still matters

Photo: Hulu

Clockwise from top: Jean Smart, Delta Burke, Dixie Carter, Meshach Taylor, and Annie Potts.

Linda Bloodworth-Thomason didn’t know Designing Women would be a hit when she pitched it to CBS in the mid-1980s. She didn’t even know that would involve a design firm. What she did know, however, is that the series would need four essential ingredients—Dixie Carter (Julia), Delta Burke (Suzanne), Annie Potts (Mary Jo), and Jean Smart (Charlene). “I just called CBS on a lark,” she told Yahoo in 2016. “I didn’t even have an idea for them, really. I just said, “Look, I’ve got these four actresses, I really would love to write something for them… It might be the easiest sale in network history for somebody who’s not had a successful show before.”

Designing Women was an easy sell for viewers, too. Fans around the country fell in love with the quick-witted, complicated, ambitious women of Sugarbaker & Associates, the fictional Atlanta interior design firm, one hilarious 30-minute episode at a time. But it wasn’t all sharp come-backs and fabulous eighties fashion. “For a show that was supposed to be funny, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason found a way to make it bigger,” says John Paul Murphy, founder of Designing Women Online. The series tackled issues like gun control, racism, AIDS discrimination, and First Amendment rights with wit and empathy. “A lot of shows try to do that, of course, but Designing Women never felt like they were talking down to the audience. This show made you rise to its level.”

Designing Women is available on Hulu, giving longtime viewers the ability to stream their favorite moments and a new generation the chance to get to know these dynamic women. Running from the glory days of the original cast on the first five seasons all the way through seasons six and seven, which saw new cast members like Jan Hooks (Carlene) and Julia Duffy (Allison), all 163 episodes are available for your binge-watching pleasure. So where to begin? We asked five super-fans, several of whom are ‘designing women’ themselves, to share must-watch episodes from the show’s seven-season run.

“The Beauty Contest” | Season 1, Episode 2

Designing Women is a microcosm of what Southern life is all about. It’s what real Southern families look like—including friends, like Anthony [played by Meshach Taylor], that are family. Once we love you, we adopt all y’all—and only a Southerner knows what that means. My absolute favorite moment has to be the beauty pageant, after a woman dissed Suzanne backstage. Julia just read her the riot act. Truly the best soliloquy in the history of TV—the night that the lights went out in Georgia! It is iconic.”

 —Elaine Griffin, interior designer

Bernice’s Sanity Hearing | Season 4, Episode 7

“I have many fond memories of watching Designing Women reruns with my grandma in the afternoons, and Julia Sugarbaker was one of my earliest role models. Julia didn’t suffer fools gladly, or silently—she never hesitated to stand up for herself, her friends, and Southern people in general (when we deserved it). I can still remember my grandmother cackling and saying to the TV, ‘You tell ’em, Julia!’ That’s why I love ‘Bernice’s Sanity Hearing.’ When Phyllis, the niece of Bernice, their most eccentric friend, flies in from New York to try to get Bernice committed, Julia defends her: ‘This is the South. And we’re proud of our crazy people. We don’t hide them up in the attic. We bring ’em right down to the living room and show ’em off. See, Phyllis, no one in the South ever asks if you have crazy people in your family. They just ask what side they’re on.’ Phyllis snarks back, ‘Oh? And which side are yours on Mrs. Sugarbaker?’ And Julia snaps: ‘Both.’ Me, too, Julia. Me, too.” 

Amanda Heckert, deputy editor at Garden & Gun

“Reservations for 12, Plus Ursula” | Season 3, Episode 1

Designing Women completely shaped me as a feminist and as a woman, especially a Southern woman. I was raised by that show. It was all about being soft and strong—and wearing fabulous ’80s suits. Suzanne was always seen as the vain, vapid one, but I thought she was one of the strongest women on the show. I love the episode when the women go on vacation with their boyfriends, and they bring this nanny who’s, well, at one point during [a game of] charades, she goes from man to man, kissing each one on the lips to mime ‘Kissinger.’ Suzanne is the only single woman, and she sees how crazy jealous this is making her sister and their two friends. So early in the morning, she’s up at the coffee table of this beach house in her fabulous negligee—fur-trimmed, if I remember correctly—waiting for the nanny, Ursula, to get up. And Suzanne essentially says, I’m firing you. Here’s a check. But then she gives this great speech about how the nanny’s too much—’Your smile is too big, your heart is too big, and quite frankly, your breasts are too big.’ But then, she says, ‘I know this because I’m too much, too.” There was no shaming her, no rubbing her nose in it, no making a scene; Suzanne just took care of the situation. It shows how you can stand up quietly for your friends. And, of course, that you can’t judge a woman by her tiara.” 

Helen Ellis, G&G contributor and author of Southern Lady Code

“Full Moon” | Season 3, Episode 15

“The cast was brilliant, the delivery was brilliant, and the dialogue—I mean you’ve got to give Linda Bloodworth-Thomason credit.  ‘Full Moon,’ in season three, will just straight up make you laugh so hard that you’re crying. When they’re talking about Julia walking down the runway with her dress in her pantyhose; Suzanne, in her negligee with a semi-automatic rifle? It was just absurd, the whole thing.”
—John Paul Murphy, founder of Designing Women Online

“Getting Married and Eating Dirt” | Season 3, Episode 4

Designing Women was ahead of its time. It was hysterical, but it was also tackling issues that people weren’t talking about. My mother, who is so dear to me, was definitely a product of the ’50s, and she followed a lot of ‘rules.’ But there was always a quiet eyeroll and an understanding: ‘This may be how society is right now, but it’s not necessarily what I believe.’ That’s very strong in me, and I definitely identify with Julia Sugarbaker. I love the way she sticks up for the South in her little soliloquy about eating dirt—she’s standing in this ridiculous wedding outfit,  and she gives this speech about how Southerners might eat okra, might eat pie, but we do not eat dirt. ” 

Barrie Benson, interior designer

Find Designing Women on Hulu here.