Review: Disney+’s Gritty ‘golden girls’ Reboot is a Neon-Soaked Nightmare
The ultra-stylized and violent take on the classic sitcom is confusing, uncomfortable, and unnecessary.
When the new Disney+ series was announced last April, it tantalized viewers with an “edgy” take on the original Susan Harris sitcom featuring four mature women living together under one roof. While many of us thought this just meant even racier conversations about sex and 2021-friendly approaches to topics like queerness and race, few of us could have expected what the team behind golden girls had in mind.
Also, notice the style choice there. I mean all lowercase? Now that’s hip.
Like the original sitcom, golden girls features four mature women living in the same house. The first three episodes of season one follow the ladies as they navigate love, grief, dating, death, and aging in the second act of their lives.
The iconic house has been loving recreated with almost eerie attention to detail, right down to the wicker sofa. Half of the budget appears to have gone toward truckloads of puffy sleeves and shoulder pads.
Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities end.
Reboots at their best can be a looking-glass experience, approaching an existing fictional universe in a new and innovative way. They can bring new audiences to a story and ask the questions lingering underneath the original.
At their worst, these reboots are more reflective of other media properties, mining relatively less risky or modern stories and twisting their original intentions into a younger, more market-friendly package. From its juvenile twists to its desperation to be “edgy,” golden girls showcases the worst tendencies of the ‘gritty reboot.’ It strips the original series of its best parts and adds nothing of value.
Picture it: Miami 1985. But this is not the light-hearted Miami original Golden Girls creator Susan Harris had in mind. It’s something more akin to mid-80s Michael Mann. The city is hot, desperate, and soaked in neon and sin. Opening with a series of glittering tracking shots of strip clubs, nightclubs, squad cars, sex workers, and drug dealers while a languid, breathy cover of “Miami (You’ve Got Style)” echoes over the soundtrack, golden girls reminds us right away, and with as little subtlety as possible, just how much television has changed in the decades since the original sitcom aired.
By the time we are introduced to our new — and noticeably aged-down — golden girls, we are treated to a sultry, hardboiled voiceover from Vera Farmiga’s Dorothy Zbornak. With narration Dashiell Hammett would have called overdone, she describes how growing up in Brooklyn during the Depression prepared her for tough times.
Replacing Bea Arthur as the acerbic and witty substitute teacher, Farmiga wears a tough exterior as she journeys through the rough-and-tumble hallways of the Dade County public school system. Filled to the brim with artful graffiti and suspiciously well-choreographed fights, these schools feel more like immersive theater productions of West Side Story than the vicious snake pits the show wants us to think they are.
Dorothy is carrying on a twisted and uncomfortable affair with her oafish ex-husband, Stanley. The original Stanley Zbornak was no prize. Here, he is reimagined as a more playful version of Dennis Hopper’s character in Blue Velvet. One of his sexual fixations (and there are many) involves a stuffed monkey named Fifi, a bizarre nod to a season seven episode of the original series.
Halfway through the first episode, Stanley is found dead in his apartment, asphyxiated by his own toupee. The police finger Dorothy as the prime suspect. Things only worsen (as they tend to do on this show) when her ex-husband’s identity as a major underworld figure puts Dorothy in the crosshairs of the Miami underworld.
As the lusty southern belle Blanche Devereaux, Jessica Lange bites into the role with her usual aplomb. Self-serving remarks and catty insults never sounded so good. But her Blanche is, weirdly, the most sanitized of this new crop of girls. She has neither the charming narcissism or the withering bitchery we love the character for. As we follow the youth-obsessed Blanche, who agrees to run drugs for a young and studly cocaine kingpin, it is only Lange’s soulful performance that sells her as a believable, if monumentally depressing, human being.
Taking over from Betty White, Toni Collette fills the role of Rose Nylund. As irrepressibly optimistic as ever, her curly-haired, empty-eyed Midwestern naïf is a cruel mismatch for this world. She is designed to be degraded. When Rose is lured by into a smiley, positive-thinking “spiritual center” that is later revealed to be a deadly cult headed for mass suicide, you can’t help but shrug at the inevitability of it all.
In the series’ most inspired casting choice, Susan Sarandon (reunited with Feud co-star Lange) plays fan-favorite Sophia Petrillo. Sarandon brings a brutal and cryptic nature to the sage but senile Sicilian matriarch. There is an undercurrent of menace to her barbs and mannerisms that makes even her most half-baked metaphors seem calculated for maximum creep effect.
You even start to wonder if her “Sicilian curses” are the real thing. Because that’s really the next logical step for this show: witchcraft.
When it is revealed the character’s oft-boasted mafia connections are very real and very powerful, it is too late for her intended target.
In the most graphic scene so far (critics only get the first three episodes, remember), Sophia and two masked heavies have kidnapped a local drug dealer, and the old woman subjects the young man to a meandering story about a young peasant girl asked to smuggle heroin through 1924 Ellis Island. She left a trail of dead immigration officials and rival gangsters in her wake for the sake of “the family.”
“That peasant girl… was me,” Sophia says, before blowing the guy’s brains out.
And this is all in the first episode. The next two episodes made available to critics are more of the same. Drugs, sex work, shootouts, robberies, murders, an occasional date with a lonely widower, more drugs, more murders.
I get the feeling golden girls’ writers had the same conversation over and over: “What’s the worst thing that could happen to this particular character? Okay, that’s too much. What’s, like, the second or third worst thing that could happen to this particular character? Okay, let’s go with that.”
We are dragged through a plot you might describe as labyrinthine if it weren’t so predictable. We know where we’re going every step of the way, we just ask ourselves why? Why does Blanche agree to move bricks of cocaine through the Ancient Egypt section of the museum where she works without even asking for a cut? Why is Rose telling an always-shirtless, inappropriately hot cult leader played by 90s teen idol Ryan Phillippe about her Uncle Hickenboff, St. Olaf’s first practicing Scientologist? Why does Dorothy think entering a Margaret Thatcher lookalike contest is the best way to infiltrate a suspected drug ring and why does she only place third?
Despite their close friendship, these golden girls are desperate and isolated. Where the original series always found ways to bring them back together, the reboot can’t help but continue flinging them further and further out of one another’s orbits and into more fraught, drug-and-sex-fueled circumstances. Think Elmore Leonard and George R.R. Martin taking a crack at a Nancy Meyers movie.
The series is clearly going for an 80s mood with noir ambitions. As our golden girls weave through the Miami underworld in search of answers, relief, love, and power, we’re treated to a synthesizer-heavy soundtrack and glossy, tortured pinks, purples, and oranges. It’s as if a meth lab exploded in a Lisa Frank factory.
In golden girls, Miami doesn’t just have blue skies, sunshine, and white sand by the mile. It has sex, drugs, violence, and all the cannabis-infused cheesecake you can eat. One wonders how the tourism board must feel about this show. It just makes me feel empty.