4 Women of Sisters 1991-96
To list memorable, favorite shows in television… shows that feature women, it doesn’t take long before a trend emerges. That’s the formula of four women as lead characters. While Advanced TV Herstory has found no exhaustive list of the forgotten or super-short lived series, there are at least a good dozen that succeeded with 4 lead women characters.
Through different approaches to the characters or indeed unpredictable situations that occur within the show’s tenure, no two episodes are the same – or come anywhere near being the same. But there is some DNA at work.
Today we will revisit Winnetka, the suburban community where four sisters lived for 6 seasons of the show, Sisters. It aired from 1991 to 1996 and like the show profiled in an earlier podcast, Desperate Housewives, used the stability of its suburban setting as a launching pad for over-the top stories and twists.
In this installment, you’ll learn a bit about the characters and actresses who played them. Then we’ll examine the list of over-the-top stories to better understand how this show, clearly targeted at women, wove in headlines of the day. In other arcs, the writers dug deep into the female or family experience, to offer up one of life’s many challenges. They would then skillfully paint the role relationships play in managing through or resolving the situation.
Sisters, as a show from only 20 years ago, has fallen into such obscurity. Only recently have seasons one and two been released on DVD. You can find episodes on YouTube, or maybe accidently stored on a VHS in your basement. Mine have been there intentionally for 20 years.
But at the time Sisters aired, it garnered the nominations at the Screen Actors Guild, the Golden Globe Awards and Emmy Awards for on-screen talent – Swoosie Kurtz and Sela Ward in their roles as Alex and Teddy. In 1993, behind the camera, Nancy Malone was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement for Directing in a Drama Series and Susanne Stinson Malles was also nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement In Editing For a Series - Single-Camera Production.
And finally, for a show known for its fashion and hair, Rachael Stanley was nominated in 1996 for an Emmy for Outstanding Costume Design in a Series.
It’s important also to note that not much has been written about this show. No interviews about the show, with the actresses, can be found online. Seasons One and Two on DVD contains interviews with the show’s creators – reminiscing about casting decisions and challenges. Having not viewed those interviews, this is my original analysis.
The story of the Reed sisters, - Alex, Georgie, Frankie and Teddy capably holds down the fort of the 4-lead construction. Just like in The Golden Girls and Sex and the City, you’ll come to appreciate that Frankie is the smart one – a “career gal.” Alex leads a pampered life. Teddy is the creative one and tends to make impetuous decisions when it comes to all the men in her life and Georgie is the stable one – the nexus of the foursome.
As an hour-long show, it was a bit of a serial. Characters and plots fed into future episodes. It was an hour of suspended belief. These were real women who just happened to have outrageous occurrences in their lives. And they managed to tend the distressed, resolve conflict and celebrate accomplishments surrounded by hooded sweatshirts, mom jeans, fuzzy sweaters, suits with great shoulder pads and dinners with good to fine china.
Improbable if not impossible, yes. But they looked like real people and by the end of the show, each had really great 90s hair. The show was created by men. This is a rare 2004 Emmy TV Legends clip of Robert Butler, who was a veteran director by the time he worked on the show. It serves as a reminder that there was a mindset then that it was perfectly fine to think that men were the most capable ones to present a show about women, largely for women. How much has changed since 2004?
1 Rbt Butlr clip
When I first viewed the interview, my chief thought was, if even one or two women had been a part of the show’s conception and creation, would it have been cast differently, plotted differently and become a more celebrated and remembered show than it is today?
So let’s look at what WAS produced. Who were the sisters?
Going not in alphabetical or age order, but rather by name ID and post-Sisters career activity, we start with Teddy, played by Sela Ward. Sela Ward emerged from Sisters with the strongest career. She’s had small roles in movies like The Day After Tomorrow and Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. On TV she starred in and earned an Emmy for Once & Again. She was also a late series addition to CSI: New York. Sela Ward played Teddy, the creative, divorced sister who we see return with her teenage daughter to Winnetka in the pilot episode.
Swoosie Kurtz was Alex and is a veteran of the stage, TV and the big screen. She currently plays Melissa McCarthy’s mother on Mike & Molly. She had a recurring role in Pushing Daisies, ER and Nurse Jackie. Her TV career and all sorts of award nominations go all the way back to the early 80s. In Sister’s first season, viewers see Alex’s pampered life as the wife of a plastic surgeon begins to unravel. She can be judgmental and doesn’t mince words. Scandal forces her to accept a new economic reality for her and her daughter. This pilot scene establishes her relationship with their mother, who isn’t do well adjusting to all the changes that come with being a widow.
S1 E1 police st
Georgie, who some would consider to be the show’s focus sister, was played by Patricia Kalember, who continues to pop up all the time in shows that feature strong women. She was Judge Taten on Law & Order SVU. She’s a senator in Madame Secretary. Joyce in Olive Kitteridge and Marka in Orange is the New Black. Kalember was Georgie, the second who was most responsible, perceived as the most stable. The show begins with viewers learning she is the one with the most suburban, middle-class life – house, dog, two sons and a husband. This clip from the pilot provides a glimpse of how Teddy and Georgie get along.
S1 E1 What about
Lastly, sort of, there was Frankie. Julianne Phillips is the actress who seemingly dropped out after the show ended – actually sort of before the show ended. Her career was busy during the show’s run – made for TV movie that were dramas, not just fluffy rom coms. By the 5th season, the character of Frankie, the smart one had been moved off to New York and Japan as an entrepreneur. Frankie took her son, Thomas George with her. Thomas George of course is the son of Teddy’s first husband Mitch. In the first season, the courtship of Mitch and Frankie is a story arc that is aided by flashbacks, involving teenage actresses, of the sisters’ teen years. Frankie only returns to Winnetka in the series finale.
What do writers (and indeed there were many women writers who contributed over the years) do when a quarter of the 4 part formula wants out? They invent a stand-in. Even in the first season, viewers learn that the sisters’ recently widowed mother, Beatrice, was a patient woman while her husband cheated on her with his secretary. To fill the void of Frankie, we learn that indeed the secretary gave a daughter up for adoption – Charlie.
In and out of foster homes but with resources provided by her father, Charlie became a doctor. Charlie was played by two actresses – Jo Anderson introduced the character and played her in 15 episodes. Anderson has had a busy career doing one-time roles in TV dramas. Sheila Kelley took over for the remaining 22 episodes. Kelley has also had recurring roles in TV’s Lost, Gossip Girl, MDs and E.R..
Just as Desperate Housewives’ plots involved the four main women characters on Wisteria Lane, but also had Nicollette Sheridan as Edie as a minor role foil, so too did Sisters have a fifth – a recurring minor role.
Mother to the four daughters and willing to serve as adopted mother to Charlie, Beatrice Reed was capably played by Elizabeth Hoffman. Prior to the show, Hoffman had a recurring role in Thirtysomething (alongside Patricia Kalember), Matlock and L.A. Law. Back when epic mini-series of major literary works were common, Elizabeth Hoffman was a big somebody. Herman Wouk’s Winds of War and War and Remembrance featured big names from the silver screen as well as TV. Look for Elizabeth Hoffman in both as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
These capable women formed the core of all sorts of escapades, maladies and challenges that made the lives of viewers seem dull. Ordinary. The writing kept the show from the doldrums, though, by clever writing and twisting. The casting team delivered strong recurring character talent as well – Nora Dunn, Robert Klein and a guy named George Clooney, who had just hung up his tool belt as the handy man on The Facts of Life.
So the humor was clever, not ha ha. And just when I thought the plot was so far-fetched and I wondered why I was still watching – guilty pleasure and all – a character would utter a line that was something I would have said, if in the same situation.
One such outrageous, highly unlikely in my literal mind’s thinking is when Teddy gets asked to design a gown for then First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Alongside Teddy’s new opportunity, Georgie is stressed because the child she carried for 9 months for sister Frankie has now become the prize in a custody hearing during which both Frankie and Mitch are at their worst. Teddy has other things on her mind.
There’s a point in every episode where you just have to suspend reality. It’s gone. Yes, we’ve all heard mothers admonish their offspring about finding humor in others' misfortune. We’ve just never been on a deadline to design the First Lady’s dress in 2 days. How does a talented designer rise to the occasion? With a pep talk from her big sister.
Hem it zip it
Sure enough, Georgie is able to vacuum and spruce up her house in time for a visit from the First Lady. The entire family is on hand, a little John Phillips Sousa music sets the scene as an actress playing Hillary emerges from a limo. We get the sense of the extended family’s disappointment that the entire visit lasted 5 minutes.
With concept sketches approved by the First Lady in hand, Teddy gets industrious and asks a favor from a former employee from her earlier fashion business. Teddy and McKinley present the dress and mannequin to Secret Service Agents and begin arranging for a final fitting.
Sure, stand on principle and hold the First Lady’s dress hostage. But don’t you admire Teddy just a bit for her chutzpah?
Corny, campy and fun.
But the situations did serve up a sort of table-top exercise of life’s rites of passage. And yes, some of the plot threads were just plain implausible. But the relationships were the constant and the show’s legacy the reminder that while it takes work to maintain family relationships, but there are benefits as well. By virtue of the 4 lead women formula, you might say that Desperate Housewives took Sisters to the dark sexy side. If you view Sisters as a family drama, it’s an all-woman, grown up suburban version of The Waltons.
So while these plots themes sound serious, the show was not nearly as grim as this list would have you believe. But the five women named for men, which is explained in the pilot has having been their father’s decision in lieu of them having not been born sons, took on these issues with confidence, humor and occasionally outrage.
Three – count ‘em THREE plane crashes
Foster parenting son of deceased patient
Surviving a coma that was the result of a car jacking
Settling a municipal union contract while her husband recovers from a major heart attack
Repressed memory therapy that turns out to be a ruse from a quack therapist
Suffering blindness, losing a spouse from one of the above mentioned plane crashes
One of the sisters contemplates suicide
Becoming a newspaper advice columnist
Becoming a TV talk show host
Having a successful career as an international fashion designer and businesswoman
Having a singing career takes off, mid-life, from its humble origins of bathrobe karaoke
Run for the school board
HIV positive teacher in a public school
Sexual harassment in workplace
End of life and the execution of a living will
Censorship in art
Remarrying late in life
Pregnancy that may be a baby with Down’s Syndrome
Infidelity and staying in a marriage
Surrogate birth, which later is produced as a movie of the week
Depression due to job loss
Post partum depression
Alcoholism and rehab
Marriages and divorces, including a sister’s ex
So with all these opportunities to grow, it’s no wonder that each character acts differently by the end of the series. In particular, Swoosie Kurtz’s physical comedy helps take the edge off Alex’s many challenges. In the last season, Alex mistakes pregnancy for what turns out to be the start of menopause.
Menopause rarely drives a TV plot, in part because it requires an actress or actresses of a certain age, and viewers need to have a level of personal knowledge with the character that makes it approachable. By the show’s final season, we know Alex. Alex, Georgie and Teddy enjoy coffee and the paper, which for Alex lately includes the obituaries.
S6 E7 obits
So Alex puts on her best black and attends the funeral, only to find herself seated next to a distinguished older woman.
S6 E7 Marjorie
So Alex buys the book and finds it most fascinating.
S6 E7 Wisdom
So in fulfilling the requirements, Alex uses the challenges and obstacles found in her own environment. She climbs the tallest tree in the neighborhood, its highest leaf her trophy. With Marjorie’s ghostly guidance, she takes on the second challenge. Swoosie Kurtz’s mastery of physical comedy makes each segment fun.
S6 E7 Beast
The third challenge involves physical endurance. According to the book, Marjorie swam the English Channel. Alex appears to cross a skimpy shallow pond of some sort. And with her three acts performed, she’s soaking in her bathtub when Marjorie returns for a recap.
S6 E7 Renaissance
Can you think of any other TV show past or present that eased the viewers into reflection of life’s mileposts more than this one? Affirming. Inspiring. Aspiring. Sadly, the only version of this episode found on the internet doesn’t contain the one second of tape that provides writer credits. I really have to believe this episode could ONLY have been written by a woman or team of women.
Sure, other shows featuring 4 women as lead characters have come along, leaving us to remember vaguely and perhaps fondly six seasons of Sisters.
Should you embark on re-watching the whole series online, you’ll see how deftly the pilot and series finale connect. The writers brought us full circle, giving us confidence that the sisters will remain bonded even as Bea has just passed away.
By the first half of the 1990s, older baby boom women, born in the late 1940s and early 50s, were in their 40s and they were everywhere, including a very visible one bringing a new job description to the role of First Lady.
Prime time soaps Dynasty and Knots Landing were gone by the early 90s. Sisters proved to us that escapism can take on many forms and even be set in suburbia, with zip up hoodie sweat shirts. That the character of Teddy can still reach the pinnacle of the fashion industry yet return to Winnetka in her black jeep wearing the maroon and black baseball jacket that was her character trademark is a testament to the show's light comedic realism.
Throughout traditional daytime soap operas, viewers establish a connection to the family – usually the good family – which remained the constant for years if not decades. For 6 years, women connected with the Reed family and marveled at how good their hair evolved over the years. Characters rarely ate and usually TALKED about getting things done more than ever really doing it. But that’s what made it a guilty pleasure. More importantly, we saw how others view and value family bonds, reliance, loyalty, candor and how important it is to support those around you.
In the leadership curriculum that I teach and train from, it’s called “inspiring the heart.” As a leader, it’s important to value people for what and how they bring themselves to the team. They are humans, in need of praise and guidance. One might conclude that women are stronger leaders of teams because of the hours we spent not on the golf course, but instead watching our daytime or primetime serial dramas.
Thanks for listening to this installment of Advanced TV Herstory. Audio clips have been pulled Sisters episodes found on YouTube. Robert Butler’s interview can be found at EmmyTVLegends.org. You heard background music by Big Mean Sound Machine which is available at Free Music Archive.org. A big thanks to Advanced TV Herstory guest editrix Judy Mans, who is no stranger to storytelling.
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Thanks for tuning in. I’m your host Cynthia Bemis Abrams.