Spinoff Stories: The Golden Girls (Article VII)

Written Reveling in Saturday Programming by Bridger Cunningham (former TVRG Writer)

Four actresses above a certain age delivering America a top-10 favorite on a Saturday night?  Who would have thunk it!?  The dynamic chemistry of Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, Betty White and Estelle Getty gave NBC one if its three greatest hits of the 80's, and Saturday's last major draw known to American television history.    At the start of the 4th season, NBC sought creator Susan Harris' lucrative prowess to craft a spinoff featuring new character, Dr. Harry Weston (Richard Mulligan) as one if the ladies' neighbors in Empty Nest.  The spinoff succeeded, birthing a Miami-based franchise on NBC's Saturday night comedy block. 

The Original Hit Machine
Golden Girls (1985-92) 

Golden Girls came into conception in 1985 and followed the simple presence of four senior ladies renting a home in an upscale Miami neighborhood.  Featuring the dry, sarcastic delivery of substitute teacher Dorothy Zbornak (Arthur), her outlandish mother, Sophia Petrillo (Getty), voracious, man hungry cougar Blance Devereaux (McClanahan) and dingbat Rose Nylund (Betty White), the nuclear chemistry of the four ladies never waned as the cast remained intact, delivering high ratings for its entirety.  Ratings delivered Top-10 winnings for its first 6 seasons, peeking in 4th Place for the 1987-88 season.  Even as the series "declined" in its last season, it managed never to leave the top 20. 

Spinoff 1
Empty Nest (1988-95) 

During the series' 3rd season in 1987, NBC toyed with the idea of a backdoor pilot in an episode titled "Empty Nest" which neighboring couple George and Renee Coliss (Paul Dooley, Rita Moreno) are dealing with their last child leaving the home.  The premise was poorly received, but creator Susan Harris persisted and retooled the premise and created a new spinoff in the fall of 1988.  Never-before-mentioned pediatrician neighbor, Dr. Harry Weston (Richard Mulligan, of Soap fame) became the central focus of the series.  His grown daughters, divorcee Carol (Dinah Manoff, also of Soap fame) and police officer Barbara (Kristy McNichol, Family) moved home with Harry, centering the focus on his home and private practice.  The family's larger than life pooch, Dreyfus, was also frequently featured. 

Rounding out the cast were whacky neighbor Charlie Dietz (David Leisure) and sarcastic nurse Laverne (Park Overall).  The series regularly placed in the top-10 for its first three seasons following the ratings gold of its parent series.  Then, NBC experienced another collapse during the 1991-92 season (the same season Empty Nest birthed its own spinoff, Nurses), and Empty Nest dropped to 23rd Place.  Ratings continued to drop in subsequent seasons, plummeting to 48th, 65th and 118th Places, respectively.  It is theorized not having The Golden Girls as a lead-in harmed the series, as well as McNichol exiting the series in 1992 due to personal issues.  Frequent cast changes, including adding Getty and Marsha Warfield (of Night Court fame) and moving the premise to a new clinic failed to generate new interest in the series, and NBC cancelled it in 1995, the same season the network made a comeback in the ratings.   

Spinoff 2
Nurses (1991-94) 

NBC owned Saturday nights, with showrunner Susan Harris delivering top-10 hits Golden Girls and Empty Nest.  Speculating on Golden Girls ending in 1992, they asked her to create a new franchise, and she delivered Nurses, a spinoff of Empty Nest featuring medical professionals working in the same hospital as Dr. Harry Weston (Mulligan).  The diverse cast initially featured four female nurses and one male nurse (Jeff Altman, notorious for his 1980 flop The Pink Lady and Jeff).  As its parent and grandparent franchises both experienced ratings decay (along with the network, which dropped back to 3rd place its freshman season), Nurses delivered a modest 38th Place for the 1991-92 season.  In an effort to spruce up the ratings, comedian David Rasche was added to the cast as slippery Jack Trenton in 1992. 

Despite efforts to improve the premise, ratings plummeted to 60th Place for the 2nd season (along with Empty Nest, which toppled to 48th).  The third season opened a space for WKRP In Cincinnati alum Loni Anderson as administrator Casey McAfee.  The ratings improved slightly to 57th Place, besting its predecessor Empty Nest which continued a freefall to 65th Place.  Despite improvement, demonstrated stability, being one season away from syndication and NBC's inability to populate a new hit in the sagging comedy block, the network axed Nurses in 1994. 

Spinoff 3
The Golden Palace (1992-93) 

After Golden Girls ended its run in 1992, the series continued on with the Golden Palace after jumping to CBS Fridays (sans Bea Arthur, who moved on).  The cast remains invested in a troubled hotel, with the only staff intact were hotel manager Roland Wilson (Don Cheadle) and chef Chuy Castillos (Cheech Marin).  The series never achieved the same acclaim or ratings glory, finishing the sseason in 64th Place with a 10.0 rating.  CBS cancelled the continuation series after one season.  However, after Lifetime acquired The Golden Girls' syndication rights, The Golden Palace was packaged with the parent series. 


Unlike most spinoff franchises, it acquired frequent crossovers, mainly via middle-ground Empty Nest.  Mulligan and Leisure guest starred in a handful of appearances on The Golden Girls, but the Golden Girls all made appearances on Empty Nest throughout its run.  Getty also joined Empty Nest's cast in 1993 after The Golden Palace closed.  Mulligan also made appearances on Nurses, and the cast also made frequent appearances in his show. 

Why These Spinoffs Experienced Moderate Success 

Timing was key, and the premises were compatible with Golden Girls.  During the 1991-92 season, NBC's Saturday comedy block featured three sitcoms, all based in Miami and had associated characters, earning the evening's block the moniker "Miami Nice."  Empty Nest arrived at opportune timing as Golden Girls was on top of its game, and scheduling behind the parent series (similar to 2017's success with The Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon) led to Nielsen success.  Eyeing the same benchmark as Golden Girls, Susan Harris branched out again during Empty Nest's 4th Season with the same formula.  Like its parent series, it featured new characters which integrated into the original.  

Nurses, however was plagued with network decline and a frequently rotating roster.  Nurses' cancellation remains one of NBC's greatest fallacies, as it eventually outperformed its parent sitcom and may have aided the network as it burgeoned on its next comeback.  The Golden Palace was the only player not posted on NBC and suffered being scheduled on Fridays on CBS.  Perhaps it would have performed modestly if it remained on NBC Saturdays in "Miami Nice," aiding its neighboring sitcoms.

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