Cover Story

What Has 10 Legs, 30,000,000 Viewers, 2 New Faces, and a Southern Accent?

Refining ''Designing Women'' -- Sugarbakers welcomes Julia Duffy and Jan Hooks to the cast and bids adieu to Delta Burke

It's impossible not to notice the difference. On the same Sugarbaker sofa where Delta Burke sat in repose for five years, as comically immobile and forbidding as a bewigged Aztec totem, Julia Duffy now lies — no, lolls — her sneakered, size 5 feet barely reaching the coffee table. It's the day after the sixth-season premiere of CBS' Designing Women, and if Duffy looks both exhausted and elated, she's not the only one. With Burke and costar Jean Smart (Charlene Stillfield) departing, and Duffy and Jan Hooks filling similar roles as the caustic nemesis and country naïf of the Sugarbaker interior-design firm, the previous night's show was the most pivotal in Designing Women's long run. But now, word of the episode's Nielsen ratings — the highest in the show's history — has ricocheted through dressing rooms and offices, and the relief is palpable.

''It's alleviated a lot of pressure,'' says Hooks, who watched her first appearance as Carlene Dobber the night before with the help of ''comfort food'' (meat loaf, mashed potatoes, green peas) and a tumbler of vodka. Duffy, a seven-year veteran of Newhart known for her unflappability, acknowledges some unease of her own. Even Annie Potts, who by now knows the character of single mom Mary Jo Shively so well that she doesn't always bother to watch her performance, made sure she was in front of her TV on Monday night. ''I thought it was pretty important,'' she says. ''It's almost not a continuation of the old show. It's a new show.''

Therein lies the excitement and terror. When Designing Women made its debut in 1986, it brought strong women, richly brewed Southern conversation, and an effortlessly balanced comic ensemble to a prime-time lineup almost bereft of intelligent sitcoms. After the show was almost canceled twice in its first season, its survival became a rallying point for quality-starved viewers, who waged a successful letter-writing campaign to save it. When the show became a top 10 hit last season, their efforts — and the persistence of its witty, prolific creator, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason — were vindicated. But the success of this new, radically altered version is far from assured.

In her elegantly appointed office (even the window glass is discreetly monogrammed) near the set of her other series, the year-old Evening Shade, Bloodworth-Thomason shares in the buoyant mood of the morning after. She has already received a congratulatory call from CBS president Howard Stringer, who drawled into her answering machine in a passable imitation of her soft Missouri accent, ''Ah just luuuve that show Designin' Women!'' The series is important to CBS' fortunes, and so is Bloodworth-Thomason, whose five-series deal with the network could net her and her husband, producer-director Harry Thomason, $50 million. But at the moment, she's mostly pleased for Designing Women's cast. ''They needed to find out they weren't all going to die on Tuesday morning,'' she says.

Indeed, the stars approached premiere night like hypochondriacs awaiting test results. ''The ratings proved we were paranoid for nothing,'' says Meshach Taylor, who plays Sugarbaker partner Anthony Bouvier. ''But I did think we might lose some viewers because of the situation we've been through.''

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