Oh, y'all had so many adventures before I met you!'' exclaimed Carlene Dobber, the new character played by Jan Hooks, on a recent edition of Designing Women . Sweet, dopey Carlene was sitting around in the Sugarbaker abode listening to Julia (Dixie Carter), Mary Jo (Annie Potts), and Anthony (Meshach Taylor) reminisce about some of the rudely funny things Suzanne (Delta Burke) used to do before the Southern beauty queen up and moved to Japan. Over in a corner, Julia and Suzanne's snippy cousin Allison (Julia Duffy) sat pouting and tapping her dainty toe, waiting for the conversation to come around to something more interesting-like Allison.
This scene and Carlene's little remark were, on one level, gutsy moves for the series, since they acknowledged what every Designing devotee has been thinking: Things certainly aren't as amusingly crazy as they used to be in the Sugarbaker house before Jean Smart's Charlene left for Britain and Suzanne took her tent dresses and her endearingly imperious attitude to the Far East. On another level, though, Designing Women was throwing down a challenge to its audience, saying, in effect, we're moving on, and we want to know: Are you with us?
So far, to look at the Nielsen ratings, where Women remains lodged in the top 10, it appears that fans are indeed loyal to the show. But like other series that have introduced major cast changes this season, Designing Women has reached a critical stage, one that will determine whether viewers will stick with the show for a longer haul.
Designing Women's quandary is that its new characters are just variations on old ones. Hooks is essentially doing a new, improved, occasionally inspired version of the dementedly naive Bernice, played by Alice Ghostley. Bernice hasn't been seen much this season, and it's just as well can any show withstand the dithering of two such daffy ducks?
Duffy's Allison is in an even trickier position. As the direct replacement for what was arguably the show's most popular character, she's obliged to serve the same function for the series that Burke did that is, to be its major comic irritant. For her comic persona here, Duffy has tried to blend some of Suzanne's insouciant brattiness with the petulant willfulness of Stephanie, the yammering yuppie she played so shrewdly on Newhart. To date, the results have been extremely uneven some weeks Allison is a whining drag; others, she's a sharp-tongued asset on a show that's gotten a little softheaded. B+