The 1987 Gay Funeral Episode of ‘Designing Women’ Will Break Your Heart
Shortly into the second season of Designing Women, the episode “Killing All the Right People” gave audiences everything they could expect from the show. It had a fiery speech for Dixie Carter, some air-headed interludes for Delta Burke and not one but two conservative witches for the main cast to clash against.
It also had a heartbreaker of an ending.
The episode revolves around Kendall Dobbs (Tony Goldwyn, blond and more than 20 years before Scandal), asking the women of Sugarbaker & Associates to design his funeral because he’s dying of AIDS. They do, and as a result of the interaction, Julia Sugarbaker (Carter) ends up castigating a homophobic client who has the gall to tell Kendall that gays deserve to die from AIDS and, in fact, the disease “is killing all the right people.” The homophobic woman is thrown out in grand Sugarbaker style, and the episode closes with a shot of Kendall’s services, with the cast singing along to “A Closer Walk With Thee.”
There’s a lot to discuss about “Killing All the Right People,” and that’s why it’s featured in an installment of Gayest Episode Ever, my podcast about the rare occasions when classic TV series chose to focus on LGBT themes.
For example, you may be surprised to hear the opinion that the hardest-hitting aspects to this episode don’t arrive in Julia’s speech. Instead, the most devastating thing on-screen happens during a later monologue by Mary Jo (Annie Potts), who is speaking at a P.T.A. meeting in favor of giving out condoms to high school students, so that other parents will not know the grief that Kendall’s mother soon will.
Dixie Carter’s speeches were the stuff of legend, but it’s a more restrained delivery by Potts, bemoaning the loss of her “sweet, funny friend, only 24 years old” that destroyed me watching and re-watching this episode.
Perhaps the biggest heartbreaker is that the title of this episode, “Killing All the Right People,” comes from a real-life incident. Series creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason lost her mother to an AIDS-related illness after she contracted HIV from a blood transfusion. While in the hospital, Bloodworth-Thomason heard someone say that AIDS was “killing all the right people,” and her subsequent fury pushed her to write this script and put those words in the mouth of one of the most sanctimonious bigots ever to feel the wrath of Julia Sugarbaker.
“Killing All the Right People” is not a perfect piece of television. Even considering that this episode aired in 1987, gay viewers may note that we don’t learn much about poor Kendall Dobbs, and he’s not given much to do except to die off-screen. However, this episode is still a great example of how sitcoms could put comedy aside for a moment to educate audiences about serious issues and pull at their heartstrings for all the right reasons.
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This article was originally published on April 26, 2018. It has since been updated.