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The time Designing Women talked about AIDS when Reagan wouldn't

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

The nasty blemish on President Ronald Reagan's oft-celebrated legacy is that he didn't say anything as the AIDS epidemic began destroying and taking American lives. His first remarks on the disease came in 1987 — four years after the first cases began popping up and after 20,849 Americans had already died. At the time, Americans were looking for leadership and guidance — people wanted information about the disease, the seriousness of the epidemic, and the progress that doctors were making, if any — but were met with a deadly silent administration.

That grim, frustrating reality is what makes the Designing Women episode "Killing All the Right People" so courageous and groundbreaking. Written by series creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the episode aired in October 1987, a few months after Reagan first addressed the disease, and features Tony Goldwyn as a young designer named Kendall Dobbs who is dying of AIDS. He asks the women to design his funeral and talks about the hate he encounters — even from doctors and nurses — because of his diagnosis.

The episode does slink into "very special episode" territory a few times, but it tackles and debunks many misconceptions surrounding AIDS. Bloodworth-Thomason spoke to GLAAD in 2013, explaining that the episode was inspired by her mother, who had contracted the disease through a blood transfusion. Bloodworth-Thomason sought to humanize and break down the hateful prejudice that frequently accompanied an AIDS diagnosis.

"As I wrote much of the first season, sitting beside my mom, I was witness to the incredible prejudice and prevailing ignorance inflicted not just on her, but all the homosexual men who shared her hospital floor," she said. "Incredibly, some of the medical staff refused to even touch the patients. Medicine was often placed in rubber buckets and kicked into the rooms. Many of those young men on my mother’s floor died alone with a game show playing on television."

The episode was eventually nominated for an Emmy. Though it didn't win, by tackling the heartbreaking truths of the AIDS epidemic on primetime television it made an important and necessary statement, and its importance won't be forgotten.

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