Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday, on a Wednesday! This week, we’re starting our coverage on the best of Roseanne (1988-1997, ABC), which is currently available on DVD and streaming.
Roseanne stars ROSEANNE BARR as Roseanne, JOHN GOODMAN as Dan, LAURIE METCALF as Jackie, LECY GORANSON as Becky, SARA GILBERT as Darlene, and MICHAEL FISHMAN as D.J. With NATALIE WEST and GEORGE CLOONEY.
Our recent study of the popular family sitcom in the 1980s has taken us from Family Ties, which exemplifies the tropes associated with the “traditional” domestic comedy of this era, to Kate & Allie, which reflects many of the same ideals but in a “modified” package that shows how this ethos could be applied to formats with otherwise different concerns, and now we’re concluding with Roseanne, one of the series that helped progress the subgenre from the 1980s into the 1990s, where it would continue to evolve. Specifically, Roseanne injected a Midwestern, blue-collar, anti-saccharine flavor into a formula that had spent much of the 1980s being sweet, urban-set, and/or comfortably above middle class — a sensibility epitomized by The Cosby Show, which, as we’ve seen, was also the best of this lot, embodying all the qualities of something like Family Ties, but with more artistic success by way of character and comedy (particularly in its first two seasons, when it was at its freshest and funniest). By seeming to rebut the foremost family sitcom of the 1980s and pivoting the genre as a result, Roseanne is an important turning point in the sitcom’s trajectory, and it makes a lot of sense to cover it here; I’m excited to do so… But I must admit that all the reasons for why I avoided it during 2017, when it chronologically should have appeared, have not been fully alleviated by this more formal study. For starters, I still think Married… With Children, which offers a similar working-class directness, is significantly funnier, and if laughs are the guiding determinant of sitcom success, then I’ve already covered the better example of this trend. Now, to Roseanne’s credit, I do think it was more influential and, as we’ll see, quite different via style and intent than its FOX friend, so I’d be lying if I tried to pretend I wasn’t eager to cover it now too, given the rhetorical value it adds to this blog’s study. But this eagerness, mind you, is also in spite of another thing that has long repelled me: Roseanne Barr’s legendarily awful treatment of her writers. As someone who approaches sitcom analysis with an emphasis on the text, I can appreciate fighting for the best scripts — but not in an approach that demeans or attempts to undermine them. The horror stories about this series from great, respectable scribes hangs over her show like a rain cloud. (I see certain names on-screen and can almost hear their screams!)
On the other hand, I think I’ve always been pretty good about being able to separate the performer from the part, so despite my belief that these behind-the-scenes issues do affect the show subliminally, I have no issue recognizing that Roseanne Barr is not Roseanne Conner, and that how the former treated her writers on set is basically irrelevant to how the latter comedically exists in motivated episodic story. (And needless to say, the same goes for her personal beliefs.) Moving on from Barr and back to the show itself though, I’ve also always perceived a certain arrogance about Roseanne the show too — the same kind of myopic self-adoration that emanates from Seinfeld and occasionally from Friends — which centralizes the series in a narrative that over-credits its importance to the genre. None of these shows invented or reinvented the wheel, and although they might be highly influential, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the greatest of all time. This attitude is always a little irksome, but it’s only truly repulsive when not backed up by what’s on the screen… In Roseanne’s case, I think there’s a lot of hyperbole in the show’s sense of itself, but to be fair, it doesn’t overwhelm us until later in the run than I initially expected. In fact, I’m happy to use this study to put the series in a fuller, and hopefully more honest, context — celebrating and critiquing it, based on the conception of ideal “situation comedy” that we have established on this blog. Speaking of this blog, if you’re wondering, I will be covering the nine-episode Roseanne reboot from 2018 as well. However, I won’t be discussing the ensuing (and still-running) The Conners, and I will NOT be considering this final postscript season alongside the nine successive years that were produced several decades before, for I view them as distinct properties, and while it’s okay to talk about Seasons One and Nine in terms of each other, as they exist within a series, the broken continuity, figuratively and literally, between the original run and this brief reboot encourages separation. Therefore, expect some thoughts on the short-lived 2018 version of Roseanne following our coverage of the original 1990s staple, and no mention of it until then… But first, let’s start at the beginning…
As recently noted, while Married… With Children was conceived as “We’re Not The Cosbys,” a title that references the quintessential family sitcom of the 1980s and asserts a direct response to it, Roseanne — a vehicle tailored for standup comic Roseanne Barr, who gained traction in Late Night during the 1980s for her “domestic goddess” routine — was actually developed as “Life And Stuff” by creator Matt Williams, who had been a key scribe during the first four seasons of The Cosby Show. Both of these series wanted to consciously provide a more blue-collar and Midwestern alternative to Bill Cosby’s hit (and the others in his subgenre), but their conceptions immediately reveal a difference: Married… With Children was an external critique, Roseanne an internal continuance. What does that mean? Well, as I said recently in a Rerun entry, “Created by a pair of alums from The Jeffersons who brought the same jokey attitude of Norman Lear’s aging classic into this new series [while trading] Lear’s initially political aims for a more genre-specific but equally idea-driven sense of satire […] their show was specifically designed to rebut the depiction of ‘the family’ as it appeared on television sitcoms in the mid-1980s, and, indeed, right from the first season, its laughs come from mocking conventions: the Bundys insult more than embrace, are genuinely below the middle-class ideal, and thumb their proverbial noses at the prospect of a sweet moment (or, heaven forbid, a VSE). Oh, yes, the show starts closer to literal realism and then broadens with every passing season, such that it eventually turns into a veritable cartoon, but it was built as a sketch-like parody of the ‘normal’ family, or rather, the ‘1980s sitcom’ idea of the ‘normal’ family, so truth was always less important than this critique, and the characters were consequently less nuanced — loud archetypes who exist to channel this lampoon.” All this is in contrast to Roseanne, which, for most of its run, professed a desire to be more literally realistic, using an “honesty” objective as the guiding engine for its style. And this, surprisingly, should be familiar to fans of The Cosby Show, which in 1984, charted a comparable course; if Roseanne sought to “evolve the subgenre by prioritizing comedy over sentimentality while striving for more realism, Bill Cosby’s ’80s classic could similarly boast being a funnier and more truthful take on a nuclear family than most of its contemporaries.
“Accordingly, although Roseanne, especially when associated with Married… With Children, seems stylistically opposed to such emblematic fare as The Cosby Show, it’s actually a direct progression, continuing the same thoughts — only with more comic aggression and a new working-class sensibility…” This is the crux of the distinction between the blue-collar pair: one is a satire of the 1980s family sitcom, the other is a sincere evolution — both of them countering their predecessors’ perceived artifice and artistic shortcomings with a bolder comic directive (more laugh-out-loud-material), but ultimately in pursuit of different goals, and with different qualities as a result. While Roseanne seeks comedy through a version of truth, Married… With Children is more interested in merely ridiculing the fake — it does not care to be literally truthful itself, and certainly not at the expense of a joke. And if Married… With Children easily chooses comedy when in competition with realism, Roseanne would rather — for the most part (and for most of its run) — avoid comedy that forces a choice… Yet more than Roseanne calibrating its aesthetic closer to a more literal definition of realism than Married… With Children’s, and accounting for the separate standards of truth to which they each ask to be held, the intent behind their aesthetics must also inform the way we discuss each series’ strengths and weaknesses. For instance, Married… With Children is like a sketch — hoping to satisfy its idea-led satire with outrageous gags supported by broad and equally outrageous characterizations. Thus, I’m not predicating my criticism of the series on reflective humanity — that would be counterintuitive to finding its best. No, the strength of that show comes from how well it’s able to showcase its leads — who are strongly defined, but with broad, exaggerated traits and a lack of dramatic nuance — in fulfillment of its comic premise of spoofing the subgenre’s tropes. If it does that well, then it’s an unqualified success — using its “situation,” and mostly, its characters, in pursuit of comedy. When it fails to use its characters well — asking more of them in story than even its own strained brand of logic can permit, breaching their basic consistencies — and/or fails to make its premised genre-based satire comedically clear, that’s typically when we find fault.
By that same token, Roseanne, whose push for more literal realism invites higher standards of believability — particularly for its characters — is at its best when its leads can capably inspire the working-class tension that it posits as more universally relatable than the comfortable family fare from earlier in the decade. So, I’m not looking at it to be a rowdy burlesque — that would be unfair. As long as it’s a consistent and comedic slice of life for a middle (to lower-middle) class white family, utilizing its leads to, per its wishes, honestly reflect a specific segment of humanity, then it’s an unqualified success — using its “situation,” and mostly, its characters, in pursuit of comedy. In this regard, while I said above that I find Married… With Children to be a funnier show, I also know it’s not wise to demand the exact same type and frequency of humor from Roseanne, given that they have different ambitions. Sure, every sitcom should reveal its comic purpose explicitly so that it can be considered competitive within this genre as a whole (because comedy is a fundamental requirement), but I know that Roseanne is purposely not trying to be as brazenly uproarious as Married… With Children, even though a similar blue-collar straightforwardness and no-B.S. creed undergirds both. I mean, I want Roseanne to be funny, but I don’t need it to be as funny as Married… With Children in order to celebrate it within the context of this study. Instead, it’s more productive to focus on when Roseanne is the best sitcom it alone can be, based on the “situation” it establishes and communicates to us as intended, so we can recognize the alternative: when it fails to use its characters well — engaging stories that aren’t motivated by them or don’t corroborate their realism — and/or it fails to project the appropriate working-class tenor, associated with said realism. That’s typically when we’ll find fault. Also, since Roseanne is not averse to indulging heavier, more dramatic moments — mostly in false synonymization of tragedy with truth — we’ll also have to look out for the instances when such notions are unearned, and/or the drama feels prioritized over the comedy, so the genre’s elemental needs are not met. As always, the quantity and quality of humor can determine hierarchies of episodic value too, in the same way character/”situation” usage can.
Under those terms, and like many of the sitcoms we cover here, the best period in the show’s life occurs at the intersection of novelty and knowingness. That is, Roseanne is at its best when the novelty of its premise/theme — in this case, that means the working-class realism serving as its raison d’être — is still fresh enough to inspire, and be revealed within, weekly story, but after the show has also increased its understanding of its characters by exploring them in story, so it now knows how to best feature them. Typically, in a low-concept series like Roseanne, that overlap occurs somewhere around the second, third, and/or fourth seasons, and this sitcom proves to be no exception. The novelty of its premise is strongest in the first four years and then progressively wanes — so much that the final few are actually forced to acknowledge the show’s improved economic fortunes… inevitably to their own detriment. But there’s a moment earlier than most expect — in Season Five — that I think represents a red line of sorts for the show’s ability (and resolve) to continue using its blue-collar bona fides as an important thematic interest for the series’ “situation.” Sadly, Roseanne is never as good at projecting this premised part of its low-concept identity after this red line; more on that in a few weeks though… With regard to the characters, Roseanne and Dan have basic personas from the start — the former’s coming largely from her standup origins — and the show is adept, compared to other family sitcoms of the time, at delineating its kids, particularly Darlene and Becky. However, the characterizations as a whole take a little time to settle, and they don’t become collectively commendable until about Season Two, when the show is also expanding its horizons with Jackie, played by the dynamic Laurie Metcalf — one of the series’ best material-elevators. Accordingly, the era of “knowingness” with character begins in Season Two… and it starts to fade in Season Five, when the show’s storytelling concerns sort of overtake the leads, as heavier themes and serialized plot points seem to be driving focus instead of the characterizations. Of course, that fifth year is also interesting because it bears a heightened sensibility with humor as well — a fact perhaps attributed to its staff, which was mostly unique to that season…
To wit, as alluded earlier, Roseanne is a show with a revolving door of writers, and there are certainly eras that are better than others because of who’s in charge. Just as Season Five — with Bruce Helford in control — sees an elevation of comedy (and drama), the earlier period led by Bob Myer (with Chuck Lorre on staff) is itself a comic ascension. That’s Seasons Three and Four — right in the sweet spot of novelty and knowingness. For these reasons (and a few others), that’s the era I’d personally call the series’ best — with Season Three itself the peak, boasting all of Roseanne’s good qualities, and few of the bad. Stay tuned for more… After those two years, the show remains very funny for a time, but sheds both the working-class attitudes that made the series unique, while too often resorting to a storytelling that undermines the necessity of character. What’s more, the self-importance that I initially said was off-putting begins to intrude more often, as an inflated sense of being — now so widely out of tune with actual quality — leads to a lot of self-referential sketch-like excursions that might work on a parodical and jokey series such as Married… With Children, but feel tonally and narratively jarring on Roseanne, whose identity is hinged on a sense of realism and humanity — no gimmicks, no allusions: just these characters in their Midwestern, blue-collar world. Naturally, a lot of these later episodes from these later years — and the wild last season is in a category all by itself (we’ll discuss it more then) — are something of a mess, going against what Roseanne was supposed to be, more tragically than most shows do on the decline, when they merely broaden so much that they push out their own desired aesthetic. But with an evolving depiction of the leading lady that also defines the loss of everyday realism for heightened self-gratification, this trend is unyielding… That said, this study has improved my thoughts on Roseanne, as it’s crystalized why it was so persuasive to the genre, influencing it in a way that Married… With Children couldn’t: for most of its life, it was a sincere family comedy. Unlike the latter, Roseanne was in the figurative sandbox with the rest of this era’s family comedies — and it indeed was created by an important figure on The Cosby Show, the 1980s’ most important entry in this subcategory.
Another reason for its greater influence in the genre (and immediate popularity) is that, while we’ve seen blue-collar energy imparted by male-dominated domestic sitcoms before — from The Life Of Riley and The Honeymooners to All In The Family and Married… With Children, Roseanne came from the matriarch’s point-of-view, and in emerging from this angle, it was fresher and more transformative, because, if you’ll forgive the stereotype, the “home” as a primary setting on TV has been more traditionally associated, in this genre, with women than men (it’s a social reality — women maintained their domestic obligations, regardless of whether they chose to work), and so to see the figure who defines this world — the queen, or Domestic Goddess, if you will — imparting a spotlighted energy that such figures have typically been denied, well, that’s more transformative. It wasn’t just her or her husband that seemed blue-collar from her centralized depiction now, it was the house too and all it represented — especially the people in it: the family. And, frankly, most of the classist tension that propelled those earlier working man shows were about other things: The Life Of Riley’s lovable loser, The Honeymooners’ tragic clown, All In The Family’s Nixon-era politics, and Married… With Children’s spoof of a subgenre. Roseanne is, for once, about a family. A white working-class Midwestern family. And being centered around a woman, for a change, helps cement that point. (In terms of matriarchal ’80s forerunners, I’m tempted to bring up Mama’s Family, but that show emerged from the sketch-world, with a Married… With Children crassness that then subsided upon its syndicated return, when it became folksier in accordance with its characters. It was also decidedly more rural and small-town too, not quite the working-class vibe of Roseanne. Plus, remember that the Harpers were a non-traditional nuclear family and only selectively embraced the usual tropes, so it’s not a fair comparison.) As you can see, I give Roseanne a lot of credit here because, by displaying a sensibility that was more indicative of the audience watching, it helped push the family sitcom in the 1990s into a more relatable (and laugh-driven, anti-mawkish) place, even as the trend would go back to being male-dominated and more middle to upper-middle-class, on shows like Home Improvement (also created by Matt Williams) and Everybody Loves Raymond…
But that’s a macro view, let’s get back to the micro… Season One. As the first year of the show, it’s got to endure growing pains about the use of its characters in story, and it’s not as funny as the seasons ahead because it can’t really maximize them yet. Additionally, initial showrunner Matt Williams — who was fired after the first 13 episodes following many clashes with you-know-who — and his replacement Jeff Harris (who would last until the end of Season Two) are great with the show’s working-class bent, but they’re not as laugh-out-loud hilarious as some of the future scribes who’ll take the reins in later years. This is also because the show endeavors to be especially real and relatable in One. However, the pilot is terrific, and Roseanne’s initial job at a factory provides for a nice immediate window into the world these characters inhabit. Incidentally, she will change occupations a lot in the first half of the series’ run, and actually, I appreciate it — this suggests an economic instability that aids the series’ “situation,” while also keeping story fresh and connected to the working woman angst of its premise… As for the factory itself, it’s often remembered for offering a young George Clooney in the recurring role of foreman — and as a love interest for Jackie. He and Metcalf aren’t a totally buyable match, and his episodes aren’t tops due to his character’s vagueness, but it’s fun to see him here, given our awareness of his career trajectory… And, again, the factory is a perfect place to establish the series’ proletariat tenor, so, while this isn’t the best year of the show by way of character or comedy (or even story), it’s got the series’ dramatic identity well-established, and, yes, it does feel more literally realistic and relatable — no matter your income — compared to the other family sitcoms on in 1988-’89, namely Family Ties and The Cosby Show. Heck, there’s no doubt about it: I’d rather be watching Roseanne, and even if Married… With Children provides a similar setting with bigger hahas, when I want a more purposeful, and human, mimesis of life, then Roseanne is the sitcom I choose… Well, okay, I think that’s enough pontificating for now; I’m ready to select ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s finest: when the series is “a consistent and comedic slice of life for a middle (to lower-middle) class white family, utilizing its leads to, per its wishes, honestly reflect a specific segment of humanity.”
01) Episode 1: “Life And Stuff” (Aired: 10/18/88)
Roseanne is summoned by a teacher because Darlene is barking in class.
Written by Matt Williams | Directed by Ellen Falcon
In the same way that The Cosby Show‘s pilot is a perfect encapsulation of that series and its strengths, Roseanne opens with the year’s most succinct display of what makes this show unique — namely, its audacious blue-collar energy, anchored by a tough working woman who’s more funny than she is sentimental, and consequently, because of this environment and her attitude of cutting through the B.S., her show is more realistic than the typical family fare epitomized by earlier 1980s sitcoms. Now, unlike The Cosby Show, whose pilot is the peak of that series’ comedic returns, Roseanne is going to become much funnier in later years, and despite some strong relationship-defining material between Roseanne and Dan in creator Matt Williams’ script, not to mention an amusing comic idea — Darlene barking — that lays elemental foundations for her persona, there’s still a lot of room for the show to grow on behalf of its leads. So, this isn’t the best that the series has to offer… and yet, in being an ambassador for Roseanne and what it aims to be, it is the most efficient and best-written “slice of life” for the Conners in Season One, so it’s my choice for MVE (Most Valuable Episode) from this otherwise not-gem-filled year. (Sal Barone is D.J. here — he was recast for the series with Michael Fishman, the weakest member of the ensemble who takes a while to improve.)
02) Episode 2: “We’re In The Money” (Aired: 10/25/88)
Roseanne and Dan can’t help but spend his advance payment.
Written by David McFadzean | Directed by Ellen Falcon
The series’ sophomore excursion essentially echoes the pilot’s themes, for by engaging a plot built around money, the show finds a reliable way to project its working-class perspective, where economic drama is a springboard for story. It can also help make for a noble display of character — or the central relationship, which early entries, like this one, really focus on expanding (with great success). What’s more, there are some big laughs in this half hour as well — particularly compared to the rest of the Williams era — and the scene between Roseanne and Friends’ Christina Pickles as a saleswoman at the fancy perfume counter is a highlight. So, in boasting comedy, character, and a reinforcement of the series’ themes, this is one of the show’s most collectively strong showings from the very early part of its life.
03) Episode 6: “Lovers’ Lane” (Aired: 12/06/88)
At the bowling alley, Roseanne meets Becky’s crush while Booker flirts with Jackie.
Written by Danny Jacobson | Directed by Ellen Falcon
With the majority of its action taking place in a bowling alley, this installment is reminiscent of several Married… With Children offerings that are also set in this blue-collar watering hole — a gathering place where characters in competition also make for natural story, emphasizing relationships. Credited to staffer Danny Jacobson (who eventually went on to create Mad About You), its script indulges a bit of narrative convention with the romantic bet between Jackie and Booker, the role played by George Clooney, but in terms of making the audience root for their pairing, this is the most successful story in charting that course, and it’s therefore the most successful use of his character on Roseanne. More fun, however, is the subplot where Roseanne spies on Becky’s crush at the alley’s food counter — launching some semi-serialized dramatic continuity as Becky embarks on her first relationship throughout Season One, giving us a taste of the kind of storytelling the show will be employing in later years with her (and Darlene).
04) Episode 11: “Canoga Time” (Aired: 01/17/89)
Roseanne tries to get Dan to throw out his things for a rummage sale.
Written by David McFadzean | Directed by Ellen Falcon
There’s a lot going on in this half hour, and while I don’t think it ever fully coalesces, there’s a buffet of ideas that indicate why the first season of Roseanne stands out — starting with the A-story where Roseanne pesters Dan about clearing out his junk for a rummage sale. This plot is not, by itself, exceptional, but it’s notable because it culminates in a big physical routine where Dan and Roseanne start trashing items around the house. I have mixed feelings about it — I’m not sure it’s totally within the season’s rigidly real aesthetic — but I ultimately enjoy it because the leads’ somewhat gritty (but not ridiculous) personas provide enough motivation, especially when played with a sense of well, playfulness. Additionally, I highlight this entry for the typical family subplot that nevertheless delineates Becky and Darlene, and the Jackie/Booker runner that, again, also exists as something specific to Season One. As such, it’s a formative sample from a formative era, and an accurate window into everything that’s going on at this time.
05) Episode 15: “Nightmare On Oak Street” (Aired: 02/14/89)
Darlene has her first period.
Written by Grace McKeaney | Directed by John Pasquin
Although starting with a fairly routine family sitcom story about a kid having trouble sleeping (presumably after a scary movie), this strong offering pivots in its second act to engage a plot that reinforces the show’s realism relative to the rest of the genre, as Darlene has her first period. Most sitcoms of this era wouldn’t touch such a topic, and if they did, it would be with the kind of obnoxious didacticism or kid-glove artifice that typifies a Very Special Episode. But Roseanne is not only speaking it plain, it’s doing so comedically. And, in contrast to Married… With Children, which also did a show about women’s periods earlier in the 1988-’89 season, the subject is not treated as an outrageous burlesque — no, it’s both believable and funny: exactly what the “kitchen sink” Roseanne was hoping to bring to the sitcom format.
06) Episode 16: “Mall Story” (Aired: 02/21/89)
The Conners head to the mall to look for savings.
Written by Laurie Gelman | Directed by John Sgueglia
As with the bowling alley, the mall is a prime middle-class locale, especially when the Conners head down there only because it’s an annual sales day — a detail reiterating money as scarce and a source of drama that both points to the show’s relatability and helps define its identity (not to mention its leads’). Truthfully, there’s nothing really hysterical here, for while it has a great setting for the show, the script’s character turns veer simpler and more realistic, with less of the slight comic heightening that propels many of the year’s more popular outings. However, I think some of these simpler and more realistic moments provide a genuine glimpse into how the show tends to be dramatic in this era — quietly, believably, and without the narrative pomp and circumstance that will come later. Accordingly, I like what this excursion says on this list about the series, and in particular, its first (and most truthful) season.
07) Episode 17: “Becky’s Choice” (Aired: 02/28/89)
The Conners invite Becky’s boyfriend’s family over for dinner, but she has a secret.
Written by Laurie Gelman & Danny Jacobson | Directed by John Sgueglia
This episode feels like two different stories split in the middle to avoid some of the predictable or clichéd moments that would otherwise occur in most family sitcoms employing these routine ideas. The first has the Conners inviting the parents of Becky’s first beau over for dinner — a chance for the series to pick back up on some of its semi-serialized continuity, and to mine humor from the family’s working-class energy, as they are an obvious contrast to the guests, a more conservative, wealthier middle-class clan. But before there can be any combustion related to this idea, the script ducks convention and pivots to another story in which Roseanne catches Becky secretly seeing a bad boy on the side — a narrative notion that prognosticates what’s going to be done with her character in future seasons. So, while both halves reveal the show’s maintained commitment to realism, the first capitalizes on the series’ sense of self, and the second marks a stepping stone in the developmental usage of one of its leads.
08) Episode 19: “Workin’ Overtime” (Aired: 03/14/89)
Roseanne is busy working overtime at her job.
Written by Bill Pentland | Directed by Ellen Falcon
One of only two scripts in the series credited to Roseanne Barr’s then-husband — quickly replaced by the notorious Tom Arnold — this installment has an early production code but looks like it might have needed reshoots later, suggesting a difficult gestation. It’s a very quiet, low-concept offering that doesn’t seem to be popular among fans, but it really nails the series’ raison d’être, with a story about the blue-collar realities of a two-income Midwestern home still struggling to make ends meet, working to the point of exhaustion. All of its laughs come believably within this more literally realistic ethos, and there’s a notably fine scene between Roseanne and a waitress at a diner that hammers home the show’s world and its core thematic concerns. I know most of you would rather a flashier option take this spot, but this IS what Roseanne was built to be, and I couldn’t avoid spotlighting it.
09) Episode 21: “Death And Stuff” (Aired: 04/11/89)
A salesman drops dead in the Conners’ kitchen.
Written by Bill Pentland | Directed by John Sgueglia
Without a doubt, this is the least “slice of life” episode here in the first season of Roseanne, with a gaudy narrative that’s not as inherently relatable to the show’s wide audience — and one that isn’t even driven by the characters or their unique circumstances either. Thus, it’s not ideal situation comedy as we have defined it. But it’s just so darn funny, compared to this season’s baseline, that it was impossible not to include it, proving as always that humor (if strong enough) can excuse almost anything… Also, with a morose story about a man who drops dead and is treated with some of the comic cavalierness of Married… With Children, and specifically its equally great 1987 Christmas outing where a mall Santa falls to his doom in the Bundy backyard, this entry creates obvious tonal associations between the two series — particularly a mutual interest in pursuing humor from a blue-color straightforwardness and lack of concern for perceived taboos. That is, Roseanne is perfectly willing to offend so-called “good taste” in the name of either comedy and/or truth — but most ideally, at this juncture, comic truth. (Of note: Jeff Corey and Lee Garlington are among the guests.)
10) Episode 22: “Dear Mom And Dad” (Aired: 04/18/89)
Roseanne and Jackie’s parents pay an unannounced visit.
Written by Danny Jacobson | Directed by John Sgueglia
Estelle Parsons and John Randolph make their debuts as Roseanne and Jackie’s parents in this very funny offering that is fundamentally important because it introduces two major characters in the leads’ lives — primarily their mother, Bev, who will recur throughout the remainder of the series. With a typically fraught sitcom dynamic that’s nevertheless made slightly fresh by the folks’ obliviousness to just how much they bother their kids (and son-in-law), there’s a lot of relatable family humor here that looks forward to the subgenre in the ’90s, where the idealism of the ’80s is stripped away for more confrontational character-led comedy (see: Everybody Loves Raymond). It’s also a funnier installment, as a whole, than the similar one from earlier in the year with Dan’s father, and it’s more valuable too, because it helps give dimension to Roseanne’s relationship with Jackie, the latter of whom is really about to come into her own in Season Two. So, with great humor, familial relatability, and true character rewards, this was a must-include and an MVE contender. (Note: Bruce Willis makes a cameo in the tag. Regarding the tag scenes, I am not an enthusiast — they’re a final joke that the series sometimes uses as a chance to break its fourth wall, even in this era of heightened realism, where the breach feels jarring and unnecessary, rendering it a gimmick that comes at the expense of the show’s larger goals.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Language Lessons,” which is a strong half hour in and of itself, as it attempts to establish a dynamic between Dan and Jackie that can breed conflict, but it’s neutered by the fact that their relationship quickly becomes nothing like what’s suggested here in this early entry, essentially negating everything it tries to do; “Saturday,” a great blue-collar show with a lot of fine moments but a little too much time given to characters who aren’t leads and who don’t represent the series to the best of its ability; “Father’s Day,” the aforementioned outing with Dan’s father (Ned Beatty), which isn’t as funny or as rewarding for character as the excursion with Roseanne’s parents featured above; and “Let’s Call It Quits,” a dramatic factory-based season finale that’s mostly used to open up the series for new story in Two and is therefore more functional than revealing. Of lesser quality but equal note is a formative entry for the Roseanne/Dan relationship, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” and two surprisingly popular segments that I, frankly, find to be overrated, “Dan’s Birthday Bash” and “Toto, We’re Not In Kansas Anymore.” The former, I suppose, provides some insight into the series’ patriarch, but the narrative is so clichéd and convenient, and strains to match the show’s style in this era, that it doesn’t seem worthy of recognition, while the latter is an unabashed drama that’s light on laughs, not well-tied to the show’s economic situation, and neither driven, nor shaped at all, by the characters. There’s no way, in a study about what makes good situation comedy, that I could celebrate it.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Roseanne goes to…
“Life And Stuff”
Come back next week for Season Two and a new Wildcard Wednesday!