Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing 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 as Crystal.
As discussed last week, Seasons Two, Three, and Four of Roseanne each boast the desired peak-making intersection of novelty and knowingness. That means, like its predecessor, Season Two is still able to regularly enjoy the novelty of the series’ blue-collar working-class premise, displayed smartly through episodic stories that also reinforce the associated relatability of the characters and the more literal realism of their world (relative to the genre). This is partly because the show is still fairly new, but also because showrunner Jeff Harris (who took over in the middle of One) and this year’s crew — including Buffy’s Joss Whedon and the infamous Tom Arnold, whom Barr married in January 1990 — continue to improve the show’s comedic returns while still regularly playing to the premise in plot. Additionally, Two benefits from the arc set up in the previous finale, as Roseanne is now out-of-work and bouncing around in search of regular employment (until finally landing at a hair salon) — a common struggle for the working-class, but seldom seen in the family sitcom subgenre. Meanwhile, this season also contains some of the best and most honest parenting episodes of the entire run, validating the series’ tonal rebuttal through human half-hours that refine and explore the main characters. To wit, the other big element contributing to Two’s excellence is “character,” as the show has now come to understand its leads following a typical warming-up period in One. This newfound knowingness is revealed in story, as plots provide a deeper understanding of both Roseanne and Dan, while Becky and Darlene are similarly fleshed out through definition-deriving segments. What’s more, Jackie’s police arc helps create both a tangible personality for her, and a crystal-clear relationship between her and Roseanne, cementing her characterization and their bond going forward. So, with novelty and knowingness, this is a candidate for the show’s best season. Oh, personally, I think Three are Four are just as strong for character, only funnier — and without infringing enough on the show’s blue-collar charm or prized realism to be harmful. And, as for the Roseanne evidenced here, although it still may not be as funny as Married… With Children, it’s more honest than any other family sitcom of the time, making it one of the best of 1989-1990, and, with hindsight, probably my second favorite season of this series overall.
Now, before I get to my list, I want to share some general thoughts about the leads. For starters, Roseanne is the linchpin of the series’ style, and stories that engage the working-class premise are usually situated around her — the matriarch who not only has to take care of the house, but also must go out and provide for it. So, more than just being the star, plots that use a lot of her tend to be most affiliated with the show’s thesis. Naturally, her two richest relationships are with husband Dan and sister Jackie, and installments that display those dynamics flatter the series’ situation by giving support to some of its primary emotional stakes. This is good; Laurie Metcalf and John Goodman are the show’s two best actors, and they instill in their material both pathos and humor. Yet, in terms of anchoring story, unless there’s a tie to Roseanne, or, more importantly, an explicit link to the show’s premised brand of relatable blue-collar realism, plots focused on them aren’t always great. More reliably satisfying, I’d say, are entries about the whole family as a collective — Roseanne, Dan, and Jackie included, along with the kids. Speaking of the kids, when leading stories by themselves, the children with the best-defined personalities make for the best episodes. As such, Darlene’s episodes tend to be better than Becky’s, whose episodes tend to be better than D.J.’s — the last of whom is the weakest member of the regular ensemble, and someone who doesn’t really blossom until late in the run. The girls, on the other hand, are both believable and well-delineated throughout Two, before their arcs get overtaken in later years by serialized romantic angst. Here, both can stand strong in plot and help reflect the show’s sense of truth. That said, they’re also at their best in story when directly opposite their folks, particularly Roseanne… As for other main characters, the last one I’ll mention now is Crystal. I appreciate her presence in affirming the series’ working-class energy and think she functions best when juxtaposed against Roseanne. However, her haha-yielding potential is hit-and-miss, while the dramatic decision to pair her with Dan’s father doesn’t do much for her character except keep her present. There won’t be a lot of Crystal-heavy outings on these lists, because they just can’t compete with entries about the others cited above, especially, once again, Roseanne, who’s well-featured in Season Two — one of her, and her series’, best.
01) Episode 24: “Inherit The Wind” (Aired: 09/12/89)
Becky is embarrassed after breaking wind before the school council.
Written by Allan Katz | Directed by John Pasquin
Season Two opens with an elevated comic confidence, engaging a unique sitcom story that corroborates the series’ willingness to be crass for laughs, as long as it’s not at the expense of the truth for these characters. Yes, the success of this outing is largely predicated on a funny idea — that Becky publicly passed gas at a school event — but it’s revealing for the show’s identity and offers moments that indicate what we can expect from Roseanne at its best: it’ll go places that most family shows won’t, and with maintained believability a priority. Additionally, I highlight this episode because it’s a notable point of contrast to Married… With Children, which similarly felt free to indulge potty humor, but with more crudeness and abandon than the human simplicity exhibited here, one of the season’s funniest and most memorable.
02) Episode 25: “Little Sister” (Aired: 09/19/89)
Roseanne objects to Jackie’s interest in becoming a cop.
Written by Joss Whedon | Directed by John Pasquin
This is the installment I credit for really cementing the dynamic between Roseanne and Jackie, as the story progresses the latter’s arc — now that she’s no longer working in the factory, she wants to enroll in the police academy and pursue a career as a cop — mining both comedy and drama from Roseanne’s sisterly reaction. With a familiarity that can turn contentious — because they’re so close, and protective of each other — this relationship gets more play here than it ever got in One, and it’s nicely mirrored by the subplot with the two younger girls, whose relatable antagonism only reinforces the show’s realistic ethos and the humanity of their depictions. Undoubtedly, the physical centerpiece for Metcalf and Barr is the highlight, but this entry ultimately has a larger macro value, setting the template for how Jackie and Roseanne will exist within the rest of the series (and especially this season, in other segments that pick up where this one left off). Also, of note, this is the first script credited to Joss Whedon.
03) Episode 30: “BOO!” (Aired: 10/31/89)
Roseanne and Dan engage in a series of pranks for Halloween.
Written by Norma Safford Vela | Directed by John Pasquin
The first of the series’ annual Halloween excursions, this is certainly the most novel and fun, for although I’m on record as not being a fan of shameless holiday shows that rely more on the trappings of an event rather than the characters, and I generally find “prank wars” to be an unenjoyable story-driven gimmick that pushes forth comic ideas over, again, the characters, I recognize that Halloween — in particular — is a staple for Roseanne, and this show takes pride in making the yearly celebration a part of both its identity and the Conners’ DNA. Accordingly, I am doing my best to meet the show on its own terms, and since this series wants to depict the family’s enjoyment of Halloween as a revealing characteristic, then I can acknowledge that by benefiting from the freshness of this detail, and with a simple storytelling that highlights these leads, allowing the plot to be more rooted in Roseanne’s “situation,” this is among the best of the Halloween lot, and worthy of recognition on a list that celebrates this season’s finest.
04) Episode 32: “We Gather Together” (Aired: 11/21/89)
All the in-laws join the Conners for a Thanksgiving meal.
Written by Danny Jacobson | Directed by John Pasquin
Even though Roseanne will not feature Thanksgiving as often as Halloween, it’s another holiday that the series embraces, mostly because it’s an excuse to get the family together for an episode that can play out with a unity of time, place, and action, yielding solid comedy and drama based on relatable relationships. This installment not only enjoys the return of John Randolph and Estelle Parsons as Roseanne’s parents (who learn of Jackie’s career choice), along with Ned Beatty as Dan’s dad, but we also meet Dan’s mother, played for this one time by the under-appreciated Ann Wedgeworth (later replaced in the gimmicky final season by Debbie Reynolds). Unfortunately, the show will radically change its depictions of some of these characters in the years ahead — namely, Roseanne’s dad and Dan’s mom — but here, they’re steeped in the show’s trademark blue-collar realism, and that’s why this outing is such a success.
05) Episode 33: “Brain-Dead Poets’ Society” (Aired: 11/28/89)
Darlene does not want to read her poem at the school’s Culture Night.
Written by Joss Whedon | Directed by John Pasquin
Sara Gilbert gets one of her best showings of the entire series in this excursion focused on Darlene, the sarcastic tomboy who’d rather snark than talk about her feelings. So, in building towards a climax where Darlene is forced to read a poem that she wrote for school, this script is able to offer a powerfully expressive character moment, as the audience — along with Roseanne — learns about the depth of her hidden emotions, courtesy of a memorably written rhyme that delivers sentiment, but motivates it from this turnaround in character, and thus doesn’t feel maudlin or extraneous, because it’s earned by its direct response to her persona. As a result, this is one of the formative entries for Darlene and proof of Season Two’s strength at tapping into its leads, and especially the two daughters, with show-defining truth. Troy W. Slaten appears.
06) Episode 35: “No Talking” (Aired: 12/12/89)
Roseanne takes Becky’s door away and receives the silent treatment in return.
Written by Norma Safford Vela | Directed by John Pasquin
As noted above, Season Two claims some of the finest parenting shows of the run, with comic stories that explore the leads and earn big laughs without shedding any of the series’ desired grasp on realism, or the working-class tenor to which it’s attached. This outing — in which Roseanne fights with a rebellious Becky and literally removes her door (leading to the old silent treatment routine, a Conner hallmark) — is a beautiful showcase for both characters, with insightful beats that tell us more about Roseanne’s history and also help flesh out Becky (which is great, because pretty soon her usage will be mostly confined to the narrative continuity of dating the “bad boy”). And it all comes in a very realistic and sincere teleplay that showcases why Roseanne was the #1 most-watched show in the country at the time: it’s more true-to-life, and therefore comedically (and dramatically) identifiable to many Americans. A favorite.
07) Episode 37: “One For The Road” (Aired: 01/09/90)
Becky and her friend get drunk while home alone without parental supervision.
Written by Sheree Guitar | Directed by John Pasquin
Another strong parenting show, this segment employs a narrative that, on a lesser family sitcom, might become a Very Special Episode, as this is the requisite offering where a teen gets drunk and has to pay the price. Thankfully, Roseanne avoids any preachy moralizing, couching Becky’s lesson in earned character exchanges and show-affirming humor, while boasting, as usual for this era, a lot of realistic humanity that removes the typical artifice of a VSE. I appreciate that, and I also enjoy highlighting it as a contrast to The Cosby Show, which used a similar idea earlier this same season and actually produced one of that series’ best half hours, thanks, in large part, to a hilarious centerpiece where the Huxtables force their rebelling teen to play with them the same drinking game that just got her drunk. It’s a riot, and — surprisingly enough — funnier than anything that happens here in this Roseanne. But The Cosby Show’s version (“I’m ‘In’ With The ‘In’ Crowd”) is less emotionally truthful overall, thereby indicating that even though Roseanne is usually a more comedic series because it’s more honest en masse, it’s still not often willing, at this juncture, to encroach too heavily on its reality for the sake of laughs. As we’ll see, there’s still more room for the show to court extra hahas without inflicting harm, but, in the meantime, this installment nobly reinforces Two’s unique idealogical rigidity.
08) Episode 38: “An Officer And A Gentleman” (Aired: 01/23/90)
Jackie takes over the Conners’ household duties when Roseanne is out of town.
Written by Danny Jacobson & Norma Safford Vela | Directed by John Pasquin
Although Roseanne barely appears in this outing — IMDb erroneously claims she sat out in protest of Matt Williams, but as we know, he was well off the series by this point, so it’s gotta be something else — it’s still a funny half-hour sample of Roseanne that honors Roseanne herself, contrasting the title character and her facetious “Domestic Goddess” skills with Jackie, who all of a sudden turns into a shockingly good homemaker. By predicating its comedy on a key aspect of the show’s identity, this entry solidifies just how novel and relatable the series is compared to other family sitcoms of the era, and it does so while both doubling down on the Roseanne character (even while she’s not there) and developing the dynamic between Dan and Jackie, which has changed considerably since the start of the first season. Now, I’m not thrilled about the Leave It To Beaver allusion — that’s the kind of metatheatrical self-indulgent gimmickry that will help corrupt the show in its last few seasons, destroying its realism for the sake of jokes that aren’t great — but it’s an aberration in Two, and in a script built around a comparison-based domestic idea, it does feel tangentially in support of the script’s big picture.
09) Episode 41: “I’m Hungry” (Aired: 02/13/90)
Both Roseanne and Dan try to lose weight.
Written by Danny Jacobson & Norma Safford Vela | Directed by John Pasquin
The leading couple’s shared size is frequently discussed in reference to this series and in analysis of its appeal — both favorably and unfavorably — but its scripts, perhaps shockingly to the outside, seldom resort to “fat jokes” or insults based on weight. I respect this, for laughs about appearance — regardless of whether you personally find them offensive — are lazy compared to jokes about behavior. Additionally, I think their size was probably more shocking in the television landscape of the late ’80s than in the actual Midwestern world the series was endeavoring to inhabit, so it makes sense that it would be more, well, “normalized” within the show itself. However, for a one-off installment, it’s gratifying to see Roseanne — in the spirit of its own honesty — reckon with the leading characters’ relatable efforts to lose weight. This is a goal that reiterates their humanity and allows for some terrifically funny moments, including a few physical beats where the stars shine. So, this is an atypical offering, but it does the same things that all the best Roseanne’s do: truth. Lori Tan Chinn and Debra Mooney are among the guests.
10) Episode 45: “April Fool’s Day” (Aired: 04/10/90)
Roseanne and Dan struggle to complete their taxes.
Written by Steve Paymer | Directed by John Pasquin
With a very true-to-life economic drama informing this funny teleplay’s telling of a recognizably simple story, “April Fool’s Day” is easily among the purest embodiments of Roseanne in this era, validating the show’s more literally truthful blue-collar bona fides without losing any of the comedy that raises it above its other family sitcom contemporaries. Naturally, the Conners’ struggle to complete and comprehend their taxes is a problem to which most adults can relate, especially when money is relatively scarce and every bit matters, and of course, the scene down at the IRS where Roseanne gets to tell off the arrogant man behind the counter is a wonderful working-class soapbox highlight, as she believably says what many viewers would like to echo — with humor, but not cleverness. It’s a great climax to a low-concept narrative that displays her character well and, again, reinforces all the important elements of the series’ identity in this era. In fact, despite the gimmick of the “dun dun dunnnns” — which is an artificial source of comedy, removed from the choices these characters are making in this realistic scenario, rendering it therefore a gag that’s antithetical to the aesthetic on which Roseanne hangs a lot of its credibility as a superior work of sitcommery (it’s something we’d be more apt to find on Married… With Children) — this entry is my choice for the year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE). That cheap stunt is too small to obscure what is otherwise a perfect encapsulation of the show’s narrative brilliance during Season Two, and I’ll instead regard it not as a blemish, but as one of the very earliest indications of the inevitable trajectory this series will eventually follow…
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: three solid entries that I could make a case for highlighting, “Guilt By Disassociation,” which has a fine economic drama for the late 1980s where Roseanne is denied a job because she lacks computer skills, “Hair,” another outing that reiterates the show’s working-woman thesis as Roseanne gets a job she hates but needs at a hair salon, and “Fathers And Daughters,” one of the year’s strong parenting shows, this time focusing most on Dan and Becky. All three are worth checking out and almost made my list, but for the fact that the ten above I think are each individually better. Of lesser quality but equal note, meanwhile, are “House Of Grown-Ups,” which continues the sisterly dynamic established in the funnier and more formative “The Little Sister,” “Chicken Hearts,” which includes a slightly contrived but nevertheless working-class comic idea, and “Born To Be Wild,” which does for Dan what this year’s season finale does for Roseanne, dimensionalizing him via his unrealized ambitions, and with a nice blue-collar energy that will eventually return later when the family opens up a bike shop. Lastly, I’ll also cite “Fender Bender,” which has some funny moments from Debra Mooney despite a generic and therefore unideal sitcom story.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Roseanne goes to…
“April Fool’s Day”
Come back next week for Season Three! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!