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 and MARTIN MULL.
Once again, Roseanne’s third season enjoys the favorable intersection of “novelty” and “knowingness” — a concept I created in reference to the period in most long-running sitcoms where a show’s premise is still novel enough to be regularly addressed in weekly story (and, in the case of Roseanne, that largely refers to its credentials as a blue-collar example of the low-concept family sitcom, with a heightened degree of realism as a result), but it has also taken the time to develop its characters, so it knows how to best narratively (and comedically) feature them. Roseanne’s novelty — its ability to indulge the show’s working-class ethos, with relatable humanity — spans the first four seasons, and its best use of character, for the most part, begins in Season Two and ends in Five. The intersection of the two, then, occurs between Seasons Two, Three, and Four. And, as discussed last week, although Two is a great showing for the series, with plenty of classics, Three sees a rise in its overall sense of humor that, yes, does force a slightly looser grip on realism, but not enough to be harmful, for it’s still able to display the leads superbly while mining the economic drama that’s vital to Roseanne’s identity, making the trade-off worthwhile. This increase in the show’s comedy is likely due to its new staff of writers — led by Bob Myer (formerly of My Two Dads), and bolstered by folks like Jeff Abugov (who’d written for Cheers and The Golden Girls), Brad Isaacs (from Newhart), and two scribes who’d go on to even bigger things in the medium, Amy Sherman (The Gilmore Girls) and the notorious Chuck Lorre, the multi-cam’s most dominant force in the 21st century. This basic crew will stay intact through Four, giving both seasons a similar comic sensibility — a little cleverer and more sarcastic, with bigger jokes, but, again, just as much of the series’ “situation” in support. Of course, there is an ongoing downshift, so, while Four still exists, like Two and Three, in the “sweet spot” of novelty and knowingness, and enjoys the same sense of humor evidenced here, this year claims a more perfect balance of everything: premise, character, and comedy, all revealed, mind you, in “slice-of-life” story. In fact, if picking only one year to represent Roseanne at its best, I choose Three — when everything we can hope to get from this series, individually and collectively, is tops. But don’t take my word for it; I’ll let the episodes speak for themselves…
01) Episode 48: “The Test” (Aired: 09/18/90)
Roseanne is concerned that she may be pregnant.
Written by Bob Myer | Directed by John Whitesell
Season Three’s premiere is one of the most “slice-of-life” episodes of the entire series — bookended by this year’s penultimate showing, another simple and low-concept segment featured below. However, what also makes this installment — one of the few scripts credited to new headwriter Bob Myer — notable is the fact that it also plays out in real-time. Now, regular readers of this blog know that I’m typically a fan of real-time offerings because the limitations with regard to story and setting force a unity of time, place, and action that pushes characters, and their relationships, to the fore. And if a sitcom has great characters, with well-defined relationships, then these half hours tend to be an excellent showcase for the core elements of a series’ “situation.” Well, that’s indeed what happens here, with a story that also engages some economic drama, as the prospect of another mouth to feed is daunting — a reality that’s quite a contrast to future seasons, where Roseanne is eager to conceive and a whole pregnancy arc then plays out with little thought as to the working-class tensions of the series’ premise. So, this is a stellar sample of the year — indicative of how Roseanne is still so connected to its initial thesis.
02) Episode 50: “Like A Virgin” (Aired: 10/02/90)
As Roseanne fears that Becky is going to become sexually active, Darlene is caught with a boy.
Written by Brad Isaacs | Directed by John Whitesell
Continuing the previous year’s streak of strong parenting shows, Three’s maintained excellence with both its use of character and the series’ blue-collar bona fides — not to mention the realism that this aesthetic is expressly designed to project — helps to ensure that there are more A+ outings about family dynamics, and in particular, the rearing of children. This is another fine entry in that subcategory, as it not only boasts some of the show’s trademark believability, specifically as it pertains to the depiction of the kids, but it also evolves Darlene, who is growing up and embarking on the romantic trajectory that will, like Becky, ultimately dominate her narrative usage (for better and for worse). This script is also quietly united in theme, rendering the action tight and focused, but not at all harmful to the relatability that ultimately cements its appeal. Some of the best scenes include Roseanne and Jackie’s kitchen talk with Becky, and the mother/daughter moment between Roseanne and the girls. Brian Kerwin’s Gary appears.
03) Episode 51: “Like A New Job” (Aired: 10/09/90)
When Roseanne gets a new job as a waitress, she has to cede some of her home chores.
Written by Jeff Abugov | Directed by John Whitesell
Here, Roseanne moves from the hair salon — a decent working-class setting, but one that wasn’t as fruitful for stories that well-involve the series’ regulars — to waitressing at a kitchenette. For most of Roseanne’s life, the title character will be involved in the food service industry, and while there’s a bit more bouncing around ahead — which I appreciate, as it plays right into the show’s intended economic tension — this move really settles her into the most iconic and memorable job of the character’s existence. As for the episode itself, it’s a smart one, exploiting a believable drama about Roseanne having to let go of some of her household duties now that her new job requires more hours. It’s a small but human character conflict that ties beautifully into the show’s “Domestic Goddess” origins, making it a great example of Roseanne and proof of this year’s peak status. (Of note: a young Alyson Hannigan appears.)
04) Episode 53: “Becky, Beds, & Boys” (Aired: 10/23/90)
Roseanne and Dan demand that Becky stop seeing her new boyfriend.
Written by Jennifer Heath & Amy Sherman | Directed by John Whitesell
Becky’s future husband Mark (Glenn Quinn) debuts in this outing, which is consequentially seminal, given how important he is to her character’s arc. But it’s a fun half hour in its own right as well, invoking a familiar story used back in the first season with Becky, who’s basically a goody two-shoes despite some normal teenage rebellion, dating the “bad boy” of whom her parents disapprove. So, this idea is pretty common both in “real life” and in the family subgenre, but it’s handled in a way that emphasizes the show’s brand of literal realism in this era, while also taking commendable advantage of her characterization. Additionally, there are some fine moments here — not just the scene where Roseanne and Dan first meet Mark (which is very funny), but also when the pair goes mattress shopping — a diversion that displays the actors’ chemistry with laughs that reinforce our investment in this series’ sense of relatable truth.
05) Episode 54: “Trick Or Treat” (Aired: 10/30/90)
Roseanne dresses as a male trucker for Halloween and mingles at the Lobo Lounge.
Teleplay by Chuck Lorre & Jeff Abugov | Story by Chuck Lorre | Directed by John Whitesell
Roseanne’s second annual Halloween show works for the same reason that the first does — it’s a relatively simple affair that highlights the family’s love of this holiday as a defining characteristic, and in so doing, it’s able to make the case that, in spite of laughs coming from the gimmickry associated with dressing up and scaring people, it’s still connected to who they are. And in that vein, this entry, like the previous, doesn’t forsake the series’ low-concept realistic bent. Also, as Halloween shows go, this one feels less forced than some others ahead, with a character-revealing story where Dan worries when D.J. wants to dress in a witch’s costume (as opposed to something more associated with masculinity), while Roseanne gets to have fun pretending she’s a male trucker — another play on gender norms that unites the two plots under the same thematic umbrella, and serves as an early indication of this series’ socially liberal attitude. Is it a little jokier than last year? For sure. But, again, it’s not yet at the expense of Roseanne’s purpose. (Tom Arnold’s Arnie appears, and James Pickens Jr. debuts in the recurring role of Chuck.)
06) Episode 56: “Bird Is The Word” (Aired: 11/13/90)
Becky is suspended for making an obscene gesture in her school’s class photo.
Written by Joel Madison & Don Foster | Directed by John Whitesell
One of the more memorable kid-related shows from the era, this installment finds the Conners surprised but not too upset when Becky is seemingly caught sticking up her middle finger in the school’s class photo. What I appreciate most about this idea is that the family, true to the expectations Roseanne has set over the past few seasons, is unfazed about the act itself — until the school suspends Becky and calls in Roseanne for a parental scolding. This is an excuse for a scene where Roseanne (who reunites with her old high school friend Anne Marie, played by Adilah Barnes — she will become a recurring presence throughout the remainder of the run) gets to have words with the school principal (Dann Florek), reiterating the identifiable attitudes of many working-class parents who are struggling to raise their kids — doing the best they can — but still chastised for it. Thus, it’s very in-keeping with the show’s “of the people” energy, and thankfully, any concerns about the inciting incident not feeling congruent with Becky’s characterization are allayed when we learn that she didn’t really do it after all. As such, it’s a great implementation of the show’s ideology that also validates what we know about these leads.
07) Episode 59: “Confessions” (Aired: 12/18/90)
Bev comes to visit and insults Roseanne by calling her “ordinary.”
Written by Brad Isaacs | Directed by John Whitesell
Estelle Parsons’ hilarious Bev is back for her first solo appearance (sans John Randolph) in this effortlessly well-played excursion that pivots from last year’s Thanksgiving offering, where she got into it with Jackie about the latter’s choice to become a cop, so that now she’s in direct conflict with Roseanne — this series’ star and the figure who, when mired in relatable familial dysfunction, most keeps the proceedings both comedic and thesis-connected. Indeed, this entry has a nice balance of humor and truth, supported by well-defined character relationships, and even some premised thematics, as the whole idea of Roseanne being “ordinary” speaks to her personal value as a wife and mother — the ironically named “Domestic Goddess,” who, in this working-class world, must also go out and earn a living, a reality that forces her to compromise a bit in every part of her life, just to provide for her family, and without ever getting the credit or respect that she deserves. Accordingly, this is a conflict that hits right to the heart of the Roseanne character and her series’ raison d’être. Peak of the peak stuff.
08) Episode 63: “Home-Ec” (Aired: 02/05/91)
Roseanne teaches Darlene’s class how to be a working mother.
Written by Mark Lloyd Rappaport | Directed by John Whitesell
My choice for this year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Home-Ec” is Season Three’s best display of how the central characterization informs the rest of this series’ identity, as Roseanne visits Darlene’s home economics class to teach the kids what it’s like being a working mother. It’s something of a convenient sitcom idea, of course, but it plays exactly into what the entire show is about — Roseanne is a “Domestic Goddess” who holds down the house while also enduring long hours at a menial job, so she and her family can get by in this working-class, Midwestern world. This is personal to many viewers who find the Conners, and their brand of parenting, more realistic than the typical tripe that dominates the family subgenre. So, in a story that literally has her imparting her wisdom to an eager audience, both she and the show really thrive — and the grocery store scene, in particular, is a near-perfect encapsulation of both the series’ thesis, and this season’s excellence at projecting it: showcasing the Roseanne character, the blue-collar premise, and a comedic style that’s been heightened but is not yet a detriment to its realism. In this regard, “Home-Ec” is the most ideal sample of Season Three on this list, and an easy choice for MVE. (Additionally, this is not the reason for its superiority, but I was also guaranteed to highlight this outing because of how it compares to a similar story utilized in the third season of Married… With Children, where Peggy Bundy lectures Kelly’s class on how to be a housewife. Obviously, that show goes for broad laughs in line with her characterization and its premise’s satirical goals — in stark contrast to the dramatic earnestness of Roseanne, which adds the righteous proletariat element, as Roseanne is neither a stay-at-home mom exclusively nor someone who wants to parody, or mock, the demographic her character represents.) Oh, and for trivia lovers, Leonardo DiCaprio is an extra in Darlene’s class.
09) Episode 68: “Trouble With The Rubbles” (Aired: 03/26/91)
D.J. makes friends with the new neighbor kid, but Roseanne clashes with his mom.
Written by Joel Madison | Directed by John Whitesell
Roseanne gains a new foil in this half hour — Meagen Fay’s Kathy Bowman, the matriarch of a new family that has just moved into the neighborhood, with a snotty superiority that’s not totally predicated on class, as it might be on a more conventional and less literally realistic sitcom, but it’s certainly a factor that exacerbates tension between her and Roseanne, especially after their sons hit it off so well, forcing the two to tolerate one another. Naturally, this is a great idea for the series, as anything that signals the show’s economic status, primarily through the central Roseanne character, is desirable, particularly when it’s also attached to innate conflict that can be fodder for future story. Thus, this was a smart recurring element to introduce, and an episodic indication of just how well-functioning Roseanne is in this era. (In fact, I wish Season Four did a better job of capitalizing on the possibilities first suggested here.)
10) Episode 71: “Scenes From A Barbecue” (Aired: 05/07/91)
Roseanne and Jackie’s grandmother visits for their Mother’s Day barbecue.
Written by Bob Myer & Chuck Lorre | Directed by John Whitesell
Shelley Winters makes her debut in this popular outing as Roseanne and Jackie’s grandmother, who proves to be a spunky ally for them in their ongoing battle with their mom. Now, Bev doesn’t appear physically here, but her presence is certainly felt, both on the phone, and in the way these well-crafted relationships adhere to everything we already know about what she adds to their familial dynamic. Like Bev, Nana Mary fits right in with this cast too, and she uplifts the energy of this low-concept, plot-light barbecue offering — which even devolves into a sing-along (a risky move given Roseanne Barr’s history — but a chance, at least, for Bonnie Bramlett to do what she does best). However, if that little embellishment feels like a gimmicky distraction from the sitcom genre’s needs, it’s fine for this series, as it comfortably reinforces the show’s relatable blue-collar charms, and at a period where everything is firing on all cylinders, rendering this another great case study of Roseanne: what the series endeavors to be, and what it often successfully is right now, at the peak of its powers. (Arnie, Chuck, and Anne Marie also appear.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: the entry that I would have most liked to feature above, “Valentine’s Day,” a popular show that includes a love triangle for Darlene and Becky, but is most memorable for introducing both Bonnie Bramlett as Roseanne’s coworker and Martin Mull’s Leon as her new boss — the former is never deployed well, but the material-elevating Mull, whose Leon will significantly develop over time, is at least able to stand as a managerial (and thesis-affirming) antagonist to Roseanne. (Also, Dan goes lingerie shopping — making obvious parallels to Married… With Children.) Meanwhile, I also enjoy “Do You Know Where Your Parents Are?,” which boasts an amusing parenting plot that yields some funny moments, “Vegas Interruptus,” where Leon gets to function as an oppositional force to Roseanne the beleaguered waitress, “Her Boyfriend’s Back,” a solid parenting show that focuses on Dan and Becky specifically, and “The Pied Piper Of Lanford,” which launches the forthcoming arc about the Conners opening up their own bike shop, utilizing the continuity of their old pal Ziggy, a guest appearance by a young Brad Garrett, and some real economic drama that flatters the show’s identity. Lastly, of lesser quality but equal note are “Second Time Around,” the best offering this year related to the arc of Dan’s dad marrying and having a baby with Crystal (a character whom I like better in theory than actual narrative practice, especially in this story, which doesn’t really allow for new ground to be covered with Dan), “Dances With Darlene,” a cute Darlene show, which has two fine ideas that never converge or justify their pairing, and “PMS, I Love You,” an unforgettable excursion that claims big laughs but shockingly forsakes the series’ aesthetic realism in exchange for gags that are stunty and outrageous — more fitting on Married… With Children than Roseanne.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Roseanne goes to…
Come back next week for Season Four! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!