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, SARA GILBERT as Darlene, and MICHAEL FISHMAN as D.J. With JOHNNY GALECKI as David, SANDRA BERNHARD as Nancy, LECY GORANSON as Becky, DANIELLE HARRIS as Molly, and ESTELLE PARSONS as Bev.
Season Five tends to be popular with fans because it has a handful of big, memorable episodes with extremes of both comedy and drama, occupying a larger space in the series’ mythos than many of the quieter, low-concept entries that constituted its best in earlier years. Additionally, it’s a season by another great collection of scribes — led by Bruce Helford (future co-creator of The Drew Carey Show), and including Bruce Rasmussen (Drew Carey), Sy Dukane & Denise Moss (Murphy Brown, Frasier), Eileen Heisler & DeAnn Heline (The Middle), lone holdover Amy Sherman, and two writers who’ll actually survive the year and rise through the ranks, Rob Ulin (Malcolm In The Middle) and Eric Gilliland (Who’s The Boss?) — and they’re, like their predecessors from Three and Four, adept at keeping the show’s comedic fortunes high. However, as you know, Five isn’t one of my favorites — it’s outside the period of “novelty x knowingness” because it sees a decided drop in how the series both handles its characters and its premise. To start with the latter, this is the season where the show is no longer able to write to its working-class identity reliably within weekly story, and in fact, I think there’s a moment that signals this unfavorable change — it happens early in the year when Bev gives her daughters enough money to own and operate a restaurant. Now, naturally, food service isn’t an easy business, and the setting still evokes a certain tonality, but it marks a shift for the central character: she’s going from waitress to manager, or blue-collar to white-collar. Oh, yes, Dan and Roseanne already owned their own bike shop (which closes at the beginning of this year in one of the last genuine displays of relatable hardship for the entire series), but in order to do that, they had to take out another mortgage on the house. That is, they financially suffered. With the restaurant, they never suffer — they are literally given the help, trading economic drama for, I suppose, relational baggage between Roseanne and her mom (who becomes a partner), but that tradeoff is never maximized, especially when this move immediately launches the broader trend away from a narratively evident working-class ethos. From here, the show has to remind us of those origins by telling us with crude Bundy-like (anti-Roseanne) self-mockery — e.g., “Look how white trash we are!” — rather than regularly exhibiting demographic sympathy in narrative.
There are also big changes to the use of character in Five. In addition to a more abrasive version of Roseanne, the biggest concerns are seen, like the mitigated thesis, within story. Becky’s departure at the top of the year (Lecy Goranson went off to school) naturally limits the show’s capacity for relatable family plots, so Five instead pushes Darlene’s romance with David to the fore, forcing them to take on all the teen angst that had previously been split between the girls. It’s certainly not as obnoxious as it’ll become, but the end of Five already bears witness to a semi-serialized focus on romantic drama, propelled by story beats that seem to drive plot, forcing character turns that don’t feel totally earned. Making all of this worse, meanwhile, is the incorporation of two new neighbor girls, whose inclusion hopes to give Darlene more scene partners her own age (in Becky’s absence) and allow for more teen/family yarns. But they, and specifically Molly, don’t end up offering anything but a story-born source of conflict in the Darlene/David relationship, with little definition or emotional relevance for us, as there’s no affiliation to the show’s thematic goals — just further evidence of the year’s struggles with character and premise. Additionally, most of the story ideas are starting to become cumbersome too, particularly in terms of drama, for this is the year where Roseanne really forces her writers to handle heavy topics, namely abuse, as Five expands not only on the trauma she suffered at the hands of her dad (a notion introduced last season), but also David’s mistreatment from his mom — a device to get him under the Conner roof — and Jackie’s dealings with a violent boyfriend. None of these notions are ideal for the sitcom genre, and only some are placed in episodes that manage to balance the seriousness of the subject matter with the form’s necessary humor. What’s more, any connection that exists between domestic violence and economic status is never sincerely proposed via the characters, so it doesn’t ever validate the premise, especially for viewers to whom this series initially was a representative “slice of life.” And, to that point, this is all harder to believe than the show’s usual fare, asking that the leads’ basic humanity extend further than ever before — not just to relatable human drama, but to melodrama.
So, it’s a big leap, and it’s another indication that the show is moving away from truth for the big idea, falsely believing that tragedy is synonymous with honesty. And it’s only because of Roseanne’s continued commitment to laughs, and the fact that these characters have heretofore been so realistic, that such efforts don’t come off quite so empty and shallow as a Very Special Episode — instead they merely feel self-important, not well-motivated by the “situation,” and hit-and-miss in humor. Yet, again, they’re part and parcel of Five’s Bigness — memorably outsized entries that stir outsized reactions… Speaking of bigness, this year also finds the series resorting to more gimmicks that its sincere, realistic baseline would have once rejected, like increased cameos and stunt casting (Morgan Fairchild, Joan Collins, Tim Curry, etc.), along with hacky narrative tropes, like the Halloween A Christmas Carol knockoff and a shameless crossover with Tom Arnold’s The Jackie Thomas Show. All of these cheap distractions — hallmarks of clichéd sitcommery — are not enough to supplant the importance of the main characters or the premise, and they merely weaken our faith in the show’s aesthetic realism, which ultimately means that Five significantly erodes yet another element that has defined Roseanne up to this point. Indeed, with a less desirable utilization of character within story, an inability to reliably reinforce the show’s working-class bent, and more tricks that undermine the series’ initially desired brand of relatable realism — moving us from the everyday to the extreme — Roseanne is slowly coming undone. But for the fact that this year has high highs of both comedy and drama that are unforgettable within the trajectory of its entire run, making this seem like something of a peak, Five would otherwise be seen more clearly for what it is: the beginning of the end… Okay, if that all sounds like doom and gloom, let me reiterate that there are some strong episodes here, especially compared to what’s ahead, when these trends magnify and there are fewer successes to temper the criticism. Also, as with before, the performances are strong — heck, the Television Academy saw fit to give Emmys to both Roseanne Barr and Laurie Metcalf (her second) — and this helps make Roseanne still a sitcom worth celebrating… for now.
01) Episode 98: “Terms Of Estrangement (II)” (Aired: 09/22/92)
Dan is furious after Becky elopes with Mark.
Written by Rob Ulin | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
Season Five opens on a two-parter that’s basically designed to remove Becky from the regular cast, as Lecy Goranson was headed off to college and unable to participate. After a few small appearances, she’ll disappear entirely, and her absence, as discussed above, is a loss to the series’ ability to tell relatable family stories (which is why the actress would be replaced for the next season). But despite the functional objective of removing Becky, this installment also has some of the last real economic drama of the whole series, as the adult Conners find themselves out of work following the failure of their bike shop, which is what forces Mark’s decision to move (and Becky’s choice to elope). This is the kind of motivated, realistic dilemma that helps reiterate Roseanne’s blue-collar tenor — a vital part of its DNA that the show is about to drop. And while I’m highlighting Part II because it’s better written, with stronger moments for the characters (both comedic and dramatic), Part I is also recommendable and honorably mentioned below.
02) Episode 100: “The Dark Ages” (Aired: 09/29/92)
The Conners’ electricity is cut off and Roseanne accuses Darlene of having sex.
Written by Eric Gilliland & Mike Gandolfi | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
My choice for this year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “The Dark Ages” is literally the climax of the show’s working-class identity, as the family’s electricity is turned off following their inability to pay the bill. This may not be relatable to everyone in the lower-middle-class of this country, but it’s a dramatic circumstance that’s an associated consequence of an economic struggle to which we’re all sympathetic — a point that, again, has helped make Roseanne special: a contrast to the more affluent and idealized family sitcoms of the decade prior. By dealing with a harsh reality — but one that’s still fundamentally believable and rooted in the premise — this series is flexing the muscle that validates its raison d’être. Sadly, this sensibility is about to fade away rather abruptly, rendering this last genuine foray into such premise-connected drama — albeit a heightened version of it — as I said before, a climax. However, although that alone would be enough to earn this entry an MVE title, I also appreciate this half hour because of its story about Roseanne expecting that Darlene and David were having sex when alone together in her darkened bedroom — an idea that’s not only buyable based on the fact that these teen characters are growing up (and it’s certainly a fear to which many parents can relate), but also because it addresses both how the leads and the show itself are changing after Becky’s exit, with Darlene assuming all the romantic shenanigans in story that the girls previously split, and in this case, Roseanne being overprotective of Darlene as a reaction to what just happened with Becky. So, this is a very strong, motivated, believable embodiment of the season, while also signifying the end of an era: the period where Roseanne was at its best. How fitting that it should literally be the 100th, a natural milestone marker that allows us to easily divide the series’ run…
03) Episode 101: “Mommy Nearest” (Aired: 10/06/92)
Bev sells her house and gives her daughters a portion of the money.
Written by Janice Jordan & Monica Piper | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
This is the first major indication of the series’ drift away from its initial working-class concerns, and it begins with Estelle Parsons’ Bev giving both of her daughters ten-thousand dollars. For them, it’s a windfall, and while accepting it means accepting their nagging mother’s criticisms, thereby putting an emotional price on this economic gain, as I noted above, the application of this windfall — towards their own restaurant — does not come with the same real-world consequence as a second mortgage taken out for the bike shop, and though this may seem like more of a character-led conflict (and with a setting that maintains the show’s Midwestern, blue-collar atmosphere), the rest of the season proves that the show doesn’t truly maximize the potential drama that could arise from having to accept Bev as a major part of the equation. And, again, it’s not ever a worthwhile narrative replacement for the demographic problems that once defined this series. So, once they receive the money with only a little grief, we symbolically mark the end of their economic fortunes being a major, definitive source of struggle for these characters in story, and I highlight this offering not because it’s great, but because it’s crucial — the threshold from working-class tension to middle-class banality.
04) Episode 102: “Pretty In Black” (Aired: 10/13/92)
Dan and Roseanne pretend that they’re throwing a party for Darlene.
Written by Amy Sherman | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
Although this outing debuts the two Tilden girls, who are supposed to provide the teens more people with whom to interact in Becky’s absence (the shy Charlotte and the flirty Molly), and it thus ushers in something that I think doesn’t acquit this season well — barely defined caricatures who exist only for story and don’t really serve the leads or the premise — there’s a lot of other stuff here to enjoy. For instance, despite my finding the upcoming restaurant to be reflective of an unfortunate turning away from the series’ origins, the idea of the family going into the “loose meat” business is amusing unto itself, especially at its start. Also, there are some nice moments for the ensemble, particularly when Roseanne is hanging out with all her gal pals, including Nancy, Crystal, and Anne-Marie — affable presences who maybe aren’t great for story, but help give the show situational texture. Additionally, even though Darlene has to anchor the introduction of this ill-fitting arc with the neighbors, she’s written perfectly in-character throughout, and this is one of her best showings in Season Five.
05) Episode 103: “Looking For Loans In All The Wrong Places” (Aired: 10/20/92)
Roseanne, Jackie, and Nancy have trouble getting a loan for their new restaurant.
Written by Eileen Heisler & DeAnn Heline | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
Continuing the arc about the women opening up a “loose meat” sandwich restaurant with the money given to them by their mother, this installment has an economic conflict that sort of exists as one of the last gasps of class-related tension here in Season Five. For while the trouble with the loan feels very much in the spirit of the show’s earlier years, once the plot pivots to the point that this whole arc has ultimately been building — the notion that the only way for Roseanne and Jackie to go into business together is if they make their mother an equal partner — it stops cold. Now, Estelle Parsons’ Bev — who appears more in Five than any year prior — is always a delight, and her relationship with her daughters is mostly relatable (the increasingly dramatic depiction of her ex-husband aside). But her more prominent intrusion in their lives never leads to the bounteous character drama that this suggestion first implies, and, I’ll reiterate, it’s not a reliable substitute for the class-based realism that once informed this series’ premise. So, this is a partner to “Mommy Nearest” — taking us from the show’s self-actualized era… to its post-thesis (or thesis-less) period of continuing decline. (Judith Hoag appears.)
06) Episode 107: “Good Girls, Bad Girls” (Aired: 11/24/92)
Darlene stays out late after going to a concert.
Written by Amy Sherman | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
There’s more of the Tilden girls in this unique outing that seems well-liked by the fanbase, largely, I think, because of the centerpiece where Roseanne gives motherless Molly Tilden a harsh “talking to,” providing her the kind of firm discipline that lovers of the family subgenre always enjoy seeing a parent give to a child (since it honors the natural relationships within this structure), and it’s well-contrasted against Roseanne’s very nurturing, loving approach to her older sister, Charlotte. Frankly, I don’t find this great — after all, these characters are shallow replacements for Becky, and they’re really only useful as far as Molly is able to be a temporary source of drama for David/Darlene (a story concern, not a character one) — but I do think that this offering’s ability to showcase the central character’s parenting skills is beneficial, particularly in this era, where that aspect of her persona is dwindling away as a result of her changing temperament, Darlene’s maturation, and, well, again, the absence of Becky. So, I get this entry’s appeal, and for a similar reason, I appreciate it: it’s a family show… with a makeshift family.
07) Episode 110: “Crime And Punishment” (Aired: 01/05/93)
Roseanne learns that Jackie’s boyfriend has beaten her up.
Written by Bruce Rasmussen | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
Probably the most memorable episode of the entire season — along with the following, the second half of a two-parter — this is one of the BIG shows mentioned above, for it indulges a darkly dramatic story about Jackie being the victim of her boyfriend’s physical abuse. This is the type of subject matter that the typically lighthearted and low-concept sitcom format does not handle well, for the topic does not inherently lend itself to laughs, and most attempts to treat it as seriously as it deserves will feel hollow without characters who can genuinely support it. Now, as I’ve said, Roseanne is fortunate: it’s usually elementally funny, even amidst such tragedy, and also, its characters have accrued such humanity as a result of the show’s earlier realism that they’re able to make manipulative ideas appear less false… at least, right now. However, they can only go so far — this does register as dramatically self-indulgent and tonally incongruous with the series’ status quo — Very Special — and while I like to see the central relationships reinforced (i.e., both Roseanne and Dan’s high regard for Jackie), this drama isn’t caused by the leads or well-connected to their premised working-class realism (well, not explicitly), so I don’t think it’s a fit for Roseanne. And yet, I feature it here because it’s impossible to ignore, boasting some fine moments (see: the D.J. subplot), and great material-elevating performances that, again, prove just how successful Roseanne has been up to this point, for when it needs us to extend a larger amount of emotional disbelief for this melodrama, we can… or, we can extend more than we could with most series. And that’s a testament to this show’s strengths. (Guests in this two-parter include Ed Begley Jr., Colleen Camp, Jeremy Roberts, and Brice Beckham.)
08) Episode 111: “War And Peace” (Aired: 01/12/93)
Dan is released from jail after beating up Jackie’s abusive boyfriend.
Written by DeAnn Heline & Eileen Heisler | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
A continuation of the above, this installment both works and doesn’t work for the same reasons as the previous, but with more ease, for the latter had to toil a bit more to make us buy the mere concept of Jackie being physically abused by her younger boyfriend (played by Laurie Metcalf’s then-beau), and since this one operates on that premise, it benefits from the leap already having been made. Also, there are an equitable number of laughs in both halves, but this one is notable for Roseanne declaring that with Dan getting arrested, the family is now “officially poor white trash” — an indication of what I referenced in the essay: this series has to verbally insist upon its class-based identity now (and in a manner that’s more sarcastic than before, at odds with Roseanne’s initial empathy), rather than showing us through story, for while one could cite a proportional link between domestic violence and economic struggle, these scripts are not making that point sincerely, and certainly not with the “everyday life” quality that used to accompany these themes. As such, this just feels like an example of Roseanne seeking some dramatic relevance in place of its original thesis — erroneously equating melodrama with realism — but mostly succeeding, in spite of this idea, simply because its earlier seasons made sure its characters and their relationships were believable enough to sustain this kind of duress.
09) Episode 113: “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home” (Aired: 02/09/93)
Roseanne and Jackie plan their father’s funeral.
Written by Amy Sherman | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
In contrast to the above two-parter, which I highlighted despite some sizable criticism, this offering provides heavy drama that’s more connected to the “situation” (these characters), and it’s also blessed with a teleplay that’s able to find an even better balance with the genre’s comedic requirement. To wit, the scene where Jackie and Roseanne call their relatives to spread the news of their father’s death is a riot — a comic highlight of the entire series — and it earns laughs in spite of the dramatic scenario. As for the drama, I’ve not been fond of how the show has recently re-characterized the two sisters’ childhood, destroying its more broadly relatable depiction in earlier seasons, but I can appreciate that a lot of the tension here is predicated on their father’s mistress, whom we learned about in a previous season, thereby establishing some continuity that the series once again uses to help reinforce its brand of aesthetic realism. Additionally, Estelle Parsons’ Bev is notably wonderful — it’s probably her finest half hour on Roseanne — utilizing her innate strengths as an actress, as she carries the dramatic idea while also earning big yuks that aren’t counterintuitive. Ultimately, then, I think you can see a difference between why this drama works better than the others: it’s funnier and enjoys more support from the series’ well-established particulars. (Incidentally, this is also the entry for which Barr and Metcalf won Emmys — the latter submitting this segment and “Crime And Punishment.”)
10) Episode 116: “It’s A Boy!” (Aired: 03/02/93)
Darlene begs her parents to let David move in with them.
Written by Rob Ulin | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
Abuse was apparently on the forefront of Roseanne Barr’s mind this season, as this installment — designed to get David into the Conners’ home — capitalizes on a thread introduced several weeks earlier in the Christmas show: David is also the victim of parental harm, via a violent and neglectful mom (Sally Kirkland). Now, this idea would feel heavy even by itself, but in the context of this season, which both doubles down on Roseanne’s new history with her father, and then also features Jackie’s recent trauma with her boyfriend, it’s especially intense — suggesting that such violence and maltreatment is ubiquitous within this world, a “slice of life” for these people. And while it may be statistically more common (there’s another tonally jarring “white trash” joke here that I think is supposed to imply a connection), it wouldn’t be an “everyday” event for most of the working-class people to whom this show initially spoke. This is the extreme. Just like Roseanne’s depiction here: extreme. So, it’s just one more indication of the show moving away from its relatable realism — rejecting the common for the rare — and losing a crucial part of its identity in the process…. And yet, these macro problems are couched in micro successes, including a script that weaves in some good laughs with this drama and makes the troubling story a satisfying sample of Roseanne, for even with the heaviness and strained logic — asking us to believe that a lower-middle-class family would take in a kid who isn’t their own (well, are they still lower-middle-class? It’s getting harder and harder to tell…) — there’s a lot of evidenced humanity that sustains this otherwise aggrandized excursion.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “It’s No Place Like Home For The Holidays,” a decent, lower-concept Christmas showing that has some fun with Bev and Nana Mary (Shelley Winters), but is saddled with the forced introduction of David’s abusive mother and some forced didacticism with Nancy’s recent coming out (which the series mostly uses from here on out as a badge of honor for misplaced topical relevance — “we’re less class-conscious now, but we can cover other social issues instead!”), “Halloween IV,” which employs a fantasy take-off of A Christmas Carol that just doesn’t vibe with the show’s realistic ethos and isn’t competitive enough with the above, and “Terms Of Estrangement (I),” the first and very solid, economically poised half of the two-part premiere. Meanwhile, some other entries of lesser value but equal citation are… “Ladies’ Choice,” where Nancy comes out and gets Morgan Fairchild as a love interest (a bit of stunt casting that’s indicative of this year’s increased ostentation), “First Cousin, Twice Removed,” which calls upon a guest appearance from Joan Collins in a way that is similarly ostentatious and beneath the series, but at least has her play a character with implied economic tension opposite Roseanne, “Playing With Matches,” which is fun only for Red Buttons, and “Tooth Or Consequences,” where Martin Mull’s Leon returns (he’s a big name, but he was sincerely cast in the role of Roseanne’s old boss, so it’s less a gimmick than it is a “big name”). Lastly, you’ll note that I’m not highlighting the two outings with Tim Curry; they try to ensnare the Conners in financial drama, but the easy solution, with help from Jackie, only corroborates how this series has changed — money is no longer a fundamental, everyday issue for this family; it’s a circumstantial concern with quick fixes.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Roseanne goes to…
“The Dark Ages”
Come back next week for Season Six! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!