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, SANDRA BERNHARD, SARAH CHALKE, GLENN QUINN, MICHAEL O’KEEFE, MARTIN MULL, and ESTELLE PARSONS as Bev.
If my criticism of Season Five was harsh, that’s mostly because it was a figurative Ground Zero for all the trends that will continue to erode the series’ charms, and its bold offerings warranted an equally bold response. For Season Six, a year that continues all that was established or furthered in Five — albeit with slightly less aggrandizement — I’m probably going to come across a little gentler, even though it is a continued comedown in quality. This is because the dip between Five and Six is smaller than the dip between both Four and Five and Six and Seven, and in fact, there are still some really solid episodes here — heck, this is the last year where the series is somewhat competitive with its contemporaries… But, of course, the macro concerns addressed last week remain, for the show is no longer able to regularly write to its working-class premise in episodic story, and everything about the series is suggesting a rise from the blue-collar to the white-collar, with the cast’s improved wardrobe a tell-tale visual sign. From now on, the series has to go overboard to convince us that it’s still connected to its roots — literally calling itself “white trash” (a mocking term that is counter to the show’s original sincerity) instead of exhibiting their economic struggles in plot. All of this reduces the show’s relatability and enables a larger move away from literal realism, with more truth-destroying gimmicks like stunt casting and fantasy sequences, and big narrative ideas, including a major increase (even from Five) in semi-serialized story arcs that distract from the characters, who get trapped within these ongoing narrative turns, such as the romantic back-and-forth, on-and-off nature of Darlene/David’s romance (and their deceitful Chicago stay), Becky and Mark’s return (with Sarah Chalke now replacing Lecy Goranson — Chalke has less chemistry with the cast, but frankly, it’s hard to tell if the characterization truly changes because this form of storytelling leaves little room for personality), and the pregnancy and marriage between Jackie and her one-night-stand, Fred (Michael O’Keefe). All of these ideas, I suppose, are meant to imply realism, but when drama happens for the sake of drama, or story, and not really in furtherance of our understanding of these characters, said characters are undermined and harder in which to invest.
Accordingly, this season is less adept at using its characters, and, although many of its episodic plots are not as BIG as last year’s, there are more plots stretching weeks at a time now, which makes these narratives equally lofty, and since, in the case of Roseanne, the show used to be a relatable slice of everyday life, such cumbersome storytelling continues to feel like a direct threat to its identity — its credibility with realism. Okay, I want to be fair, for while I don’t care for the shallow teen angst, I do see the value in Jackie’s storyline. Maybe not in the pregnancy… but in her romance, for, given that her last serious love interest was a domestic abuser, her learning to trust again is motivated growth — and an evolution that we want to explore. However, the problem is… her new guy Fred doesn’t have much of a personality, and so the character opportunities promised by this arc are limited. Laurie Metcalf would walk away with her third and final Roseanne Emmy after this season, but the episodes themselves don’t really do as much for Jackie as they should — and certainly not on behalf of the premise, which, again, is nil now; that is, there’s no economic struggle suggested by the baby. (I think the one-night-stand bit is supposed to reinforce the “white trash” moniker, but that requires some mental gymnastics, especially in a post-Murphy Brown era!) To that point, the series’ use of drama has changed — most of the above story notions fuel romantic arcs, and Six only truly verges on melodrama a few times, like when it employs some revisionist history for Dan’s childhood (just as Roseanne got in Four/Five). Once again, I’m not a fan of this unmotivated shift, just as I’m not a fan of the Roseanne character’s unmotivated shift towards a continued sarcastic edge and inflated self-importance, which undercuts her initial down-to-earth humanity. And all this is worse now than it was before, so, in that regard, you can see how Six indeed continues Five’s trends, and even though some of the episodic bigness has died down, Six has got larger arcs that continue to crowd out character. As such, it’s a testament to the show’s design and this year’s strong writing staff — led by Rob Ulin, with Eric Gilliland, Amy Sherman, Newhart’s Miriam Trogdon, Friends’ Michael Borkow, plus Golden Girls vets Kevin Abbott and James Berg & Stan Zimmerman, among others… — that Six is even half as enjoyable as it is.
01) Episode 125: “Party Politics” (Aired: 09/28/93)
Darlene and D.J. team up against their mother’s meddling.
Written by Miriam Trogdon | Directed by Philip Charles MacKenzie
One of the best parenting shows from the latter half of the run, this fun installment — credited to Miriam Trogdon, an alum of Bob Newhart’s ’80s sitcom — finds Darlene mobilizing D.J. as mutual protection against their mother, who’s trying to reunite her with David and is also unaware that D.J. has secretly been skipping school. Roseanne’s attempts to crack both of her kids (and David, who is protecting Darlene out of loyalty, even though they have already broken up) are comical without being outrageous, as is her ultimate victory, using Fred, Jackie’s one-night-stand introduced in the offering prior. So, while this is a simple and low-concept affair that enjoys the use of relatable familial dynamics, it also progresses a few of the season’s established arcs, rendering it a great sample of Six and what makes it unique.
02) Episode 126: “A Stash From The Past” (Aired: 10/05/93)
Roseanne accuses David of smoking pot, not realizing she found her own stash.
Written by Kevin Abbott | Directed by Philip Charles MacKenzie
My choice for this year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “A Stash From The Past” has frequently been featured on assorted “best of” lists, and while I admit that I find some of its popularity a bit overstated — utilizing a familiar sitcom trope, in which the main characters get intoxicated on the most common substance after alcohol, without being the absolute best version of this familiar idea (that would be, incidentally, Barney Miller‘s “Hash”) — I do think it’s easily the funniest half hour from Season Six, with a teleplay by a former Golden Girls scribe who’s particularly good at setting up big yuks (the kind that early Roseanne never had, because it was too literally real) and in a story that, yes, is gimmicky, but isn’t unbelievable, specifically for Baby Boomer parents who came of age around 1970 and have a history with marijuana that this script smartly gets to play with for an ultimately conformist anti-drug message — a message that’s only reached, mind you, in a roundabout, highly comedic way. So, in making sense for Roseanne and Dan, there’s something to be said about this entry’s utilization of character too, as it’s a cut above this season’s baseline. Accordingly, this was an easy choice for my MVE — it uses its leads well, benefits from laughs that outshine everything else on this list, and its more conventional, less ideal sitcom story nevertheless accurately represents this point in Roseanne’s run. One of the series’ most memorable. (Also, Paul Feig guests.)
03) Episode 128: “Halloween V” (Aired: 10/26/93)
Nancy is concerned that Dan doesn’t like her.
Written by Betsy Borns & Miriam Trogdon | Directed by Gail Mancuso
Despite all my deep-seated reservations regarding the annual Halloween excursions, I’m still able to feature Season Six’s on my list, under the terms that it’s revealing for character. As usual, all the prank talk doesn’t do much for me, but I appreciate the exploration of relational dynamics between ensemble members — especially unusual combos, like this entry’s Nancy and Dan, as the former expresses to Roseanne that she doesn’t believe Dan actually likes her. The fun begins when Dan confirms Nancy’s suspicions to Roseanne and this holiday outing really becomes about a relatable conflict for most human beings: what happens when a partner doesn’t like your friend. Naturally, the climactic gag ties in the holiday theme effectively, but for the most part, this is the least Halloween–drenched offering in this subcategory yet, and while that might bother its most ardent fans, I’m just happy that there’s some value for character here.
04) Episode 129: “Homeward Bound” (Aired: 11/02/93)
Darlene visits from school while the Conners learn that D.J. has discovered masturbation.
Written by Michael Borkow | Directed by Philip Charles MacKenzie
Although there’s more of the David and Darlene back-and-forth arc-led concerns bogging down the season here in story trappings that obscure their two characterizations (because their motivations seem secondary to the sheer force of these “must hit” plot points), this particular entry is enjoyable for the funny A-story about the Conners catching on to the fact that D.J. has begun masturbating — a relatable but crass topic that most family sitcoms of the time, and specifically ones from the era out of which Roseanne sprung (like The Cosby Show), would not touch with a proverbial ten-foot pole, thereby asserting that this series is still a bolder, laugh-seeking, and more truth-providing example of the domestic subgenre, even if it’s also falser and less honest than it used to be. (Also, I think this is an instance of Roseanne trying to stay relevant and adjust to the times; note that Seinfeld’s “The Contest” aired the year earlier to much fanfare.)
05) Episode 132: “Thanksgiving ’93” [a.k.a. “Thanksgiving 1993”] (Aired: 11/23/93)
On Thanksgiving, Nana Mary reveals a secret about Roseanne’s conception.
Written by Michael Borkow & Mike Gandolfi | Directed by Philip Charles MacKenzie
Six’s submission to the “mostly annual Thanksgiving” category is another great opportunity to congregate characters in a unity of time, place, and action, and then emphasize several of the arcs — especially, in this case, Bev’s harsh judgment about Jackie being unmarried and pregnant from a one-night-stand. This opens up the figurative door for a funny revelation from Nana Mary (Shelley Winters) — that Bev got pregnant with Roseanne before she was actually married — which causes more familial dysfunction that, even though it’s a bit clichéd and convenient here, still feels emotionally identifiable and not extreme (or outside the realm of possibility), making this some of that rich, relatable familial dysfunction… and not the kind of unhealthy familial dysfunction that the show sometimes gets trapped in during this era.
06) Episode 133: “The Driver’s Seat” (Aired: 11/30/93)
After D.J. takes a joy ride, Roseanne spanks him and then feels guilty.
Written by James Berg & Stan Zimmerman | Directed by Philip Charles MacKenzie
This is the only “mostly dramatic” installment I’m selecting for Six, and it’s based on an idea that was introduced in Four and then expanded upon in Five — that Roseanne was the victim of abuse from her father. I didn’t like this, for it seemed incongruous with the previous, less extreme depiction of her childhood that the show had presented in its first three years, and such a pivot therefore felt unmotivated. However, it’s now an established part of her character’s situation, and under those terms, I can appreciate the possibility that she would feel bad about yelling and spanking D.J., for it makes sense given what we know now about her history. And thus, this dramatic moment is earned by character — and in fact, quite relatable to many parents — without looking, at this point in the run of the show, too gimmicky or extraneous. Also, there’s some more character value in the subplot with Martin Mull’s Leon, who, incidentally, is back in a recurring capacity after taking over Bev’s stake in the restaurant.
07) Episode 134: “White Trash Christmas” (Aired: 12/14/93)
Becky gives the money her parents provided for schooling to Mark.
Written by Lawrence Broch & William Lucas Walker | Directed by Philip Charles MacKenzie
The title of this outing is evidence of a growing trend that we’ve been discussing these past few weeks — by this season, Roseanne is no longer able to regularly and reliably display the leads’ original working-class identity in episodic story, particularly via some kind of economic tension, so instead, it must try to convince both us and itself that it’s still affiliated with its roots by proclaiming that there remains a connection. This often manifests itself in the “white trash” label — a self-referential notion that’s overly jokey and at odds with the show’s initially intended form of empathetic representation… And yet, despite that corrupting sensibility, Six does manage to produce this amusing offering, which finds Becky giving her college money to Mark so he can go to a trade school, and then taking a job at an off-brand Hooters when her parents balk. That’s a concept that does reinforce the title’s claim, but more importantly, it mines comic drama from established relationships within the ensemble and the basic premise that money is still tight for this family. So, in that way, this is more “Roseanne” than a lot of the entries featured on this list… regardless of how naturally it sits within this specific era. Meanwhile, there’s a comical subplot where the Conners go Clark Griswold, intentionally latching onto the idea of a tacky Christmas. It’s more forced “white trash-ness,” but funny nonetheless.
08) Episode 136: “Busted” (Aired: 01/11/94)
Roseanne tries to get Mark to come home but learns a secret about Darlene in the process.
Written by Amy Sherman | Directed by Philip Charles MacKenzie
Frankly, this script does a heck of a good job at massaging narrative beats that are otherwise unideal and representative of the worst aspects of Season Six — namely, the teens’ romantic arcs, which meet here when Becky and Mark have a spat and he moves out, and then, in the process of reuniting them, Roseanne learns that David has been living with Darlene in Chicago, thus lying to her and breaking her trust. All of these narrative shenanigans — and those that follow — are far away from the “slice of life” family/parenting drama of the earlier years, and they’re not comedic enough to justify the unfavorable evolution. What’s more, the weight of these ideas crushes any sense of underlying character concerns… However, again, this teleplay — by Roseanne vet Amy Sherman — earns a spot on this list, for it handles all of these narrative issues with remarkable humor and smarts, boasting a few unforgettable scenes at Mark’s temporary apartment with his roommate (Ahmet Zappa). So, the whole (the script) is better than the sum of its parts (the stories), and that’s why I can feature it on this list.
09) Episode 140: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (Aired: 03/01/94)
Nancy’s girlfriend kisses Roseanne when they visit a lesbian bar.
Teleplay by James Berg & Stan Zimmerman | Story by Michael Borkow | Directed by Philip Charles MacKenzie
In the absence of regular social relevance though its initial class-based premise, Roseanne is going to rely more and more on random topical issues during its last few years. All of these entries will be hit-and-miss, and never a true substitute for what the series was supposed to be. But this one is interesting and among the best, for the show has already introduced a few regular gay characters, like Sandra Bernhard’s Nancy, whose mere inclusion makes this subject seem less random than it would be in just a one-off about a guest. (And this is after last year, where her coming out did feel like a stunt because of the Tom Arnold baggage and the Morgan Fairchild casting.) You see, Nancy is valuable here, because this is a huge stunt as well — one of the first lesbian kisses on TV, and touted as such — needing backup. So, indeed, when Roseanne gets a lesson about sexual orientation from Nancy after the latter’s girlfriend (Mariel Hemingway) kisses her, forcing Roseanne to confront her gay panic, the script is able to temper its own self-propelling hype by earned support from the “situation” (Nancy), not to mention an elevated sense of humanity, which helps render this a funny and memorable half hour. Not many “topics” are handled by Roseanne as honestly… (Laura Kightlinger also appears.)
10) Episode 144: “I Pray The Lord My Stove To Keep” (Aired: 05/03/94)
D.J. goes to church and has opinions about his family’s lack of morality.
Written by Kevin Abbott & Pat Bullard | Directed by Philip Charles MacKenzie
Starting with a fun comic idea — that D.J. has been sneaking off to go to church — this offering is a window into the show’s changing times, for although it’s very funny, as this non-religious family is now being forced to answer for some of their moral choices, it pushes them to make moral choices that call to attention unfavorable changes in their characterizations… In particular, Roseanne is happy to dishonestly benefit from a mistake, stealing a stove that was delivered to her accidentally, and in a way that we want to accept because it’s comical and addresses the notion that money is scarce in this working-class world, but truthfully, doesn’t jibe with the strong integrity and personal pride that she had as a proletariat in the earliest seasons. In this regard, it seems like Roseanne is stealing the stove merely for this one jokey plot, and not because it’s congruous with her character… And yet, I can’t fully say that either, for the Roseanne of Six has moved so far away from One — she’s not as nice a person as she was then — that perhaps this does work for the character as she now exists, with less of a grounding, relatable compass. (Also, I want to note that Michael Fishman’s D.J. is finally starting to become a utilizable member of the ensemble himself, and this is the first season where his participation is equal to the space he fills within the cast.) Oh, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt guests.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Body By Jake,” which boasts the inherently funny idea of Bev lying about how she broke her pelvis — having sex with her beau (played by Red Buttons), “David Vs. Goliath,” which is mostly worth mentioning thanks to one rich scene between David and Jackie, and “Two Down, One To Go,” the season premiere that has some nice moments for Darlene and Roseanne (whose portrayal is nevertheless very heightened). Of lesser quality but equal note, meanwhile, are “Guilt By Imagination,” which guests Vicki Lawrence as Dan’s old flame, “Lies My Father Told Me,” a heavily dramatic offering where Dan learns that his father has long been covering for his mentally ill mother (it’s melodrama born from revisionist history and therefore not motivated), and Metcalf’s two Emmy-winning entries, “Past Imperfect,” which has an amusing Jackie idea, and “Labor Day,” the big birth show that I cite merely because of a great Jackie/Bev scene.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Roseanne goes to…
“A Stash From The Past”
Come back next week for Season Seven! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!