Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding 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, SARAH CHALKE as Becky, and MICHAEL FISHMAN as D.J. With JOHNNY GALECKI, GLENN QUINN, MARTIN MULL, FRED WILLARD, and ESTELLE PARSONS as Bev.
The final season of Roseanne never should have happened. Although we’ve seen this series decline annually following its peak era as a result of both a dwindling capacity to freshly explore the characters in story — which had become dominated by self-indulgent gimmicks, including serialized romantic angst, examples of stunt casting, and an abundance of metatheatrical dream/fantasy sequences — along with a failure to continue reiterating the show’s initial working-class thesis in its cultivation of plot, nothing that’s come before is quite like Season Nine. One of the big problems is that the show was building to an ending in Eight, but in order to keep the company together for another year, Roseanne and Carsey-Werner negotiated a return at a lower price — with the biggest cut coming from the reduced presence of John Goodman, who only signed for about half of this season’s output. Considering that Dan is a staple of the cast — the patriarch of this nuclear family — his absence hurts the utilization of ALL the central characters, especially Roseanne, who’s now too often without the figure with whom she has the strongest bond. To circumvent this challenge, Nine — now led by writer Daniel Palladino (later of Gilmore Girls), but with more textual involvement than ever before from Roseanne Barr herself, who adds even more of her own personal ideology, if not in story, then in the dialogue — totally upends the series’ premise by having the Conner family win the lottery and become multi-millionaires overnight. This is an inherent risk — the show can no longer pretend it’s still as premised… and yet, the new “situation” clears away the expectations for working-class economic drama by literally predicating the changes on their financial status. In this regard, the development is tied to the show’s DNA, and there are some indications, particularly at the beginning of the season, that this narrative arc was indeed designed with an eye on sincerely exploring the comedy and drama that might arise from a new fish-out-of-water lifestyle for these characters: blue-collar folks in a white-collar world. Naturally, that’s far less relatable than what the series used to be — and far less realistic too — but at least there’s a logical explanation, and a chance to examine characters in a new, premise-adjacent way…
Unfortunately, without John Goodman’s Dan to consistently bind the family unit, this lottery premise quickly devolves into an excuse for Roseanne to become a narrative free-for-all, where any idea goes, but primarily those tied to gimmicks, like parodies of Rosemary’s Baby, and crossovers with the ladies from Absolutely Fabulous. None of this has anything to do with the leads and is only tangentially affiliated with the series’ new situation. So, the lottery idea — which would have been a rejection of the show’s original purpose regardless — ends up not even maximized for earned dramatic value. Meanwhile, the year’s solution to weaving Dan in and out requires what was teased at the end of Eight — a rift between the couple that’s solved before the lottery win, but then reignited when he goes to find his mom and comes back having cheated. These episodes — which include a forced triangle, culminating in a serious birth entry for Darlene that helps reunite the Conner family — are not adept at meeting the genre’s comic demands, and they’re especially jarring against the wild, surreal nature of the year’s other outings. Thus, while they wouldn’t ever be recommendable examples of situation comedy, when paired with the rest of this season’s aesthetic, they’re even worse. Incidentally, a show like Married… With Children, which is essentially an extended sketch, has more narrative freedom because it always has less fidelity to its dramatic elements — and certainly less fidelity to realism. Thus, many of the ideas here in Roseanne’s ninth season could have been used on its FOX counterpart, and though I’d still find them unideal if they didn’t honor those characters and/or validate that series’ satirical aims, they wouldn’t be as egregious as they are on a show whose raison d’être was all about disrupting the upper-middle-class falseness of the family sitcom. As such, this final season of Roseanne is not just bad, it’s an insult to the show. And the fact that Roseanne Barr’s way of self-correction involved a Newhart-like deus ex machina — a gimmick — well, that can be acknowledged as an attempt to reconcile such absurdity against the realism this series always sought. But it’s not good — nothing about this year is good. My brief list merely tries to find the moments that are the least bad, with the most support from “the situation” — a far cry from the first few years of this once great sitcom.
01) Episode 199: “Call Waiting” (Aired: 09/17/96)
Roseanne finds comfort in classic sitcoms after her fight with Dan.
Written by Drew Ogier & Allan Stephan Blasband | Directed by Mark K. Samuels
Season Nine’s premiere has to follow Roseanne and Dan after their recent fight so they can get back together ahead of the next entry’s lottery pivot, rendering this a functional outing that simply has to motivate their reunion. The chosen solution? A metatheatrical series of sketches that put the two leads in the roles of Ann and Donald of That Girl, Jeannie and Tony of I Dream Of Jeannie, and Mary and Lou of Mary Tyler Moore — three classic sitcoms that allow Roseanne to pat itself on the back by contrasting its feminist credentials against icons from an earlier era. I fundamentally deplore that lack of humility, which over-credits this series’ importance at the expense of offerings from the past, and I think the gimmick remains opposed to this show’s initially realistic intensions. But… it’s been well within this series’ growing aesthetic to pull stunts like this since, well, at least Season Seven. So, in this regard, it feels more like Roseanne than most of what follows, and for that reason, I highlight it. After all, beggars can’t be choosers.
02) Episode 200: “Millions From Heaven” (Aired: 09/24/96)
The Conners become multi-millionaires when they win the lottery.
Written by Nancy Steen & Cynthia Mort | Directed by Mark K. Samuels
This season’s sophomore outing introduces the lottery win, and like several of the year’s earliest showings, there’s a sense of sincerity about how the series is going to explore a blue-collar family suddenly being catapulted into an elite, wealthy world — the possibility for comedy and drama are endless, and premise-adjacent. Also, unlike some of Nine’s other genuine outings, which exploit a little too much sentiment without calibrating the format’s need for laughs, this script is still honoring that humor objective, balancing hahas with a big development that, yes, I don’t like… but still prefer to the unexplained, situationally-starved material that follows. (Jon Polito guests, Adilah Barnes recurs, and Kathleen Sullivan and Robin Leach play themselves.)
03) Episode 208: “Home Is Where The Afghan Is” (Aired: 11/26/96)
The Conners have their first catered Thanksgiving.
Written by Lawrence Broch | Directed by Gary Halvorson
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Home Is Where The Afghan Is” is not going to be on any fan’s list of this series’ best. But in a year of slim pickings, this entry stands out as being the most genuine attempt to reconcile Roseanne’s previously established ethos with the dramatic possibilities of its new “situation.” That is, this half hour utilizes one of the show’s most common narrative markers — the Thanksgiving dinner, an annual gathering that has heretofore enabled the series to indulge some comedic, but mostly relatable family dysfunction, thereby reinforcing Roseanne’s command on identifiable truth — in order to showcase how all of these characters’ lives have changed, and are changing, as a result of their newfound windfall, or the new wrinkle added to the “situation” this season. And, unlike earlier segments, which go wild, forcing ridiculous stunts left and right, the act of congregating this ensemble together (minus Dan, who’s still out of town, unfortunately) naturally pushes the leads to the fore, allowing this to be more character-rooted than anything else produced here in Nine, with a good-faith exploration of their new economic change. Oh, sure, Bev’s “coming out” is one of those bizarre out-of-nowhere gimmicks that corrupts the show’s believability, but in picking an excursion to represent this particular year, I’m glad this emblematic moment is also included — proof that nothing this season is solely great. (Also, Roseanne’s personal politics — tied to honoring the working woman — are more vocal this season than ever before, but this script does a fine job of supporting her didacticism.) Not a gem, but decent enough.
04) Episode 209: “Mothers And Other Strangers” (Aired: 12/03/96)
Roseanne wonders what Dan will think of the remodeled house, while Bev visits her mother.
Written by Roseanne & Cynthia Mort | Directed by Gary Halvorson
Shelley Winters (who also appeared above) makes her last appearance as Nana Mary when Bev pays her a visit here, joined by Leon and Scott — two characters with whom Bev is paired quite a bit in this final season. All of these actors are incredibly funny, and although they never get great material relative to what the series was once capable of supplying, they do elevate their proceedings. And this installment, co-credited to Roseanne herself, at least has some relatable, character-based concerns undergirding its subplot. Meanwhile, the A-story sets up Dan’s return while directly, sincerely, acknowledging the lottery development, so as far as Season Nine goes, this one’s operating in a more realistic place… and with laughs still in okay supply.
05) Episode 212: “Hit The Road, Jack” (Aired: 01/14/97)
Roseanne drives around town avoiding Dan, while D.J. meets his soulmate.
Written by Roseanne | Directed by Mark K. Samuels
Roseanne is a better star than she is a writer, but this entry does allow her the opportunity to give a believable solo performance — one of the best of the season — amidst this otherwise untenable “Roseanne and Dan on the rocks” storyline, which is neither funny nor a direct consequence of the lottery arc — a frame that might actually have given more justifiable support to this forced drama, making it not so unearned and hard to believe. However, truthfully, I’m really highlighting this one because of D.J., who’s taken up an interest in filmmaking this year — a fact that helps provide him more definition (yay!) — and here, meets his soulmate (Heather Matarazzo) at the video store. This evolution of character I appreciate.
06) Episode 213: “The War Room” (Aired: 01/28/97)
The Conner family and friends try to coax Roseanne out of her room after Dan’s departure.
Written by Bob Nickman | Directed by Mark K. Samuels
A fine showing for the ensemble (minus Dan again, unfortunately), this installment also comes within Nine’s unenjoyable marital rift arc, where Roseanne is not being surreal or goofy but is offering largely unbuyable drama without the laughs that the sitcom genre requires (see: “Home For The Holidays” and “Say It Ain’t So”). And yet, by putting most of the cast together — in a unity of time, place, and action — this episode is able to ground itself in the show’s established situation by way of its characters, and without the melodramatics that will arise the next time they’re all assembled (in the segment where Darlene gives birth — a terribly unfunny half hour). Okay, it’s not one of the greatest outings, but hey, I’m doing the best I can to make a list… (Of note, Sandra Bernhard’s Nancy is back, and Tony Robbins guests.)
07) Episode 222: “Into That Good Night (II)” (Aired: 05/20/97)
Roseanne reveals the truth about what’s happened to her family.
Written by Roseanne & Allan Stephan Blasband | Directed by Gary Halvorson
Originally airing in the second half of an hour block, Part II of Roseanne’s series finale is much more memorable than its predecessor, an overly sentimental and not-funny-enough setup that smartly calls back to the pilot and reintroduces the long-forgotten idea of the basement being Roseanne’s writing room but misses the “no B.S.” attitude and realistic comic energy that made this series so special during its early alluded-to era. Part II is more enjoyable, then, because cutting through B.S. is its goal. In fact, its last half is the infamous closing monologue — where Roseanne reveals that she’s been the author of the entire series, and that she’s made up a lot, not just the stuff about this season (which allows her to explain away all the foolishness following Dan’s heart attack), but also other minor details throughout… Now, I totally get why she’d want to retract this season — it’s against what her show was built to be, and by acknowledging this, she gets to emerge with some restored command on its reputation. But the comedic impulse to insist that other elements might have been changed too is the kind of Newhart-like “it was all a dream” stunt that is ultimately harmful to the WHOLE show, for it not only excuses the bad moments, it also calls into question the good ones as well. And if this series was about truth, then telling us that a lot of it was false… well, that’s really self-defeating… However, this is still one of the most iconic finales in sitcom history, and for its attempt to right the ship, I can highlight it here.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Honor Thy Mother,” a sincere but unfunny entry mostly designed to put John Goodman’s Dan on leave, “Lanford’s Elite,” which uses some fine continuity back to the first season’s factory to launch a nevertheless non-compelling triangle, and “Into That Good Night (I),” the first half of the finale two-parter highlighted above. Meanwhile, I’ll also take this space to cite the two outings that feature a strong stunt casting — the hilarious Ruta Lee as Bev’s new girlfriend in “Roseanne-Feld” and “The Truth Be Told” — and two of the most remarkable from Nine’s otherwise ridiculous lot, “Satan, Darling,” which claims a parody of Rosemary’s Baby and a crossover with the girls from Ab Fab, and “Arsenic And Old Mom,” where Debbie Reynolds replaces Ann Wedgeworth as Dan’s mother for a ridiculous half hour that I just won’t ever be able to forget.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Nine of Roseanne goes to…
“Home Is Where The Afghan Is”
Come back next week for my take on the Roseanne revival! And stay tuned for a new Wildcard!