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, MICHAEL FISHMAN as D.J., and SARAH CHALKE as Becky. With JOHNNY GALECKI as David, GLENN QUINN as Mark, MICHAEL O’KEEFE as Fred, MARTIN MULL as Leon, and ESTELLE PARSONS as Bev.
Season Seven observes Roseanne’s biggest decline yet as the show has not only lost its ability to engage the family’s premised working-class identity in episodic story, but it’s also continuing to shed its trademark honesty for gimmicks that are more and more self-aware and self-indulgent, all the while trafficking in story-heavy dramatic ideas that don’t make great use of the leads. From the start, Seven is inherently limited by Roseanne’s pregnancy, which demanded her reduced presence. But even worse — this notion itself is dramatically ill-handled; in earlier years, a surprise baby would have been played for the economic tension it would add to the family’s burden. Here, with money no longer a prominent concern, it’s merely used for a forced (and brief) melodrama related to abortion — a topical subject that the show doesn’t handle well because these characters, once so real and relatable, are no longer projecting that same humanity, as their stories are now gaudier and less believable, and they are now gaudier and less believable too. In particular, this is also the year with the heaviest romantic angst for the teens, who get a semi-realized love triangle between Becky, David, and Darlene that’s the nadir of this show’s move away from low-concept character-led storytelling, and into a formula that’s more focused on the narrative beats being hit — what’s happening, not to whom (and why). I am not a fan of these outings — they aren’t revealing, well-earned, or especially comedic. The same goes for the shows about Jackie’s failing marriage to Fred, an undefined figure whose vagueness hinders their ability to anchor plot… Additionally, Seven suffers from a growing reliance on congratulatory gimmicks that over-credit the series’ importance, with a metatheatrical wink that undermines any lingering claim on realism. Entries like a clip show where Roseanne touts how feminist she is compared to sitcom mothers of the past only reinforce the worst stereotypes about the series and its lack of humility in light of returns that are neither as funny nor as honest as she thinks — a disconnect that’s also widening because of the increase in topical drama (again, the abortion two-parter) that crowds out the show’s humor, and at a time when, again, the leads aren’t real enough to support it… So, 1994-’95 is a pretty sad year for Roseanne; plainly, this sitcom has lost its sense of self and has devolved into directionless mediocrity.
01) Episode 148: “Nine Is Enough” (Aired: 09/21/94)
Dan is fed up with all the people coming and going in his house.
Teleplay by Stevie Ray Fromstein & Pat Bullard | Story by Rob Ulin | Directed by Gail Mancuso
Season Seven opens with an anachronistically simple and low-concept episode about relatable family dysfunction and annoyance, setting up some of the year’s larger arcs — like Becky and Mark’s upcoming move, and Jackie and Fred’s marital drama — in a realistic character-filled script that’s mostly about pushing Dan to his limit. It’s an ensemble piece, but this is really John Goodman’s half hour, and although all the proceedings end up being a way for the series to provide comedic punctuation via Roseanne’s climactic pregnancy reveal (a storyline that was written to accommodate Barr’s own upcoming IVF), the rest of the show is strong enough to highlight anyway, as there’s plenty of buyable character fare, exceeding Seven’s baseline.
02) Episode 151: “Girl Talk” (Aired: 10/12/94)
The men and the women gossip about their sex lives.
Written by Miriam Trogdon | Directed by Gail Mancuso
Boasting a story about gossip that focuses on the various couples’ sex lives — Roseanne/Dan’s, Jackie/Fred’s, Becky/Mark’s, along with David’s newfound singleness — this entry could be looked at as something of a play towards the growing “Singles In The City” trend, where this type of relationship-driven raunchy talk, and lighthearted “boys vs. girls” divide, would be quite common. I say this not only to point out that the sitcom genre’s trends were changing by 1994-’95 — the wave of relatable family fare that brought in Roseanne had given way to a desire for Gen X rom-coms with appealing urbanity — but also to note that it’s an unusual story for this series, given its premise. And yet, it is amusing, both conceptually, and in individual character moments, so that’s why I feature it here: changing times + some character value.
03) Episode 152: “Sleeper” (Aired: 10/19/94)
David has an erotic dream about another Conner woman.
Written by Tim Doyle | Directed by Gail Mancuso
Despite a heavy helping of arc-minded concerns related to the half-hearted and tenuously motivated love triangle between David and both Becky and Darlene, this installment is being bumped up from the Honorable Mentions, simply because of its comic A-story, where after a misunderstanding in which the family believes David had an erotic dream about Becky, it turns out he was actually fantasizing about her mother: Roseanne. That’s a naturally funny idea — one of the only expressly comedic notions ever thrown to David, whose portrayer, Johnny Galecki, is a fairly sincere performer and someone who would prove on a later series (created by a former Roseanne scribe) to be more adept at humor than this show ever allows him to indicate.
04) Episode 156: “White Men Can’t Kiss” (Aired: 11/16/94)
D.J. refuses to kiss a Black girl in their school play.
Written by Rob Ulin & Kevin Abbott | Directed by Gail Mancuso
With a script credited to Rob Ulin, who remains this year’s headwriter, and Kevin Abbott, the Golden Girls vet who might be one of the current staff’s funniest scribes, this offering boasts a better teleplay than idea. For it exhibits the series’ growing need to project self-importance through narrative topicality — in the absence of its initial working-class social identity, which gave Roseanne a moral purpose. Now, there are several outings here in Seven that similarly trade on random social issues without great support from the premise — specifically, a two-parter about abortion, and an entry below about alcoholism — and they generally don’t work as well because, as noted, the leads are no longer as human and realistic as they once were, for the stories, en masse, are no longer as human or realistic for them. And, even with the utilization of one of the show’s few Black recurring players (James Pickens Jr.’s Chuck), this episode — nobly tackling Racism with a capital R — feels disconnected from the regular elements of the series’ “situation,” and therefore less earned than we’d like. However, with all that said, the script itself is elevating, with a carefully honest rendering of the idea that avoids easy answers and sits in its own discomfort while still earning laughs. Accordingly, it’s a far better half hour than I would have expected: there’s more series-validating truth than its mere log line would imply.
05) Episode 159: “The Parenting Trap” (Aired: 12/14/94)
Roseanne and Dan learn why D.J. is too embarrassed to go to the front of his class.
Written by Sid Youngers | Directed by Gail Mancuso
Although there’s a little bit of the Darlene/David arc-led romantic angst that I don’t enjoy here — I find it seldom character-driven and hardly comedic — the bulk of this excursion is hinged around a funny comic idea that has a sizable amount of humanity and, to the best of my knowledge, had never before been tackled in the genre: spontaneous erections. It’s an innately comedic notion utilizing Michael Fishman’s D.J. (who finally started coming into his own as a functional member of the ensemble last season), and by covering it, Roseanne reinforces its crass but honest ethos, providing realistic stories that may offend good taste, but only in pursuit of comedy that’s actually rooted in truth. Also, I want to add that I always appreciate a script that knows how to drill conflict from Roseanne and Dan’s different styles of parenting, and that’s one of the things this installment does particularly well. (Lisa Rieffel guests.)
06) Episode 160: “Rear Window” (Aired: 01/04/95)
Roseanne and Dan spy on a pair of elderly nudists next door.
Written by Michael Borkow & Danny Zuker | Directed by Gail Mancuso
Again, I’m not enthused at all by the romantic teen drama here — as the triangle between Becky/David/Darlene peaks — so I only highlight this episode because of its comedic A-story, a laugh-getting affair about Roseanne and Dan spying on their new neighbors from the bedroom window, getting an eyeful of a pair of geriatric nudists (Jean Speegle Howard and Jack Murdock) at whom they simply can’t stop looking. This idea is more gimmicky and less honest than the above segment with the spontaneous erections, but it’s similarly sexual in nature and fundamentally amusing. And since the standards for this season are lower than they’ve ever been before, merely having an obviously funny central joke is enough to be considered for this list.
07) Episode 161: “My Name Is Bev” (Aired: 01/11/95)
Bev gives up alcohol after being arrested for drunk driving.
Written by Bob Nickman | Directed by Gail Mancuso
Estelle Parsons’ Bev drives the action (pun intended) in this offering, as her character is arrested for drunk driving and forced to join AA, where she discovers that she is indeed an alcoholic. This is an overly dramatic topic — one that the series is using in this era to search for more literal realism, even though tragedy is not always synonymous with truth, particularly if the characters are no longer believable enough to support such heavy turns of emotion. However, this script doesn’t shy away from its laughs, especially because the humor really turns on how the other characters react to her sobriety. That’s why the installment is here — in spite of its story, the other leads pick up the comedy. (Also, Romy Rosemont and James Pickens Jr.’s Chuck guests.)
08) Episode 163: “Sisters” (Aired: 02/08/95)
Fred creates a rift between Roseanne and Jackie.
Written by Michael Borkow | Directed by Gail Mancuso
If it’s not already clear, I’m not a fan of Fred — he’s an undefined figure who initially suggested some growth for the Jackie character, as it forced her to process and move on from the abuse she endured in her last relationship, but the series never fully maximized those dramatic (and somewhat earned) opportunities. So, his heavy participation in this outing almost makes it disqualifying — that’s how much of a drag he is. But… this is ultimately an entry about the relationship between Roseanne and Jackie, the latter of whom is caught in the middle of her sister and her husband. That’s a relatable family drama, and with a relationship-forward sisterly engine, I have sufficient character reasons to feature this underrated sample here.
09) Episode 169: “Happy Trailers” (Aired: 03/29/95)
Becky and Mark move into a trailer park.
Written by Tim Doyle & Sid Youngers | Directed by Mark K. Samuels
My choice for this year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Happy Trailers” is the culmination of an arc that was established in the season’s premiere: that Dan is forcing Becky and Mark to eventually move out and get their own place. Well, in this half hour, that’s exactly what they do, as they purchase a mobile home and move into a trailer park. Now, I have to be honest and say, yes, this is very on-the-nose in terms of Roseanne’s former lower-middle-class status, a part of its premise that the series is no longer able to regularly and reliably reinforce in episodic story. And the locale is more indicative of the show’s recent inability to project this sensibility through plot, instead having to verbally insist on its working-class credentials by gleefully calling the family — explicitly — “white trash,” because while this idea is trying to play to the series’ purpose, it’s doing so in a way that signals just how far the mighty have fallen, for the trailer park is inherently associated with a more cartoonish, mocking version of the Conners’ once sincere economic-based identity. However, beggars can’t be choosers in Season Seven, and there’s enough sporadic sincerity in the teleplay for us to consider this dramatically intentional, and with some of the biggest laughs of the year — no, not from the awfully gimmicky guest appearance by Sharon Stone that reveals the season’s dire straits but isn’t so big that it actually ruins the proceedings — this is probably my list’s most satisfying example, representing all of Seven, and its sensibilities, accurately but with slightly more success. (Also, even though this one seems to be about Becky and Mark, there’s a great Roseanne/Darlene scene as well.)
10) Episode 170: “The Blaming Of The Shrew” (Aired: 05/03/95)
D.J. has a domineering new girlfriend, while Jackie and Fred see a marriage counselor.
Written by Lawrence Broch | Directed by Gail Mancuso
Surprisingly, there are two main stories in this offering — both are related to relationships — and both are worthwhile. In the first, there’s more evidence of D.J.’s increased ability to anchor story over these past few years, as he’s in a relationship with a girl (Ashley Johnson) who bosses him around — a fact that bothers Dan but not Roseanne. This is an amusing idea that the show clearly uses to mine humor by suggesting a parallel with the adult Conners. The other plot, meanwhile, is centered around Jackie and Fred, who are near the end of their marriage and therefore should be “persona non grata” as far as this list is concerned — for their material is both character-poor and unfunny — but a gimmicky guest appearance by the high energy Ellen DeGeneres, then starring in the second season of her own sitcom for ABC, as their couples’ counselor, ends up bringing the laughs and reminding of the “Singles in the City” trend that has helped render Roseanne passé, informing some of its choices this year.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Skeleton In The Closet,” the year’s Halloween entry, which I know you’re shocked I didn’t include, but it’s entirely prank-led and claims little value for character or premise. While I admit I enjoy some of the laughs in its balding Bev subplot (particularly when Laurie Metcalf imitates Estelle Parsons), the A-story with the long-con about trying to convince Roseanne that Fred is secretly gay is neither funny nor believable, and it also feels unlike the show’s rather sincere treatment of this subject in last year’s famous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” And so, with no character rewards and a sensibility actually against what Roseanne usually desires to be, I just couldn’t feature it above. In addition, I’ll also single out for Honorable Mention… “Bed And Bored,” which puts Roseanne on bed rest but provides some solid material for Jackie and Bev — which is why I cite it here, “Couch Potatoes,” which enjoys being self-referential about TV as the Conners become a Nielsen family (a comedic idea that’s not used to its full potential), “All About Rosey (II),” the second half of a two-part clip show that famously features other TV mothers from the past as they confront Roseanne about her parenting — a chance for Barr to pat herself on the back for her show’s comic honesty, even though it’s not displayed well in this era and thus feels like gratuitous self-congratulation that’s falsely over-crediting the series’ relevance, and with a metatheatrical wink that helps deliver a fatal blow to any lingering affiliation with realism… and speaking of a metatheatrical wink, “Sherwood Schwartz: A Loving Tribute,” a gimmicky outing with a Gilligan’s Island fantasy sequence (followed by cameos from the then-surviving cast) — an artificial device that is intrinsically against what Roseanne was built to be, further showcasing just how much character-based realism it’s lost in deference to stunts like these.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of Roseanne goes to…
Come back next week for Season Eight! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!