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 as Crystal, TOM ARNOLD as Arnie, BONNIE BRAMLETT as Bonnie, and MARTIN MULL as Leon.
Season Four is the final year where Roseanne reliably crosses novelty with knowingness — an ability to play to its original premise, specifically the blue-collar family ethos that’s also attached to its interest in more literal realism, while also boasting a peak understanding of the characters and how to best display them within story. As with Season Three, Four is written by most of that same crew, so the same comic elevation from last year still exists, although with less maintained truth — there’s not a major drop, but it’s definitely an ongoing drift, as these scribes have burned off their initially glib, overly clever tone, but are now suspending some of the show’s trademark honesty to pursue bigger humor in broader narrative ideas. To wit, the use of story will be one of the major elements that negatively affects the series in Five — largely due to a dwindling ability to engage the show’s relatable lower-middle-class tension in plot (following a “Rubicon-crossing” moment…), and without stronger support from character. Thankfully, Four is not nearly as worrisome, but there’s already a sneaking preview of what’s about to come, especially during the latter half of this year, as a reliance on gaudier narrative hooks and semi-serialized arcs jeopardizes the early low-concept “slice-of-life” style and quiet continuity that suggested realism, now that plots are becoming more heightened and intrusive. For instance, this specific season sees the marriage of Nancy and Arnie, Crystal’s next pregnancy, Roseanne’s boob reduction, Bev’s reveal of her husband’s affair, the romantic ups and downs of Becky and Mark, and Darlene’s blossoming romance with David (Johnny Galecki), following a period where she’s depressed (with the latter arc being the simplest and most relatable of the season, as it’s both believable and beneficial for her character). Through a lot of this, the series is starting to turn to heavier, harder-to-motivate drama, falsely synonymizing it with truth — a trend that’s truly troubling when attached to a growing self-importance (topicality!) that continues to crowd out character, but right now, is mostly evidenced in the evolving nature of the show’s depiction of familial dysfunction. That is, Roseanne is starting to redefine the characters’ backstories, taking them away from “everyman” drama to more melodramatic, and therefore less connectable, origins, representing another shift away from its initially premised identity.
This kind of stuff is not quite as pernicious as a Very Special Episode, for Roseanne’s leads are generally realer, and this series’ moralizing is not as overt, but it does start to weaken the show’s overall command on character, particularly as it’s becoming more interested in narrative, and how the regulars can be used for story, rather than how story can be used for the regulars. That attitude creeps in here, but it’s way more of a problem later on… Meanwhile, another change often discussed as part of this series’ forthcoming decline is the unfavorable evolution of Roseanne, as she starts to grow harsher and louder — meaner. I see the seeds of this change planted in Four as a result of all the stress placed on the family from these heavier arcs, initially existing as a motivated response to obvious hardship, before the tone eventually seeps into her bones, long past the time when this plot-sparked stimuli could make it feel earned. Fortunately, it’s still buyable and additive to Four’s sense of realism, and that’s yet another reason why this is still one of the series’ best years in relation to others, for character and premise (and comedy) are in good shape — with economic drama a regular, believable story engine. Okay, these qualities are not as collectively well-modulated as they were in Three, and compared to Two, this is only a season you prefer if you favor boldness — in story, both comedic and dramatic — over relatable familial humanity, which, needless to say, is in best supply early on, and is now slowly rescinding to the point where next year, with its new staff of scribes who’ll reach more comedic and dramatic heights, can only find such success by incurring a major loss to the show’s initial believability — a sad change exacerbated by both a mounting inability to play to the show’s working-class thesis as often in plot, and a more character-subjugating story design where aggrandized narrative concerns, both comedic and dramatic, take precedence. So, Four is the last frontier for the series’ intersection of novelty and knowingness, displayed relatively well in story, and while my list may suggest an imbalance between the year’s two halves, please note that although, yes, it is felt — the second part of Four loses its “slice-of-life” bent for flashier hijinks — it’s not as totally glaring as you might assume at face-value, especially when you consider the context of what’s ahead. After all, this is still a great year of Roseanne: ideal-adjacent.
01) Episode 73: “A Bitter Pill To Swallow” (Aired: 09/17/91)
Becky shocks her mom by asking about birth control.
Written by Amy Sherman & Jennifer Heath | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
Season Four opens on one of the year’s best parenting shows, with a bold comic idea that further shatters the idealism of the family subgenre Roseanne was born to disrupt, and also reminds of the relatability for which this series has since become known, as its story finds Becky asking to go on birth control now that she’s sexually active with Mark, her recurring boyfriend (and future husband). This is a great idea for these leads, believably showcasing the maturation of one of the teens, and in a smart parenting script that manages to handle a somewhat ostentatious plot with a temperature-reducing sincerity and a healthy number of big laughs, all in connection to Roseanne’s premise. Also, this outing establishes the Conners’ bike shop, which was teased at the end of Three, and serves in Four as a terrific source of economic drama.
02) Episode 75: “Why Jackie Becomes A Trucker” (Aired: 10/01/91)
Jackie surprises everyone by having a drunken fling with Arnie.
Written by Chuck Lorre | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
The amazing Laurie Metcalf won her first of three consecutive Emmys for her work in the fourth season of Roseanne, and this is one of the two offerings submitted on her behalf. Indeed, her strong comic performance — heightened, but always with humanity — is why I can single out the entry here, for otherwise this is just an idea that’s naturally comedic without much support from the premise, or these characters… Well, that’s not entirely true, for how Jackie and the rest of this cast responds to the reveal that she slept with Arnie is hinged on the basic disgust they (and we) have for his character, as played by Tom Arnold, which means there’s some help from the series’ pre-established elements. And even though, frankly, Arnie is not a figure conducive to episodic success (given how tangential he is to Roseanne… Conner, that is), it’s such an amusing showing for Jackie — on the short list of Metcalf’s best — and allows Roseanne to respond in kind, that it simply adds unique value to this list. (James Pickens Jr. and Adilah Barnes also appear as the recurring Chuck and Anne-Marie.)
03) Episode 76: “Darlene Fades To Black” (Aired: 10/08/91)
Darlene enters a period of depression.
Written by Jeff Abugov | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
Darlene’s depression arc launches in this outing, but it doesn’t feel like it pops out of nowhere, for her character has always been something of a sarcastic outsider who’s been unable to properly express her feelings, and this phase therefore arises as a logical progression in her well-established persona. As a result, this arc is one of the most character-rooted and believability-affirming storylines of the fourth season, reinforcing the show’s identity by proving both its grip on realism and its strength with the characterizations — and in contrast to many of the other recurring narrative ideas ahead, which seem to be more predicated on trackable story beats, instead of how they’re earned and what they reveal about these leads. Also, I just want to reiterate how authentic this arc is, and how well the show handles it — in perfect evidence of a more literally realistic aesthetic. So, character + premise (+ comedy, of course) = a no-brainer.
04) Episode 77: “Tolerate Thy Neighbor” (Aired: 10/15/91)
Roseanne unknowingly helps her neighbor’s house be robbed.
Written by Maxine Lapiduss & Martin Mull | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
As discussed last week, I think it was a smart idea to introduce a rival for Roseanne in haughty neighbor Kathy Bowman (Meagen Fay), whose disgust of Roseanne is at least subliminally exacerbated by an apparent class difference — a distinction that I appreciate because it inherently allows the show to flex its muscles as a blue-collar sitcom, courting broad relatability over comic gloss and artifice. So, this episode intrinsically starts from a smart foundation, boasting an amusing story where Roseanne more than just fails to intervene when the Bowmans’ house is robbed, but actually even buys some of the items herself, thinking that the crooks are collecting for charity. It’s comical and creates room for moments that play right into the two ladies’ established relationship. Meanwhile, the subplot involves co-writer Martin Mull’s Leon, a character whose function as a white-collar opposition to Roseanne is giving way to a wackier presence more exclusively focused on laughs — a trend in keeping with this era, which is going for bigger reactions (of both comedy and drama). Bob Hope makes a cameo.
05) Episode 78: “Trick Me Up, Trick Me Down” (Aired: 10/29/91)
Roseanne waits for Kathy Bowman to retaliate with a Halloween prank.
Written by Amy Sherman | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
Despite my usual aversion to Halloween shows — as I find them a basic gimmick, not often maximizing the use of character and instead relying on hacky stunts not well-steeped in any aspect of a series’ identity (and seldom with enough laughs) — I must admit that Roseanne‘s third annual excursion in this category is another decent half hour, thanks to an A-story that’s not only built on Roseanne’s pre-determined love for the holiday (which is what makes these shows worthwhile for character: they’re an extension of her depiction), but also on her rivalry with Kathy Bowman, which further entrenches the idea within the show’s “situation.” Additionally, this entry exhibits smart continuity by providing a guest shot from George Clooney’s Booker — Jackie’s love interest from the first season, who appears on Roseanne for the final time. (Arnie, Anne-Marie, and Chuck also participate in the festivities.)
06) Episode 81: “Stressed To Kill” (Aired: 11/19/91)
Roseanne resumes smoking while Becky tries to help Darlene.
Teleplay by Jeff Abugov & Maxine Lapiduss | Story by Bob Myer & Chuck Lorre | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
With a story about Roseanne taking up smoking again to cope with all the recent stress in her life, particularly because of Darlene and her current depression, this offering is an interesting sample of Season Four, progressing one of its arcs by showing its effect on the other characters, including Becky, who has a strong and fairly serious scene where she lays into Darlene — a moment that plays with great truth, thanks both to the performances and the scripting. As for Roseanne, the stress she’s currently enduring sort of justifies her character’s hardening persona… but, as further seasons prove, it never lets up, and in fact, continues to become more prominent until it eventually consumes just who she is, independent of these extenuating circumstances that, at least here, are believable and identifiable.
07) Episode 82: “Thanksgiving ’91” [a.k.a. “Thanksgiving 1991”] (Aired: 11/26/91)
Bev drops big news on the family when she comes to town for Thanksgiving.
Written by Brad Isaacs | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
This season’s Thanksgiving show is, as usual, largely a chance to get the characters together at the same time and place for some relatable family dysfunction, and here in Four, the series is still able to keep said dysfunction largely relatable… although leap-requiring darkness is certainly encroaching, especially when Bev (Estelle Parsons) reveals that the reason the girls’ dad isn’t joining them for the holiday is because he’s spending it with his girlfriend — a dramatic notion that maybe is buyable based on what we know and have seen about his character, but will continue to become less emotionally connectable for the broad audience as it continues to grow more serious (and abuse becomes the series’ topic du jour). In the meantime, this idea inspires the following week’s story, where Roseanne and Jackie go to meet the mistress — a grander plot than this slice-of-life series’ baseline (but nevertheless Honorably Mentioned below). Also, in better news: Shelley Winters is back as Nana Mary, and she’s always an energy booster.
08) Episode 84: “Santa Claus” (Aired: 12/24/91)
Roseanne takes a job as a store Santa and learns more about Darlene.
Teleplay by Chuck Lorre & Maxine Lapiduss | Story by Barry Vigon | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
My choice for this year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Santa Claus” might not seem to fit the profile of my usual MVE selections, given that it’s a holiday show, and I tend not to prefer them, opining that they too often resort to narrative gimmickry without enough affiliation to character, while also trafficking in sentiment that’s either unearned and/or not a comparable substitute for comedy. But, fortunately, Roseanne’s Christmas is unencumbered this year by any of those usual concerns, for not only does it maintain the series’ tone — avoiding the mawkishness that this holiday often invites — it also enjoys great support from its leads. That is, while the idea behind the whole installment mostly looks like one big excuse to get Roseanne dressed up as a store Santa, the show actually gives her a motivation that’s rooted in what we know of her and this series’ premise — she needs the money after being denied an expected bonus — and then it’s able to deploy a feminist working-woman argument that really reiterates the show’s core perspective. This justifies her choice to indulge the idea and reinforces the series’ identity through simultaneous economic tension, all the while mining laughs from the natural juxtaposition of the Roseanne character and Santa Claus. Additionally, this offering does not rely solely on “Roseanne as Santa” to carry all its value, as it pivots in its second half to Roseanne’s relationship with Darlene, continuing the latter’s depression arc, but in a way that’s revealing for both — honest and still comedic. So, even though this may appear to be an atypical MVE, it’s a typical — but especially strong — sample of this season’s maintained command on both premise and character. (Also, Lee Garlington guests as Darlene’s friend.)
09) Episode 91: “The Commercial Show” (Aired: 03/03/92)
The Conners are chosen to be in a commercial for Roseanne’s restaurant.
Teleplay by Maxine Lapiduss & Jennifer Heath | Story by Maxine Lapiduss & Chuck Lorre | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
As noted above, the second half of this season is not as strong as the first, as story concerns — both episodic gimmicks and heavier arc-based plots — rise in prominence, and while I don’t want to over-state any differences in quality within Four, I have to admit that this popular outing indulges a gaudy comedic idea that doesn’t feel fully supported by the show’s low-concept sincerity, attached to its working-woman sensibility, for the prospect of the Conners appearing in a commercial for Roseanne’s restaurant is something of a conventional sitcom idea — more artificial than most of this year’s plots — with laughs more related to the mechanics of said idea than the characters themselves. Sure, it is funny, but it’s more indicative of the series’ declining “knowingness” with regard to smart character usage than anything else… And yet, if it sounds like I’m completely down on this one, I’m not — specifically because I appreciate the subplot, where the Bowmans move and Roseanne’s contentious dynamic with Kathy allows for more relatable and earned moments of actual situation comedy, rendering it worthy of being singled out here. (Incidentally, Rick Dees is also among the guests.)
10) Episode 96: “Don’t Make Me Over” (Aired: 05/05/92)
Darlene and Becky try to butter Roseanne up on Mother’s Day so they can attend a concert.
Teleplay by Maxine Lapiduss and Don Foster & Sid Youngers | Story by Sara Gilbert | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
One of the simplest and most character-filled entries in the last stretch of the season, this installment has a story credited to Sara Gilbert, and that’s appropriate because it’s a solid parenting show with a relatable A-plot about the girls being nice to Roseanne on Mother’s Day… but with an ulterior motive: to get her permission to attend a concert. Once Roseanne finds out, she’s naturally upset and the script then smartly dovetails this notion with the subplot, as an overarching issue between Roseanne and Dan, about the latter not being much of a disciplinarian, comes to the fore. Finally, by allowing him to step up and harshly rebuke his daughters for what they did to their mom, both narratives come together, and in a teleplay that understands just how much the low-concept, realistic depiction of a blue-collar family IS Roseanne’s premise. So, with the end of Four slowly drifting away from that focus, it’s nice to see an example from late in this peak-adjacent season of what the series is supposed to be.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include two outings that I could have probably made an excuse to highlight above, even though I don’t think their charms outmatch those that were selected — “Take My Bike, Please!,” a solid working-class show with a lot of fine moments that flatter both the series’ novelty and its knowledge about how to display the characters, and “Aliens,” an amusing season finale that piles on a lot of misery for the leads, much of it economic drama that reinforces the premise — which is still wonderfully invoked in Four (unlike Five). Meanwhile, of lesser quality but equal note are the aforementioned “Kansas City, Here We Come,” which finds Jackie and Roseanne going to confront their dad’s mistress — a memorable idea that pairs the two for long scenes where they both shine (it’s the other entry that helped earn Metcalf her Emmy), “Bingo,” which has an okay comic idea but gets bogged down by the Crystal stuff, “The Bowling Show,” which boasts a ripe, blue-collar setting and introduces Johnny Galecki’s character, but dilutes its “slice-of-life” ideal with too many distractions, and “The Back Story,” the offering that sets up Roseanne’s boob reduction but is most enjoyable for giving Bev a lot to do. Lastly, there are three segments that I know are well-liked, but I find more foreboding than laudable: “This Old House,” where Roseanne totally contorts our understanding of her childhood by introducing the thread of abuse that makes her character less of an avatar for the series’ relatable realism and more of a dramatic figure with tenuously buyable (and uncomedic) baggage, “Therapy,” which helps further the pivot from “relatable dysfunction” to “excessive dysfunction,” and “Lies,” which progresses the Darlene/David romance but with a gaudy A-story about Roseanne, Leon, and a lie detector test that feels beneath Roseanne and its supposedly sincere ethos.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Roseanne goes to…
Come back next week for Season Five! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!