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, LECY GORANSON as Becky, and MICHAEL FISHMAN as D.J. With JOHNNY GALECKI as David, GLENN QUINN as Mark, MARTIN MULL as Leon, and ESTELLE PARSONS as Bev. (And SARAH CHALKE!)
Season Eight is the final year that wasn’t, for negotiations about the series’ return came down to the wire, turning several episodes into a narrative mess, as mounting closure suddenly gave way to an unpleasant open-ended cliffhanger designed to spark last-minute story, and in this case, allow one of the leads to have his future presence reduced… But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the top: as before, Roseanne is mediocre now because it’s no longer writing to its blue-collar identity and has lost a lot of its trademark believability amidst episodic tricks that also indicate a poor use of character. While Eight largely sidesteps the tired romantic angst that plagued Seven, it’s saddled with many more gimmicks, including fantasy sequences (which invade its Halloween and Thanksgiving outings, totally destroying their previously relatable character-revealing ethos), stunt castings (like Martin Mull’s Fernwood 2-Night pal Fred Willard as his hubby), and unmotivated hooks, such as an on-location Disney World trip. It goes without saying, but all of this is opposed to the more literally realistic “slice of life” Roseanne initially offered. Oh, yes, the first half of Eight tries to temper some of its grander ideas with smaller, lower-concept fare, but it doesn’t work in an era where the show is also prone to a metatheatrical wink — a fourth-wall-breaking gag that shatters the allusion of total realism, trading sincerity for aggrandized cleverness. I suppose the second half, as Eight is gearing up for the series’ potential conclusion, is more rewarding, since character evolution becomes a paramount concern again, with some long-buried “working-class” tension occasionally invoked in support of how much the family, and show, has changed. But, of course, many of these entries must also make do with heightened drama that’s not always motivated, particularly now that the leads’ palpable humanity is seldom reinforced. And, by the time the season reaches its end, it’s indulging tearful melodrama not attached to an actual conclusion… because, hey, the show is coming back… only with Dan in a limited capacity, meaning, well, some forced maneuverings. Accordingly, there’s nothing about Roseanne in Eight that’s truly worth celebrating without a “but…” involved. The series has just outlived its purpose and should have ended.
01) Episode 174: “Shower The People You Love With Stuff” (Aired: 09/19/95)
Becky and Darlene argue during Roseanne’s baby shower.
Written by Lawrence Broch | Directed by Gail Mancuso
Another sign that Season Eight was initially intended to be Roseanne‘s swan song is the return of Lecy Goranson in the role of Becky, which she’ll hold onto for most of the year (save a few entries where Sarah Chalke taps back in), and while I’m not a fan of the metatheatrical wink that comes attached to her reappearance — as that’s but another indication of how Roseanne is no longer as literally true as its premise once endeavored to be — I do appreciate the sense of “deja vu” and “old times” that this basically low-concept baby shower is meant to convey (winding down a terrible arc that got extended because Roseanne Barr’s real-life pregnancy occurred after the storyline was first introduced). So, this premiere tries to recalibrate the show towards simplicity for a possible final season. Sadly, it’s just too prone to gimmickry and stunts like the aforementioned wink to really make this an effective tonal shift… (Note: Nancy, Crystal, and Anne-Marie are all back as well; Linda Porter and William Schallert also guest.)
02) Episode 175: “Let Them Eat Junk” (Aired: 09/26/95)
Jackie is upset when Roseanne feeds Andy junk, and Dan tries to change D.J.’s image of him.
Teleplay by Matt Berry & Ed Yeager | Story by Carrie Snow | Directed by Gail Mancuso
Season Eight was a difficult collection from which to craft a list, for there are a lot of mediocre episodes about which I could share some commentary, even though I don’t find them exceptional or totally worthwhile in a study. This installment is one of those that’s here mostly to round out my ten. But I’ll tell you why I bumped it up: unlike the season premiere, which thinks it’s being a low-concept “slice of life” but is a little too artificially jokey and enamored of the metatheatrical wink in its Becky switch to really extend the series’ everyday, relatable style, Eight’s sophomore excursion narratively offers two simple ideas that make sense for these characters and the family. Now, there is some aggrandized, cartoonish playing — from Roseanne and Laurie Metcalf — that’s more reflective of this heightened era, but they pull it off, and ultimately, I buy how these characters are being used (which isn’t always so — see: this season’s “Out Of The Past”).
03) Episode 177: “The Last Date” (Aired: 10/24/95)
Roseanne and Dan crash a bar mitzvah at a local hotel.
Written by Eric Gilliland & Daniel Palladino | Directed by Gail Mancuso
One of the only scripts this year expressly credited to showrunner Eric Gilliland — who was second-in-command during the prior two years, succeeding Rob Ulin — and Daniel Palladino (who’ll take the reins from Gilliland in Nine), this outing employs a memorably funny idea that otherwise has nothing to do with these characters or the particulars of Roseanne’s world: Roseanne and Dan crashing a bar mitzvah. There are lots of easy laughs from this notion that nevertheless aren’t great situation comedy because they lack an affiliation with the show’s regular trappings. However, I include this entry here because of its simple subplot with Becky and Darlene — essentially a conversation — that probably confirms what we all knew years ago: Lecy Goranson is a better comic actress than Sarah Chalke, or more specifically, has a more natural and naturally humorous chemistry with the rest of the ensemble, so her return is a wholly positive development. More importantly, though, I count this as an example of Eight explicitly trying to be quiet and low-concept in one half to counteract a gaudy narrative idea in the other. And this dichotomy is perhaps never more obvious. (Also, Shecky Greene guests.)
04) Episode 184: “December Bride” (Aired: 12/12/95)
Roseanne plans a wedding for Leon and his fiancé.
Written by William Lucas Walker | Directed by Gail Mancuso
Something of a Very Special Episode, but without any of the false and unearned melodramatics or moralizing, this famous segment proudly boasts a Gay Wedding — probably the second sitcom wedding between two gay male characters ever (following Roc, in 1991), airing just a few weeks before Friends would offer the genre’s first lesbian wedding. It’s a gimmick that the show clearly uses to derive the bulk of this teleplay’s comic value and narrative interest, supplanting the regular characters, who should be its driving force. Okay, to be fair, the wedding is for Martin Mull’s Leon, who’s been around for a while, so there is some attachment to the show’s pre-existing elements, and it doesn’t feel totally out-of-the-blue. But there’s no denying it’s one big stunt fest, with Fred Willard making his debut as Leon’s soon-to-be husband Scott — it’s a wink, since Mull and Willard used to costar on Fernwood 2-Night — and a lot of cameos, including from Milton Berle, June Lockhart, Norm Crosby, Alexis Arquette, and Mariel Hemingway (the woman who kissed Roseanne in Season Six). I’m not crazy about this circusy tone — and I think the explanation for how the plot gets Roseanne, of all people, to plan the wedding, is a bit strained — but it at least propels laughs about her lack of taste and the well-established Roseanne/Leon dynamic, and in a season where beggars can’t be choosers, this unforgettable half hour has enough enjoyability to keep it from the “untouchable” pile, like so many of the year’s other stunts. (Faint praise? Eh, it’s the best I can do.)
05) Episode 185: “The Thrilla Near The Vanilla Extract” (Aired: 01/02/96)
Roseanne and Jackie get side jobs at the supermarket.
Written by Ed Yeager | Directed by Gail Mancuso
In another example of the show straining on behalf of narrative — moving far away from the low-concept domestic simplicity of its earliest days — this outing finds Roseanne and Jackie temporarily, and randomly, taking side jobs at the supermarket… Sigh. In earlier years, when the family was strapped for cash and working multiple jobs, I would have bought this, but by now, money does not seem to be a problem for the Conners, so this “side hustle” feels unearned — just an excuse to motivate a funny centerpiece where the two sisters compete as product sampling hostesses, culminating, you guessed it, in a food fight. That’s amusing and memorable enough to elevate it above a lot of its competition, but it’s quite a fall from the last big supermarket installment — when Roseanne taught Darlene’s class how to be a housewife on a budget. C’est la vie… at least the subplot tries to find some genuine relational, character-led drama between David and Dan. (Also, Stan Freberg guests here, and appears in the next two installments as part of a running gag. Kathryn Joosten has a small role as well.)
06) Episode 186: “The White Sheep Of The Family” (Aired: 01/09/96)
Darlene’s possibility for economic mobility alienates her from the family.
Written by David Raether | Directed by Gail Mancuso
My choice for this year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “The White Sheep Of The Family” is the point where Season Eight seems to pivot to the probability that the entire series will be concluding with its forthcoming finale. Accordingly, there starts to be more thought given to these characters’ endgames, and where the show will leave them, hopefully indicating some significant evolution in the process. What this does, in particular, is allow the series to not only ponder how the leads have changed, but also to write scripts that ideally illustrate it, thereby being, if not totally character-driven, then character-centric. And, in evolving the characters, these scripts must also reconnect with the working-class blue-collar aspect of the series’ identity — this family’s history — which has been essentially ignored the last few years. Now, this entry is special because it does reconnect with that vital part of the series’ DNA — and not just for a stunt or a gimmick or a self-congratulatory wink, but for a character-based drama that helps progress one of the leads, Darlene, towards the place that the series might leave her. So, while it’s a bit jarring to see these themes all of a sudden return, when the Conners get a pop of money from a dead relative and then go out to eat at a fancy restaurant — with comedy coming from the fact that they’re so out-of-place there (although, not as cartoonishly as the Bundys, when they went out to eat at a nice restaurant in 1989) — it’s still such a seminal part of this series’ makeup that we welcome it back, especially when the story then switches to being about Darlene’s potential to escape their class, and possibly make something of herself like no other Conner ever has, connecting character to premise in a way that we haven’t seen in such a long time. And the drama that comes from this notion — the idea that Darlene might become, as Roseanne says, “one of them,” the people who have money and look down on the working folks who can’t afford to reject any job — is interesting, relatable, and rooted in what was initially this series’ thematic premise, its situation (not to mention Darlene’s characterization, which is guiding). As a result, there was really no other choice. This is what Roseanne is supposed to be.
07) Episode 187: “Becky Howser, M.D.” (Aired: 01/16/96)
Roseanne encourages Becky to make changes in her life.
Written by Sid Youngers | Directed by Gail Mancuso
In the same way that the above entry started to explore the future for Darlene ahead of a potential finale, this offering caters to Becky, who is feeling trapped in the tiny trailer she and Mark moved into last season — a visual reminder of the show’s economic struggle, even as it’s no longer reiterated like it should be in story. Well, in this case, there’s some genuine affiliation to that original pillar of the series’ identity, for Becky gave up all her dreams to run off with a man — just as Roseanne gave up her dreams to start a family. And now that Becky realizes that she wants more, and Roseanne is encouraging her to go for it, there’s realistic, motivated relationship drama that develops with Mark, for what happens to him if Becky aspires for more than their life together? Like in the best of Roseanne’s more dramatic outings, there are no easy answers, and the tension is earned by established character traits, supported by enough laughs to validate what the genre requires. As such, this is up there with the year’s best — one of the few that, like my MVE, touches on some of the series’ core ideals, examining characters comedically.
08) Episode 189: “Construction Junction” (Aired: 02/13/96)
Dan considers applying for a big-time construction job.
Written by Daniel Palladino | Directed by Gail Mancuso
While the two above installments focused on the girls, “Construction Junction” sets its sights on the family as a whole, as part of the year’s misbegotten endgame crusade involves an actual narrative change to the Conners’ economic fortune, for Dan has the opportunity to pursue a major construction job that would significantly elevate his family’s prosperity. Now, as we know, the show basically abandoned its working-class economic drama in Season Five, revisiting it only to crassly proclaim that this family is “white trash” (in a tone that’s neither persuasive nor humanistic), or, as we’ve just seen, to put the characters on the course to their endings. This is a bit odd; for it already feels like the Conners have become more economically prosperous — just look at their wardrobe. But, for the purposes of the series’ possible conclusion, their ascension now has to become part of the narrative, so again, although it’s disconcerting to see the show revisit something long ignored and pretend like nothing has happened, at least it is reengaging with a notion that we’ve never wanted it to lose. Also, this episode boasts a funny subplot where Jackie becomes addicted to the internet. So, lots of yuks here, in addition to thematic relevance.
09) Episode 190: “We’re Going To Disney World” (Aired: 02/20/96)
With another pop of money, the Conner family plans a trip to Disney World.
Written by Matt Berry | Directed by Gail Mancuso
This season’s shameless cross-promotion of Disney World — after Disney’s purchase of ABC — is one of the noxious stunts that really indicates just how much the show had moved away from its initial realistic tenor and character-rooted low-concept sincerity (atypical attempts at closure in the above entries notwithstanding). Indeed, the actual on-location half hour is pretty dire, as is a follow-up excursion that parodies the Disney theme parks and their workers in a sketch-like one-joke gag that has little to do with Roseanne and its specifics. But this outing, which sets up the trip, is quite fun, with laughs and character moments — the Conners go on a plane! — that sort of offers what my MVE does in its restaurant scene, as this working-class family goes to an environment that’s rare for them, subliminally reinforcing their thematic origins as a blue-collar bunch who ordinarily couldn’t afford such an adventure. Thus, there’s some value here for Roseanne and what the series is supposed to be, even though it only exists for a huge gimmick. (Of note: Sarah Chalke is back as Becky. Wink included.)
10) Episode 193: “Another Mouth To Shut Up” (Aired: 03/26/96)
Darlene announces she’s pregnant and plans to marry David.
Teleplay by Janet Leahy & Richard Kaplan | Story by Eric Gilliland | Directed by Mark K. Samuels
After teasing the likelihood that Darlene is going to rise above the working/middle class of the Conners’ world and end up the best of their lot, this installment counters with some relatable family dysfunction and a relationship-focus that affirms the series’ mutual interest in being realistic and, to some extent, character-centric, for Darlene reveals that she’s unexpectedly become pregnant and will now marry David. This, naturally, is tough for Roseanne and Dan, who similarly started a family so young, and had high hopes for this particular daughter and the opportunities ahead in her life. So, there’s some well-motivated and situationally connected drama that, more than just being driven by the big narrative developments — as so many of the later episodes in Eight are: the wedding, Dan’s heart attack, and the poorly supported fight that’s supposed to separate Roseanne and Dan, allowing John Goodman to take many weeks off next season — is also truly concerned with character. For that reason, I am glad to highlight it here.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “The Getaway, Almost,” which happily avoids a predictable bit with Jenna Elfman as a young hitchhiker in favor of a simpler, yet aimless A-story for Roseanne and Jackie, and also claims a decently funny subplot with Dan and Mark, “Of Mice And Dan,” which is a lesser version of several earlier ideas, “Morning Becomes Obnoxious,” a very meta outing where Roseanne becomes a TV star on a local morning news show and the script gets to make industry jokes that feel far away from what this series was built to be, and “The Wedding,” which contains the big event of David and Darlene’s wedding, but balances humanity and humor with some skill. Meanwhile, as far as gimmicks go, “Ballroom Blitz” notably guests the affable Tony Curtis, “Roseanne In The Hood,” includes Pat Harrington Jr. and references his role as Schneider on One Day At A Time, “Fights And Stuff,” is the season finale that culminates in a bizarre and forced fight between Roseanne and Dan, and “The Fifties Show,” is a decent enough sketch… too bad it’s the kind of self-indulgent tripe that’s often attached to the show’s metatheatrical wink, as it overstates Roseanne’s importance to the sitcom genre, denying everything we actually care about in the process: its intended realism, blue-collar ethos, and believably comedic use of character.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eight of Roseanne goes to…
“The White Sheep Of The Family”
Come back next week for Season Nine! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!