Comedy Central’s latest roast featured sitcom legend Roseanne Barr. While the predicted fat jokes were present, there was also a sense of respect and affection for the guest of honor. A big reason for the relative deference to Barr is her contribution to television, particularly her long-running sitcom Roseanne. Airing on ABC, the show was seen as an antidote to the cheery idealism of NBC’s The Cosby Show; instead of presenting a peerlessly functional family, Roseanne dealt with the Conners: a lower middle-class Illinois family dealing with the reality of debt and barely making ends meet. At the center of the Conner household is the matriarch, Roseanne, a tough, sarcastic, but loving mother who rules her household with wisecracks and devastating wit.
The show ran for 9 seasons – all available on DVD. Like most shows that last so long, the quality veers – the first season shows some rough patches, while the final season pretty much went off the rails – but those glorious seven seasons in between amount to some of the greatest, most honest moments on television. But even when the show wasn’t at its best, there are solitary moments in the creative droughts, that there were insightful and fantastic.
The Conners comprised of dad, Dan (John Goodman), daughters Becky (Lecy Goranson and later Sarah Chalke) and Darlene (Sara Gilbert), and youngest child, D.J. (Michael Fishman). Roseanne also is very close to her sister, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), and has a difficult, tempestuous relationship with her mother, Beverly (Oscar-winner, Estelle Parsons). And during its run, the Conners add Becky’s boyfriend Mark (the late Glenn Quinn) and Darlene’s boyfriend David (Johnathen Galecki) to the fold. Along with family, Roseanne also has a circle of close friends, including Crystal (Natalie West) and Nancy (Sandra Bernhard).
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The first season has Roseanne working at a plastics factory with Jackie and Crystal, and dealing with fairly standard sitcom situations. The hard-hitting issues that would become the trademark of the series, aren’t really addressed, with the exception of the Connors dealing with money (or the lack of money). In one episode, Becky throws a tantrum at the shopping mall because Roseanne can’t pay for a new dress – a great moment, when Roseanne feels guilty about not being able to spoil her daughter, and how the two come to an understanding. The highlight of the episode is Roseanne and her group of friends, standing up to their ogre of a boss(politician and actor Fred Thompson) and leading a walkout when he doesn’t loosen his unreasonable standards.
The second season creates some story arcs that cover a number of episodes – most notably Roseanne’s search for work after leaving the plastics factory. It’s in this season that we get to see Roseanne, the soulful, unfulfilled artist, in “Brain-Dead Poets Society,” in which tomboyish rough Darlene exhibits a surprisingly tender and beautiful artistic side, by writing a heart-breaking poem. In one of the greatest moments of the show, Roseanne shares with Darlene some of her own poetry, sharing with her daughter a link. This is also the season that Jackie decides to join the police force.
The third season has Roseanne working at a diner in the mall – Rodbell’s. Dan also is eyeing a motorcycle shop after being het up about the idea by an old high school buddy. Also important in the season is the impending marriage of Dan’s dad, Ed, to Roseanne’s best friend Crystal – Dan is opposed to the idea, because of his prickly relationship with his absentee father, and his genuine affection for Crystal. Issues of gender and sexuality come up when little D.J. wants to dress up as a witch for Halloween, giving Dan all sorts of gay panic. Mark also is introduced into the show, and his terse speaking style, coupled with his biker jacket make Dan and Roseanne think he’s a hood.
The fourth season offers Gilbert some of her strongest work as Darlene, formerly an athletic tomboy, becomes depressed. She dons oversized black clothing and wears her mane of black curls over her face, as she oozes apathy. This plot line is very well handled – both Roseanne and Dan don’t know how to respond to the change and react befuddled and make mistakes. Roseanne is also drawn into a Hatfield & McCoys situation when a snooty and obnoxious neighbor moves in next door. While all this is going on, Dan is working hard to make his motorcycle shop work, despite its sinking into insolvency. Crystal gives birth to Dan’s baby sister, and on that special day, Roseanne learns she’s out of a job, as the diner closes – once again, plunging the Conners into financial instability. We also learn of Jackie’s and Roseanne’s violent past with their father, who is exposed as an abusive cheat, who ran around with a woman for years and beat the girls when they were kids – which explains their neuroses as adults.
With the fifth season, Dan loses his shop and Becky runs off and elopes with Mark. Roseanne and Jackie, along with Nancy band together to open a loose meat sandwich shop. The fifth season also handles some more dark themes – mainly David and his abusive home life with his rageful mother (Sally Kirkland), and Jackie, who becomes a victim of domestic violence at the hands of her seemingly perfect boyfriend, Fisher. “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home” is a beaut of an episode, with the Conners dealing with the death of Roseanne’s dad – the show gives Barr and Metcalf two brilliant moments, totally different in nature: Barr has a monologue over her fictional deceased father’s coffin, venting all the anger and frustration she felt toward him, but eventually finding a place for forgiveness; Metcalf, on the other hand, is given a comic highlight, when as a distraught Jackie, she is tasked with calling a hard-of-hearing relative to relay the news of her dad’s death, only to have to shout into the phone at top voice, “Dad is dead! He’s dead! Dead!” before finally giving up and saying, “he’s fine, he sends his love.” That such a serious episode can combine two such masterful strokes of comedy and tragedy shows why the program at its finest towered over its competition. Darlene also is shipped off to college in Chicago, after being accepted early, giving the Conners their first taste of true success.
The sixth season, while still strong, starts to show a bit of fraying. For one thing, Gilbert’s absent for a lot of episodes – she’s a welcome and much-needed presence, and her absence is felt; but a far more head-scratching problem is Chalke replacing Goranson as Becky. Not only do the two actresses look different, but Chalke is not able to portray Becky beyond the petty selfishness, lacking any of Goranson’s strength or fire. Otherwise, the show continues on its winning streak: Jackie’s pregnant after a one-night stand. Dan has to deal with his fractured relationship with his heel of a dad, and confront the pain of having a mother committed to a mental institution. Darlene and David become a bit like the Ross and Rachel of the show, their relationship going through some obstacles. The highlight of the episode is Roseanne and Jackie partying with Nancy at a lesbian bar and Roseanne getting a kiss from a game Mariel Hemingway. And in the midst of all this, Jackie gets married with Fred, her baby’s daddy, and her protector, Dan, walks her down the aisle.
The seventh season drops a shocker: Roseanne is pregnant with her fourth child, but the pregnancy doesn’t go smoothly and the issue of abortion looms over the Conner household. But the rest of the season begins to betray the sitcom’s age. The plot lines insist on focusing on the difficult relationships between Becky and Mark and Darlene and David – it’s not that these characters aren’t interesting, it’s just that there’s just so much that can be done with them; the pregnancy adds a good shot of urgency in the episode.
The eight season is the last gasp of true brilliance in the show. Firstly, thankfully, Goranson returns as Becky, picking up as if she never left (and the audience’s riotous response to the actress during her first scene was particularly comforting). Roseanne has her baby – named after the late Grateful Dead leader, Jerry Garcia. She also spars with Jackie over parenting styles, and has to acknowledge the problematic relationship she had with her own mother. Also, because homosexuality was always a constant theme in the show, Roseanne gets to throw a gay wedding for Leon and his partner Scott, that puts Las Vegas to shame. There also was a under-average episode where the Conner clad runs off to Disney World on holiday soon after ABC was purchased by the Disney Corporation. Because it was rumored that this would be the last season of Roseanne, Dan almost dies of a heart attack at Darlene’s wedding.
The final season is the most controversial. After Dan’s heart attack, the Conners discover that they won the lottery. Now multi-millionaires, the characters tear through their lives, spending money and enjoying experiences they’ve never encountered. Goodman was largely absent – it’s explained that Dan’s out in California, tending to his sick mother. Roseanne and Jackie traipse through New York, and meet up with Patsy Stone and Edina Monsoon from Absolutely Fabulous; the two also enjoy a whole day at a spa. Despite their financial issues being resolved, there are still problems that befall the Conners: Darlene and David have a baby that almost dies, Dan cheats on Roseanne, and Beverly comes out as a lesbian. The finale of the show explains all this, and it’s a bit of a shocker. While no where near the level of excellence that the show enjoyed during its peak, the final season wasn’t the disaster critics felt.
The long run of the show benefits greatly from the cast – as star, creator and producer, Barr developed nicely as an actress throughout the run. The first season showed a green actress, struggling a bit with the lines and trying to find a character. It was finally in the latter half of the second season that Barr was able to locate who Roseanne Conner was; Goodman, on the other hand, is brilliant. His Dan is an everyman – but with a deep and profound dignity and intelligence. Like Barr, he’s got a great way with one-liners. As Jackie, Metcalf blows pretty much everyone off the screen – a brilliant screen comedienne, who steals every scene. Gilbert is also wonderful, with a fantastic, dry wit and deadpan delivery. Goranson was saddled with the least interesting character on the show, but did a great job at portraying a strong and willful Becky – something her replacement, Chalke, failed. Fishman as D.J., also grew as an actor, developing nicely and portraying his weirdness and alienation well. As a recurring character, Parsons is an overwrought wonder, and her scenes with Metcalf are especially a joy to watch.
There is no boxed set for Roseanne, but it’s worth to buy every season – including the much-aligned ninth season. Barr has brought up issues that other TV shows have shruken away from; it’s a brave and brilliant show.
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