My favorite episode – ‘Roseanne’ – “Mothers and Other Strangers”

My favorite episode is a feature for this blog in which I look at my favorite episode of a TV show I like. Some of the shows will be classics – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I Love Lucy, etc., and others may be shows that I personally loved, even if they haven’t endured or stood the test of time, like Ugly Betty, for example. I won’t go into the history of the show too much, but will give some context if needed – and I’ll also go into the show’s historical significance and if the episode is a much-beloved classic, I’ll also discuss that.

Roseanne was one of the most important shows on television in the late 80s, early 90s. Based on the comedy of Roseanne Barr, the show told the tale of the Connors – a hard-working blue collar family that did all they could to get by. Matriarch Roseanne Connor (Barr) ruled the household with sarcasm and wit, but her fierce love never was questioned. Dan (John Goodman) was an example of possibly one of the best husbands on television – he wasn’t perfect, but he was a decent guy, who, like Roseanne, raised the kids with a heavy dose of humor. The  Connors had three kids: Becky (Lecy Goranson/Sarah Chalke), Darlene (Sara Gilbert), and D.J. (Michael Fishman). Roseanne was also supported by her sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), and a group of loyal friends.

By the ninth and final season, the show went through a lot of changes (as did Barr’s physical appearances): the family’s fortunes wavered dramatically until the Connors won the lottery. The final season is seen as the worst of the show’s long history. Because the Connors were suddenly rich, critics derided the show as becoming out of touch – many blamed Barr, arguing that her ego went unchecked and by the final season she was dire need of a mitigating force to edit some of her ideas. I liked the final season because it was during that year that her political and social critiques were at their most pointed.

In the best episode of the final season, “Mothers and Other Strangers” Barr and Cynthia Mort an excellent half hour that featured some of the best parts of the show – namely Oscar-winning actresses Estelle Parsons and Shelly Winters in their recurring roles as Roseanne’s mother Beverly and grandmother Mary, respectively. Beverly, the epitome of female repression and feminine mystique, has recently come out, and is trying to figure out her life. She goes with Roseanne’s pals Leon (Martin Mull) and Scott (Fred Willard) to visit her bohemian, eccentric mother. What’s interesting about this episode is that two minor characters dominate the episode and do some beautiful work.

Roseanne once wrote that she loved writing scenes for Mary, Beverly, and Jackie because she said she loved watching three of the best actresses work their stuff. Having Bev come out was initially seen as a cheap way to shock the viewers, but in the end, it makes sense. Beverly was an oppressing figure who frustrated her daughters. Her mothering was rife with issues and mistakes – namely, letting her philandering husband’s physical abuse of his daughters go on, while looking the other way. Because her life was so wretched, she shared the wealth with her daughters, which in turn, inspired the two of them to be fantastic mothers to their kids.

What Barr and Mort are doing is asking why parents make mistakes with their kids. The questions are important to raise – why was Beverly so willing to let others dictate how she lives her life? Mary was the kind of mom that many would superficially love to have – liberal, artistic, and passionate. However, when Mary and Bev start to talk they begin to bring up the problems in the latter’s childhood, specifically, how unstable Bev’s life was. Being eccentric is great on paper, but what kid wants her kid to be bohemian?

As the season progressed, Barr’s alter ego explained that the show’s action was all imaginary and that she wrote Bev as gay because in reality, her mother was so entrenched in the feminist backlash and so downtrodden that she wanted Bev to have a “sense of herself as a woman.”

It’s interesting because a show that lasts as long as Roseanne changes and shifts. It’s neat to see how much Barr developed and improved as an actress as well as a writer. And Roseanne Conner was a blue collar heroine, very much different than Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker from All in the Family. She was a blue state working class heroine, not a reaction against social progress, but a reaction to Reaganomics.

“Mothers and Other Daughters” isn’t the best episode of the show – the subplot of Roseanne trying to figure out how to welcome an absent Dan back into the household after all the changes is silly, but I appreciated just what Barr was doing when she wrote the episode and what she was trying to impart.

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Filed under Comedy, Sitcom, Television, Writing

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