This is a new segment I thought I’d try out – a recap of every episode of Roseanne, one of the greatest sitcoms of the 1980s and 1990s. Positioned as an answer to the gentility of The Cosby Show, Roseanne depicted a working class family struggling to make ends meet. Set in a decidedly unglamorous fictional Illinois town, the show was the closest thing to naturalism that a sitcom could be. Starring stand-up comic Roseanne Barr, the show worked hard to make the struggles of an average American family funny and relatable.
In the first episode, “Life and Stuff,” we’re introduced to the Connor family. First thing viewers will notice is just how normal everybody looks. As the titular character Barr is pretty, but her costume, makeup, and hair are realistically average and unassuming. As her husband, Dan, John Goodman also looks like an archetypical everyman, in a uniform of flannel shirts and jeans.
“Life and Stuff” sets the tone for the show, which showed Dan and Roseanne as loving parents, who don’t kid themselves into thinking that their kids are fantastic. As a rule, I hate child actors, but the casting director struck gold with Lecy Goranson and Sara Gilbert. Interestingly enough, the pilot did not feature Michael Fishman who played the eccentric youngest child D.J., but instead had some child actor named Sal Barone, who left the show immediately after the first episode.
So writer Matt Williams took Barr’s stand-up act and expanded it into a half-hour sitcom. Barr’s comedic persona was the Domestic Goddess, a sarcastic and witty woman who was disgusted, yet trapped, by the feminine mystique. Williams was able to craft a pretty strong episode, weaving one-liners that sound like Barr into a cohesive episode that didn’t feel too much like a series of jokes strung together.
The simple plot introduces the characters and the various dynamics that define their relationship – namely, love, humor, and sarcasm. Viewers are also introduced to the different issues that Roseanne will confront during its nine-year run, mainly the difficulties in raising a family on a severely-limited budget. Both Dan and Roseanne work too much – he’s a contractor and she works at Wellman Plastics, one of TV’s most realistic depictions of a shitty, soul-sucking job.
At Wellman, Roseanne has a network of friends that parallel her family at home. Her sister Jackie (a brilliant Laurie Metcalf) and best friend Crystal (Natalie West), along with the other women at work provide a kind of support system that Roseanne needs as she pounds away the hours on the assembly line. In one of the best scenes in the episode, Roseanne and her girlfriends chat about men during her lunch break. In the exchange, we get a glimpse of Crystal’s complicated relationship with Roseanne (she’s nursing a crush on Dan), and we also see Roseanne’s abrasive form of feminism.
While explaining relationships between men and women, Roseanne uses a doughnut as an example. When Crystal pines for Dan, Roseanne grouses, “Crystal, do you think he came that way? It’s 15 years of fighting that made him like that…A good man don’t just happen, they have to be created by us women…A guy’s a lump like this doughnut. Okay, so first, you gotta get rid of all the stuff his mom did to him. And then you gotta get rid of all that macho crap they get form the beer commercials. and then there’s my personal favorite: the male ego, ” and then she takes a satisfying bite of the doughnut.What’s great about the scene is it uses Barr’s comedic persona in a really efficient way. In the early seasons, Barr’s limits as an actress tend to stick out: she seems a bit forced and wooden. But unlike many other comedians-turned-sitcom stars, Barr grew exponentially, and became a fine actress. In “Life and Stuff,” though Goodman does the real acting (in fact, Goodman, Metcalf, and Gilbert did most of the heavy lifting of the show). Yet, her limits aren’t that troubling because the script doesn’t stretch her beyond her capabilities. Other moments that use Barr well are when she has to spar with Goodman. The two have an easy chemistry – it’s almost instant. The two have a lived-in kind of relationship, and have a loose and casual repartee. It helps that Goodman is a strong comedian, as well, and works as a great straight man, setting up Barr for some of her fantastic one-liners, while also slipping in some laughs of his own. When he bustles into the kitchen in the morning and asks “Is there coffee?” What follows is a brilliant duet, that encapsulates the frustrations and mini-aggressions that every housewife must have felt in her life. Roseanne is sick of hearing “Is there coffee?” everyday, and answers with, “Is there coffee every morning? In the fifteen years that we’ve been married is there ever been one morning when there wasn’t any coffee?” In her stand-up routine, Barr vents about how husbands always nag their wives to find missing things, musing that men must think that a “uterus is a tracking device.” Few sitcoms featured a staunchly feminist point of view – one that could be deemed “strident.”Along with her verbal fencing with Goodman, Barr also has some great moments with the children, establishing Roseanne as the one show with child actors who aren’t annoying or teeth-rottingly cute. Becky and Darlene are prickly, sullen, demanding teenaged girls, but they’re also assertive, strong, and very intelligent. And unlike other family sitcoms, Roseanne’s mothering style is dripping with sarcasm and fuck-this-nonsense deadpan. Instead of imparting banal words of uplift and inspiration, she trades pot shots and insults with loving zeal. In “Life and Stuff” the relationships between Roseanne and her daughters are quickly established by the fantastic wordplay. After Darlene apologizes insincerely for a slight, she fusses, “I’m sorry, what do you want me to do, throw myself off a bridge?” Roseanne quickly shoots back, “Yeah, and take your brother and sister with you.” And when do-gooder Becky starts to raid the family’s pantry for a food drive for poor people, Roseanne urges her to “Tell them to drive some of that food over here.” And when Becky’s dopy girlfriend calls for the umpteenth time? Roseanne answers the phone with a cheery, “Oh, hi. I looked in the mirror and I’m getting boobs!” And after her daughters’ bickering gets too much for her, Roseanne grumbles, This is why some animals eat their young.”Because Roseanne is about family, the passages about parenting resonate the most. Despite the meanness and sarcasm of the characters, Matt Williams still makes sure that we understand that Dan and Roseanne love their children. After an epic fight about who does more in the house (more on that in a second), Dan and Roseanne rush to Darlene’s aide, after she cuts herself. The two work as a perfect team, convincing Darlene to visualize a demolition derby, while cleaning Darlene’s cut. She hops off, happily, running into the next room, leaving her parents to forgive each other, after getting a dose of perspective. A little bit about the fight: Dan and Roseanne both work too hard and have to juggle family responsibilities with their dead end jobs. When Roseanne finds out that Dan didn’t go to work that day, but biffed around at a friend’s garage, she’s naturally pissed because she was running around like a mad woman that day, trying to get all her shit done. Roseanne attacks Dan’s sense of privilege by fuming, “You think this is a magic kingdom where you just sit up here on your thrown. And you think everything gets done by some wonderful wizard. Oh, Poof the laundry’s folded. Poof dinner’s on the table!” When Dan offers to make dinner, Roseanne blasts back in her air raid siren voice, “Oh, but honey, but you just fixed dinner three years ago!” What’s great about the fight is that the two are so evenly matched: both Dan and Roseanne are very intelligent people and though the fight is about something very serious, it’s a joy to watch.