Classic TV – ‘Roseanne’ recap: “Language Lessons”

As the third season of Roseanne moves along nicely, we get more insight to the relationships that define the show. While Roseanne Connor is the obvious center for the stories – the tent pole, the other characters are distinct enough that each supporting player has a key moment throughout these early episodes. Last week’s “We’re in the Money,” short changed Jackie and the kids a bit, but it’s understandable – with a cast of six, it’s not always easy to integrate each actor in a meaningful way. In “Language Lessons,” though writer Laurie Gelman manages to gracefully fold in the lesser characters – in this case, it’s Becky – without making the episode feel out of balance. And Ellen Falcon is back as director, and she keeps the episode at a good pace, and extracts some fantastic performances, especially out of consistent MVP John Goodman as well as his close contender for the title, Laurie Metcalf. Roseanne Barr is still rather green as an actress, and Falcon and Gelman wisely keep her within her comfort zone, which is essentially expanding her stand-up act into scenes. Barr may not be all that versatile at this point, but she does have crack timing and can land a one-liner better than anyone.

In “Language Lessons,” we see Dan and Jackie work through their contentious relationship. As in the other episodes, Dan and Jackie have a rather prickly repartee, that is somewhat lightened because each falls back on kidding or joking to mask feelings of resentment. On the surface, it appears as if Dan is resentful of Jackie’s constant presence in the house, while Jackie minds Dan’s constant harping – but in reality, what they’re really fighting for is the top spot in Roseanne’s heart. Jackie feels that as her sister, she deserves to be placed first, while Dan feels that as the husband, he should take precedence. Roseanne is caught in the middle because she loves both of them so much, and yet she’s also called on to take sides.

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The episode opens with Dan on the phone with a friend, hoping for a job. It’s here that Gelman truly excels at showing us just what kind of man Dan Connor is – with a few brief lines, we understand that Dan’s contracting work means he’s unsure of a steady paycheck. Because he’s a man that prides himself as being the breadwinner, and he wraps his identity around being a provider, it’s frustrating and emasculating to be out of work and staying home (especially, since his wife is not only working a full-time job, but also taking care of the house and three kids). With so much time on his hands, he’s cooking chili, a popular favorite among the Connors.

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When reminded that Jackie is coming over for her usual Saturday visit, Dan is annoyed and disappointed. After he says that he didn’t think Jackie would be coming over every weekend, Roseanne quips, “Oh, hell, I didn’t think I’d be here every weekend.” She’s able to defuse his mounting discomfort with her wit – something that she does throughout the episode. Dan also uses humor to lessen tension, but because he’s more on edge in the episode, his attempts aren’t nearly as successful – all of which leads to the major conflict. But before we see that happen, we’re treated to some playful roughhousing between the two, as they pretend to fight and play matador with a pair of Dan’s Valentine’s Day boxers.

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Jackie’s entrance then increases the tension and anxiety in the scenes. It doesn’t help that she has a bag full of laundry slung over her shoulder like she’s Santa bringing everyone gifts. Though Jackie is a great character, Gelman increases her feelings of entitle and Jackie is much more self-centered, and much less self-aware in this episode than she’ll ever be again (Sandra Bernhard’s character Nancy will take over these traits a few seasons later). Jackie bulldozes through the kitchen, putting an end to the intimate exchange between Dan and Roseanne. She takes potshots at Dan’s chili (never insult a cook in his own kitchen), invites herself to dinner and then announces that she’s staying the night because the pipes in her apartment are frozen. All of this is done with no nod toward Dan’s comfort and she doesn’t even think to ask if he’s okay with this. Because we’re too early into the series to know, we don’t know if Jackie’s boorishness is merely a pattern of behavior that Dan and Roseanne tacitly enable, or if Jackie’s simply a world class mooch, but either way, as Gelman writes her, she’s rather unpleasant and spoiled, and comes off almost as bratty as one of the kids.

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In one of her few scenes in the episode, Becky walks in with Teenage Life magazine, and shows off an article about body language – another important detail that will be expanded later. Becky’s merely a plot device, but Gelman’s careful to make her brief appearance worthy, and Lecy Goranson’s very natural in her performance. The scene also allows for Roseanne and Jackie to reminisce about Teenage Life magazine and goof on the silly advice that girls’ magazines give. While not an explicitly feminist episode, this brief nod is another instant of Barr’s sharp social critique of mass media culture – but done in a funny, breezy way that doesn’t feel preachy or didactic. While discussing body language, Jackie professes herself an expert. Dan’s in the background constantly needling his sister-in-law, and the two of them mirror the relationship between D.J. and Darlene, who are in the next room building a cardboard castle.

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Initially, I was impressed with this scene because I always like to see Darlene do something productive. In later seasons, she emerges as a sharp, witty intellect, but in the first season, she’s still a disaffected adolescent who hates school because she’s probably smarter than the teachers. Roseanne immediately spots something fishy about Darlene’s project, and draws out a confession: the castle is extra credit work, so that Darlene won’t fail history. Instead of berating her, Roseanne wisely leaves her daughter be, knowing that the project is punishment enough. I love watching these early seasons with Darlene because it’s obvious that if the girl applied herself, she’d kill it in school. But she’s also a misfit in a midwestern town – a tomboy who doesn’t fit into what girls are supposed to be. What makes Roseanne such a great show is that these kinds of oddballs are given a voice – Darlene isn’t merely a tomboy in the two-dimensional way (all tough, without hints vulnerability), but she’s a real character, and her expression of femininity is genuine and her own. It makes all kinds of sense that in this universe, a brilliant kid like Darlene would be failing history because she’s probably left bored and unchallenged at school.

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As Roseanne is mothering her truant daughter, Jackie monopolizes the telephone, gossiping with a friend. Again, Jackie’s irritating behavior is turned up a few notches. Ignorant of Dan’s work anxieties, she blithely chats away while Dan paces the house, positively fuming. Goodman is a cuddly actor, but his large frame can also make him seem a bit frightening. When she finally gets off the phone, Dan gets the phone call he’s been waiting for, and unfortunately, there’s no work for him. He’s practically deflated as he sits down, crushed, knowing he won’t work for another week. Roseanne immediately comes to his aid, encouraging him, which has a temporary calming effect, until Jackie marches back into the kitchen with Becky, insisting that everyone try the body language test from Teenage Life. Roseanne and Dan won’t take the test seriously and mess around some more, pretend fighting. As the test progresses, Dan starts to let some of his feelings of resentment toward Jackie boil over, always careful to disguise the quips as jokes, until Jackie has had her limit and confronts him about his behavior. Instead of a cathartic expression of repressed feelings, though, Dan merely lists petty microaggressions like fishing the nuts out of their Rocky Road ice cream, or walking in without knocking.

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Without realizing the kind of pain she’s inflicting, Jackie sneers, “”Well, Dan, if you had a job, you wouldn’t notice so much.” I wrote about Jackie’s feelings of entitlement and privilege before. In the “We’re in the Money” episode, Jackie berates Roseanne for not indulging enough. It happens here again, because Jackie is unaware of the pressure Dan is under to take care of his family and pay the bills. This ignorance comes from a place of sheer egotism: Jackie, single with no children, doesn’t worry about feeding three growing kids and paying a mortgage. And when she does face real life issues, no matter how minor, like pipes not working or a washer being broken, she always has her big sister to turn to. Obviously, the Jackie character grows exponentially throughout this season even, and she quickly becomes a loving and responsible character. But this early in the game, Gelman writes Jackie as an adversary to Dan, vying for the affections and loyalty of Roseanne, while continuously trying his patience.

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Because Dan manages self-restraint, he doesn’t explode, instead stalking out of the house and into the garage in a rage. Instead of being abashed by her comment, Jackie is insulted and insists that Dan is the aggressor. She refuses to apologize until he does so first. And Roseanne is caught in the middle. She has to do some more mediating, when D.J. accidentally destroys Darlene’s castle. There are obvious parallels – some may even say, heavy-handed – between the two fights, but there is one major distinction: D.J. and Darlene are children. Roseanne reasons with Darlene that even though D.J. accidentally destroyed her castle, the situation is her fault because she slacked off in school. Darlene is stubborn, and refuses to share the blame, though her anger at D.J. is somewhat abated, as she plans to rebuild her project. She storms off though, because like Jackie, she feels that Roseanne is never on her side.

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The final, restorative argument takes place in the garage, as Roseanne tries to convince Dan to calm down. Jackie, stung by Roseanne’s refusal to back her up, offers to go to a motel. This does little to appease Dan, who offers a snide remark that inspires another rushed exchange of grievances that finally drive Roseanne to her limit. Fed up with her feuding loved ones, she berates the two of them and as she leaves the garage, she commands them to get over their mutual dislike, and screams that they’re worse than the kids. And she’s right. It’s a little frustrating to watch Dan and Jackie go at it, when their behavior mirrors that of D.J. and Darlene. Confronted with their childishness, both Dan and Jackie call a truce.

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What’s interesting about watching Dan and Jackie bicker so much is that as the show grows, so does their friendship: in fact, there are a few lovely moments sprinkled throughout the show’s 9-year run that show just how much the two love each other: in one episode, Jackie takes over Roseanne’s mothering duties, and Dan admits that he had a slight crush on her in high school; in another episode, Dan tears apart an abusive boyfriend who sent Jackie to the hospital; and in their most touching scene together, Dan walks Jackie down the aisle. There will always been a slight pull between the two where Roseanne’s concerned, and often they’ll resort to comedic bickering, but it rarely gets as moody as it does in “Language Lessons.”

Some random thoughts:

  • “You only married me for my cooking,” Dan. “I married ‘cuz you need a date for your wedding,” Roseanne
  • “You’re really spoiled, you live with me, you’re used to perfection.” Roseanne
  • When told that through body language, couples can communicate without words, Roseanne crows, “This is great, Dan! We never have to speak again!”
  • Roseanne’s frustrated after Jackie insults Dan: “Gosh, you simply must come over more often, sis!”
  • “They just fight for the same reason you fight with Darlene…To torture me.”
  • Michael Fishman and Roseanne Barr look alike (at least in the first season before her many physical transformations)
  • When Jackie announces she’s going to a motel, Roseanne asks, “Anyone we know?”

 

 

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