I complained that “Radio Days” was a nothing episode, and some could say “Lovers Lane” (written by Danny Jacobson, directed by Ellen Falcon) is also a light episode – almost slice of life. But what makes it a better episode is that it expertly blends in three mini-stories: Dan and Roseanne bowling with their pals, Jackie and Booker continuing with their flirting, and Becky dealing with puppy love. It’s rare this early into the show’s life that every performer has a solid turn in a single episode, but “Lovers Lane” achieves that feat. The episode also gives the child actors a little bit more to do – especially Lecy Goranson, who plays Becky with an expert blend of coltish trepidation and teenaged snottiness.
The episode opens with Roseanne and Jackie nattering with their friends at Wellman Plastics. I love these scenes because as great as Roseanne is at home with her family, she’s even better surrounded by her peers. What Jacobson does so well is that he writes Roseanne’s pals to be just as witty, interesting and funny as Roseanne. The best of the bunch is the eccentric, yet loving Crystal (Natalie West), who would later graduate to full cast member. Unlike Roseanne, she doesn’t approach the world with balls-to-the-wall attitude. Because she’s so easily cowed by Roseanne, she comes off at times as a bit of a doormat, but she’s very sympathetic. Her life reads at times like a Southern Gothic novel, and she’s often played off as a tragically funny character. But I love her sisterly rapport with Jackie and Roseanne.
So during break, Roseanne and her gal pals discuss how they should spend their Friday night and agree on a night of bowling. This comes after some hesitation from Crystal, who feels Roseanne will simply goof on the game the entire evening, and not take anything seriously. I love that Crystal can be so uptight that even a night out on a Friday evening is cause for angst. George Clooney makes another early appearance as Booker, and the show has him flirting with Jackie. Laurie Metcalf and Clooney play off each other well – and Clooney already is exhibiting the kind of multi-watt charisma that would later make him into a bonafide movie star. Jacobson writes the flirting as being flinty, with Jackie often outwitting her handsome boss. He agrees to go to the bowling outing, which gives Clooney probably his best episode on the show.
At home, Roseanne and Dan prep the kids. It’s in the moments at home that the show approaches naturalism. The clothing is especially truthful. None of the characters wears anything particularly trendy, but when Becky descends the stairs, she’s well-dressed – but not in a TV way, in which a costumer raided a high end boutique. Instead, it’s believable that Becky’s outfit is a relatively expensive outfit bought off the rack at the local department store (I imagine Dan and Roseanne saving up so that they could buy her the pretty purple sweater or her modest jewelry). What gives away the outfit as being realistic – and as a Midwestern guy who braved cold autumn and winter nights I can vouch for the authenticity – is Becky’s coat. It’s a down coat, not terribly pretty – in fact it’s solely utilitarian: it’s meant to keep her warm. Often as a kid growing up, we spent some money to get nice clothes, but when it came to coats, we hardly ever had an eye on fashion – we just wanted to keep warm.
It feels like I’m writing a lot about Becky – maybe it’s because in Roseanne lore she gets a bit of a raw deal. The writers don’t make her the sarcastic cutup like Darlene, and she doesn’t get to be cute like D.J. Instead, she’s pretty ordinary – but I think that’s okay. There’s a strength to her brattiness, and it’s clear that even though Darlene and Roseanne are closer in temperment, Becky’s inherited some of that will power and moxie, too. Because “Lovers Lane” is a rather Becky-heavy episode, Jacobson and Falcon rely on Goranson to do some heavy lifting. She plays Becky often with an embarrassed squirm that feels almost visceral (and the appalled way she says “mother” makes me wince). She’s at the age where her parents can’t do anything right: she’s going with the family on the bowling outing because her crush, Chip is working the counter at the concession stand. She likes the guy and hopes that seeing him outside of school will get them to be closer. When she begs her parents to stay away and not humiliate her, viewers are simultaneously sympathetic to this awkward adolescent, but also put off because the Connors are pretty awesome parents. Of course Dan and Roseanne know better than to be offended by Becky’s entreaties, and instead of promising to behave they slip into Deliverance-style hillbilly vaudeville, with John Goodman particularly adept at mocking a caricature of a redneck.
Once the Connors are at the bowling alley, Roseanne makes good on Crystal’s fears, and spends the night cracking jokes and misbehaving. Crystal’s a stickler for rules, even chiding Roseanne for not stowing her shoes in an orderly fashion under their bench – instead Roseanne just throws them to the side (I also like that Crystal has a bowling shirt with her name on it). She warns Dan of proper foot hygiene when using rented bowling shoes and treats the evening like quite an undertaking. Meanwhile, Jackie and Booker have a silly bet that if he wins, she has to spend the night at his place.
Predictably, Dan’s a great bowler – though, I think the audience is more enthusiastic about his swagger than his bowling prowess as bowling scenes in sitcoms aren’t actually filmed in bowling alleys. Roseanne loves being with her friends, but she bowls terribly and is bored when it’s her turn. Again, I hate to make this about me, but I totally sympathize with her – the few times that I go bowling, I enjoy the camaraderie of the company I keep (and I enjoy the fattening food and pitchers of warm beer), but I don’t enjoy the actual bowling. So when Roseanne whines, “”I just bowled twenty minutes ago” I know exactly how she feels. I also understand her motivation of simply tossing the bowl down the lane, completely indifferent to her game.
Though Roseanne doesn’t care about bowling she does care about Becky and Chip. It’s in these mini moments that I find Roseanne really excels – instead of simply having Roseanne interact with Chip and Becky, we’re gifted with a great scene in which Roseanne pumps Darlene for information at the bowling alley’s arcade. Though Darlene and Becky have a typically contentious relationship with each other, they’re sisters, so there is a bond, so it’s understandable that Darlene initially refuses to rat Becky out and point out the dreamy dreamboat that is Chip. After a nifty bit of terrible dancing to Darlene’s arcade game music, Roseanne manages to break Darlene down, and Chip’s identity is revealed: he’s probably the most 80s-looking concession stand worker on the planet (his hair is gelled to a consistency that I’d coin, crinkly).
Roseanne bides her time, though and returns to see Dan, victorious, scoring another strike, and doing a victory dance. To gloat and rub it in, he does his winning strike and dance in slow motion, and Goodman gets to show off his great skill at physical comedy. Roseanne rarely indulges in physical comedy or prat falls. It’s a smart, mostly verbal comedy, but there are solitary moments when we get to enjoy larger, broader gags, like Goodman recreating his victory shuffle all in slow motion. It’s also revelatory to see the hulking Goodman display an almost ballet-like talent at this sort of slapstick.
Back at the arcade, after a nice exchange between Darlene and Becky, in which the tomboy younger sister gives good advice on talking with boys to her more traditionally-feminine sister, Becky screws up the courage and makes it to the counter. After some stilted awkward chatter, in which Becky lies and tells Chip that she’s at the bowling alley on her own – which, I’m not sure why he’d believe because if she’s not bowling, then what the hell is Becky doing loitering at a bowling alley arcade by herself – Roseanne pops up to buy some snacks. Becky’s practically neon red with shame as her mom starts to chat up Chip. But instead of being herself, Roseanne adapts an exaggerated Midwestern twang, and pretends she isn’t Becky’s mom. We get to see how great of a mom she really is: she satisfies her curiosity about this boy, and yet she maintains her daughter’s dignity and doesn’t humiliate her. Before she goes, she leaves Chip a tip, which he appreciates, calling this nice lady, “cool.” Becky, equally grateful, but for other reasons, agrees.
Though Becky and Chip are headed for romance, Jackie and Booker aren’t. At least not yet. Though Booker wins the bet, he realizes that bedding Jackie because he won her in a bet is gross and demeaning to women, and it would doom any chance of a real relationship between the two. When he susses out that she’s sincerely interested in him, and not just willing to have sex with him to satisfy a wager, he gallantly refuses saying, “Not tonight, and not on a bet.” The great thing about Roseanne is that as pro-woman as it is, it doesn’t forget that feminism doesn’t exclude men. The women in the Roseanne universe are often victimized by sexism and misogyny, but there are some great, decent guys, like Dan. And Booker, though problematic because of his Casanova persona, is too decent to go through with his smarmy bet.
“Lovers Lane” continues the mini-streak of episodes that leave aside the more serious issues that often dominate the show. Later on, the program would take on topics like domestic violence, abuse, sexual assault, homosexuality, racism, abortion, mental illness, unemployment, and sexism. As Roseanne Barr become more powerful, the show became a stronger, more explicit mouthpiece for her social and political view points (to the show’s credit). It’s still fascinating to watch Roseanne in its first season, when Roseanne Connor wasn’t the avenging feminist superhero, yet. Anger and rage colored a lot of Roseanne’s interactions later on, yet in the first season we get the almost-cuddly Rosie, who lives a day-to-day existence without adhering to a larger, context.
Random notes: There were a lot of great one liners in this episode, most of them by Roseanne. Some gems include:
- Fed up with Darlene and D.J. fighting in the car, Roseanne shouts, “Alright that’s it – in the trunk with the both of you.”
- After Crystal’s particularly yucky sermon on foot fungus, Roseanne asks, “”Crystal, would you stop flirting with my old man?”
- As she’s about to bowl, Dan promises that if she even hits one pin, he’ll be her sex slave for life. Her response: “”Yeah, but what do I win?”
- Roseanne’s trick to hitting a strike: “I pretend like the pins are the kids and the ball is your head.”
- Jacobson saved his best jokes for Barr, but Goranson had a great line to Dan and Roseanne: “Please, if you really love me, you’ll pretend you’re not my parents.”