Everyone has a past, and for many couples, it’s better that the past stays the past. But what if one half of the couple is pastless? In “The Memory Game” (directed by Ellen Falcon and written by Grace McKeaney), Roseanne and Dan have to confront the past when Dan’s dalliance with Roseanne’s high school rival comes up at their 15th anniversary. Roseanne’s perception of her history with Dan is markedly different than his. All of this comes out when Dan gussies up the family for a family portrait.
As with “Radio Days,” in “The Memory Game,” we get further glimpses of what Dan and Roseanne were like in high school. It also establishes that the Connors are high school sweethearts – an interesting, if somewhat old fashioned, detail that gives us an insight to the dynamics of their marriage: both Dan and Roseanne never had serious relationships before each other, and for all intents and purposes, they were the only people in each others lives.
That’s not to say that they were angels. In fact, the episode’s main conflict lies in Dan’s brief moment of infidelity when Dan and Roseanne broke up for a bit. In his grief, he hooked up with Phyllis Zimmer, Roseanne’s high school rival. Roseanne’s idealized vision of her marriage with Dan is immediately disturbed: McKeaney and Falcon risk a lot with this episode because as much as John Goodman carries the emotional scenes, Roseanne Barr has to match him. And for the most part, she does. By shrewdly allowed Roseanne’s reaction to be stunned resentment, instead of a large blowout (those would come later when Barr gets a stronger handle on her thespian abilities), McKeaney and Falcon allow Barr to explore her character’s mixed feelings of shame, anger, and betrayal without having to tax her limited resources. As a result, Barr’s performance is stronger because she downplays Roseanne’s feelings of outrage into muted hurt.
This episode also highlights a somewhat dated aspect of female vs. male sexuality. When Dan admits to having sex with Phyllis, Roseanne cannot fathom how he could make love to a woman and not feel anything. The essentialist idea that somehow sex is more meaningful and is attached to great emotional involvement for women is something that should be explored more – but instead, we’re given just a cursory glance – a shame because in later episodes, female sexuality, particularly, liberated female sexuality is given a voice. But in this early season, when Barr’s input was arguably at its lowest, women were still seen as being more sentimental about sex than their male counterparts.
But because of this disconnect between the Dan and Roseanne we get the first major fight between the two since the pilot in which Dan and Roseanne quarreled over household duties. This fight, though, has higher stakes because raw emotions are involved. Up to this point, much of Roseanne is still pretty superficial when it comes to the ugly of relationships. The show is still trying to find its voice, and as a result, at times it does play like a looser, poorer version of The Cosby Show.
Because the show was still working out its kinks, it looked like the writers thought of making Roseanne partly a family comedy, and partly a workplace comedy a la The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It’s a shame that the later seasons would abandon this premise because the scenes at the Wellman Plastics are some of the best in the early episodes, and that is also true in “The Memory Game.” Because Lanford is the kind of town where everyone knows ev eryone and no one leaves, all the women pretty much know each from high school. Now, if that’s not depressing, I don’t know what is. But again, we get a great scene in which Roseanne gets to spar with the other women at the factory – all of whom are equally witty and funny.
It’s also in these work scenes, that Barr’s political ideology becomes more pronounced. Always a voice of the working class, Barr informs these scenes (along with the writers and directors) with some great populism. It’s not just feminism, but class differences as well. When the ladies grouse about the lack of paper towels in the ladies’ restroom, Crystal comes up with a very astute answer: “This has got nothing to do with paper towels. This is just a sneaky old ploy by management to get us all worked up in a huff about small stuff so we never think about the things that are important like benefits, and pay raises, and fresher vending items.”
Crystal’s brilliant summation of upper management’s petty slights against its workers is exactly why Roseanne is a brilliant show. It brings up the very true notion that poor and working class people aren’t sheep, unknowingly participating in their own oppression: they know very well what’s happening, but aren’t always sure what to do about it.
In “The Memory Game,” we get another episode that works almost as a stand alone. We aren’t given large story arcs, yet. Still, it’s solid episode in a series that is finding its strength as it chugs along.
Random thoughts: Despite the depth of Roseanne’s hurt, this episode had a lot of great one-liners and some funny visuals:
- “I lost it on prom night with everything else,” Roseanne on her idealism.
- Dan on Roseanne’s pic for the anniversary yearbook: “Rosey, we’re mooning Old Faithful in that one.” Roseanne’s response: “Looking back at 15 years.”
- When Roseanne wants to sit down on the sofa, she grabs D.J. and flings him like a sack of laundry onto another couch.
- When Roseanne marches into the men’s rooms to get paper towels and is caught by Booker he chastises her by saying “What did I tell you about going in there?” So she’s done this before…Aaaand she referred to urinals as drinking fountains.
- Dressed up, Roseanne looks gorgeous for the family portrait.
- “Black Sunday.” Roseanne’s nickname for her wedding.
- Roseanne had a flip hair do in high school: “I was going through my Marlo Thomas’ That Girl phase, I was gonna go to New York and become a writer slash spokes model.”
- Becky: “Dad, when did you fall in love with mom?” Dan: “As soon as she told me to, honey.”
- “Back in the good old days when I had a waistline and estrogen.” Roseanne
- As usual, Dan and Roseanne make up on the couch, canoodling and cuddling, and it’s adorable.