What Made 'Roseanne' Great
Next month we’re getting a new Roseanne. And this Conner-lover couldn’t be happier.
I fucking adore Roseanne. Start up that saxophone music, show me the family sitting around the table with slices of pizza, and I’m 100% yours for the next 20 minutes.
Here’s what I don’t get: When we talk about great sitcoms, Roseanne isn’t an automatic entry on the list. You’ve got your Seinfelds, your Friends, your Woops! (look it up, it’s bonkers). And even though Roseanne gets SOME credit, the show doesn’t get its due.
What was so great about Roseanne? I’ll tell you. Cue saxophone.
Roseanne Conner: The Real-Est Domestic Goddess
I`m just the typical American woman. I don`t like to clean. I yell at my kids. I ignore my husband. I think every other woman is exactly like me. I just try to portray how we (women) really are, because none of us really give a care if the husband`s collar is clean or not. Nobody really gives a care about that. It`s just on TV that they show us these images of women who do, but no one really does.
Roseanne Barr coined the term "Domestic Goddess" to describe her on-screen doppelganger, Roseanne Conner. Today the term "Domestic Goddess" probably conjures images of a woman at home, cleaning, folding blindingly-white linens, and clicking through Pinterest to find the perfect paleo meal to cook for her family. It's a Stepford Wives thing.
The "Domestic Goddess" Roseanne put on screen was different. It wasn't about perfection. It wasn't about being this unflappable home-maker. She screeched at her kids. She wasn't always a ray of sunshine. She had a job. She was the authority in the house. She was responsible for the family, for the bills, and for meeting with teachers when her kids screwed up. She did it all, she deserved your respect, and if you didn't give it to her, goddamn it, she'd take it from you.
For lots of us, home life in the late 80’s and early 90’s looked like Roseanne. Moms were in the workplace and still doing most of the crap at home (division of domestic labor being a subject Roseanne tackles in Episode 1!). Divorces peaked in the early 80’s in America, and loads of us were being raised by strong-willed single parents. A lot of our parents, moms especially, had to overcome the fear of being perceived as pushy, bitchy, and shrill.
And a lot of these parents were dealing with all of this while feeling isolated. Alone. Like they were the only ones.
What made Roseanne Conner special was that she wasn't special at all. She was real. She was us. And she was on TV.
The Conners Were A Broke White Family On TV
I have my own system for extra money. First you send in the phone bill and we forget to sign the check. Then we send the water bill to the electric company and the electric bill to the water company. And, you know, that charge card bill, it never even showed up!
The Conners didn’t live in the heart of a bustling city, they didn’t have fun jobs. They didn’t have a ton of money.
Wanda Sykes is a writer for the Roseanne reboot, and as she puts it:
The thing about the Conners is they were a Midwestern family who have limited means, and you don't see that a lot on TV — except for black people...Black people are allowed to be poor on TV.
When it comes to being poor, there's regular poor, and then there's TV poor. When you’re TV poor, you still have a nice apartment. You still have a car. Being TV poor means you get your spouse something cheap for your anniversary, and then we all learn a lesson about the real meaning of love or some crap like that. By the next episode, money is no biggie.
The Conners were not TV poor. They were regular poor, and this tinged everything (okay, there was that final season craziness where they won the lottery. We’ll get to that).
Think about it: how might a typical show celebrate episode 100? Seinfeld did a two-part retrospective clip show. In Friends, Phoebe's baby is born.
Roseanne's 100th episode centers around the Conners' power being shut off because they didn't pay the bill.
We get a shot of Roseanne looking in the fridge, the set goes dark, and she says the classic line: “Well, middle class was fun.” It's not only a good joke, it's a defining moment for the show.
Where most sitcoms painted a portrait of prosperity for people to live up to, The Conners provided an alternative lifestyle model for people who didn't have money. The Man might be able to shut off the lights, but he can't stop you from making a joke about it.
Would the Conners be happier with more money? Totally! Roseanne isn't selling nonsense about how money has no real value or the nobility of living poor. It simply tells the truth: there isn't any money coming, so you'd better figure out how you're going to deal.
Good narratives give us structure and something to laugh about. Great narratives give us models of how to live.
Roseanne Wasn't Afraid To Look Bad
There’s a semi-famous episode from Roseanne’s 7th season called “White Men Can’t Kiss.” DJ, Roseanne’s son, is in a school play. His part calls for kissing a girl, and he's refusing. It's no big deal until Roseanne discovers that DJ doesn’t want to kiss the girl because she’s black:
Hey! Black people are just like us. They're every bit as good as us, and any people who don't think so is just a bunch of banjo-picking, cousin-dating, barefoot embarrassments to respectable white trash like us!
Because it’s Roseanne, things don’t end there. DJ doesn't say, "Gee whiz, ma, you're right." Instead, Dan (Roseanne's husband and DJ's father) and Roseanne get into it:
Dan: He grew up in Lanford, it's only 5% black, and kissing's a new thing for DJ. It's only natural that he’s not as comfortable kissing a black girl as one of his own—I did not say that!
Roseanne: Well at least now I know where he gets it from.
Dan: I am not a racist.
Roseanne: Yeah and neither's your father, he says he doesn't have any problem with “the coloreds.”
Dan: I am not my father.
Roseanne: If I had known you'd be passing your family's crap onto my kids I wouldn't be having another one with you.
In another sitcom, only a heinous character could have a racist view. A character we hate already, someone the show can afford to throw away at the episode's end. Most sitcoms wouldn’t have the guts to pit two main characters against each other on an issue of race.
Because Roseanne isn't afraid to cast characters in a bad light, the show can talk about serious stuff in an effective way. Now it’s not a simple matter of good versus evil, bigot versus progressive. It's not a straw man. It's Dan Conner!
It’s a complicated thing to like a person or a character but really hate something about them. It’s almost like...real life.
Roseanne Understood Laughs And Drama As Currencies
After Nana Mary (Roseanne’s grandmother) admits to having two abortions in her youth, we get this exchange between Roseanne and her mom, Bev:
Bev: Now what if I'd decided to have an abortion with you, Roseanne? Or your sister? What would've happened then?
Roseanne: Would you like me to tell you, Mom? Maybe you wouldn't have had to marry some guy you didn't love and you would've had a happy and fulfilling life. Wouldn't that be an abomination?
Bev: Yes it would, Roseanne, because I know the difference between right and wrong. And abortion is wrong.
Roseanne: Well thank you for giving us all the truth, mother. I've always wondered what that red phone was doing in your apartment with the word GOD on it.
What you're seeing here is that Roseanne had a flexibility.
Too many sitcoms use comedy and tension in one way: They create tension, then use comedy to burst the tension.
Roseanne understood that they didn’t always have to break the tension with a laugh, nor did adding a laugh mean the tension was broken. You could forgo the joke and let something be intense. Or you could tell a joke that gets a laugh and still manages to keep the tension rolling.
This meant the show could make jokes around serious topics while not making fun of the topics themselves. Roseanne could use humor as a spoonful of sugar to wash down a serious message. It meant they could do a heavy, heavy episode here and there.
Comedy and tension were not at odds on Roseanne. They worked together.
The Ending Was Totally Fascinating
If there's one discussion that namechecks Roseanne consistently, it's the discussion of terrible TV endings.
In the final season, the Conners win the lottery. The show takes on a weird tone, almost like a variety show. They did comedy, drama, their take on a BBC-style sitcom, their take on ER, a Xena thing, a Mary Tyler Moore thing. They did all the things. And when I say that, I mean ALL the things. Steven Segal makes a cameo.
The series ends with a voiceover in which Roseanne Conner explains that everything we saw over the course of the series was written by her, including this last, bizarre season. In her voiceover, she explains why the last season has a different flavor:
My writing’s really what got me through the last year after Dan died. I mean at first I felt so betrayed as if he had left me for another women. When you’re a blue-collar woman and your husband dies it takes away your whole sense of security. So I began writing about having all the money in the world and I imagined myself going to spas and swanky New York parties just like the people on TV, where nobody has any real problems and everything’s solved within 30 minutes.
Indulge me for a second.
I think Roseanne's final season works as a commentary on the idea of the sitcom. The way in which it’s all fantasy and wish-fulfillment, and the ways in which real life isn’t like that.
While the last season doesn’t fit the rest of the show, Roseanne's finale brings things back around. In Roseanne's final moments, we have this cultural artifact that lives on beyond its original viewership, and it has something to say, something that we're not spoon fed.
My take: If Roseanne had been a typical sitcom, if it had been about escaping reality rather than living in it, the show would have looked like this bullshit all along. You're welcome.
One of a Kind
What’s really odd is that Roseanne broke the mold, and for the most part, the mold went right back into place. Seinfeld, Friends, these were the shows that came in at Roseanne’s end, and they didn’t depict the sort of reality we got from the Conners. Nothing could step into Roseanne’s shoes.
There’s a lot going on in the new Roseanne series. Roseanne is a Trump supporter. She's a grandma to a gender-non-conforming grandchild. The show is already rumored to be tackling topics like immigration and the opioid crisis.
Maybe Roseanne's biggest failure was that it didn't spawn other shows like it.
But maybe it's for the best. Maybe, instead of looking for replacements and lousy imposters, we should've just gone straight to the answer: more Roseanne.
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