TV Feature | Explaining the History, Politics, and Return of Roseanne

People forget just how limited the scope for sitcoms could be back in the 1980s. Sitcoms nowadays rarely break new ground, regularly outshined by big-budget behemoths like Game of Thrones. TV in the 21st century has embraced its ability to be art rather than simple, languid entertainment. This is why it’s oddly refreshing to see the likes of Roseanne and Full House return to our screens. They serve as a reminder of the old, forgotten power of the sitcom.

Going back further in history, the likes of I Love Lucy, Leave it to Beaver and even The Brady Bunch encapsulate the ‘sitcom’ as some hybrid of outlandish slapstick and life’s silly banalities. They were close enough to real life to be relatable but not close enough to be believable. Along comes the 80s. We meet the Conners from Roseanne, the Bundys from Married with Children, and of course, The Golden Girls. The Bundys are brash, immoral, and at times, a complete and utter reversal of the nuclear families presented in previous family-oriented sitcoms. Dorothy, Rose, Blanche and Sophia just about embody everything your grandma is not.

Roseanne decides to give us something real, something working class, and all with the twang of a female voice in a genre seemingly dominated by ‘zany’ father figures and single dads. The Cosby Show and Full House are among the many comedies that seem to instantly pair fatherhood with hilarity; a premise that was positively booming around this time. Think Mr. Mom, Three Men and a Baby and Kindergarten Cop.

History

Roseanne Barr’s shtick on the comedy circuit combined the musings of her ‘domestic goddess’ persona and her physical attributes. The latter was her larger figure and distinctive, nasally voice. A chance appearance on The Tonight Show attracted Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner of Carsey-Werner Productions. The two were developing new material for the 1988-1989 network television schedule. Barr quickly maneuvered a lot of creative control for the series, even suggesting changing the original title from ‘Life and Stuff’ to simply Roseanne early on in production. Joss Whedon (the creator of the later series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly) began his career as a staff writer on Roseanne and was outspoken about the chaotic writer’s room environment. On later seasons, staff writers were addressed by their assigned numbers rather than their names. The tone of the series often drifted to more serious subject matters.

This serious subject matter did however lead to some of the most memorable and poignant moments from its nine-season run. Roseanne’s father in the show (who only appeared in two episodes) was initially a balanced and good-humoured character. However, as the series progressed, he was progressively rewritten as a philandering and physically abusive figure who cast a dark shadow over Roseanne’s childhood. Some of the darker episodes dealt with his death and impact on her own parenting, particularly when Roseanne hits her youngest son D.J. for stealing a car. This is revisited again when Jackie enters a violent relationship with a character named Fisher (played by Roseanne and Lady Bird star Laurie Metcalf’s real-life husband Matt Roth).

Despite its unwavering wit and legendary sense of humour, Roseanne continued to address taboo subjects that previous sitcoms seldom covered. She caught her 14-year-old daughter with the hangover from hell, shared a same-sex kiss with a woman at a gay bar, berated Darlene for abusing drugs at college, considered an abortion when her unplanned pregnancy in her 40s grew complicated, smoked a forgotten stash of 20-year-old pot to relive her youth, and tackled uncomfortable parental problems about menstruation and masturbation. Most of this doesn’t seem too outside the realms of the modern sitcom. Yet 20-30 years ago it broke new ground. It wasn’t exactly stuff you would see Florence Henderson doing.

Roseanne’s reboot

In 2018, there is very little on TV that has not been done to death. The taboos of the 90s are certainly not taboos today, but the rebooted series has managed to find hot topics to squeeze in amid the Roseanne-branded sardonic, deadpan humour that made its predecessor so watchable. Unsurprisingly, the current political climate is at the centre of the show, much like it was in 1988 during the Reagan administration. Trump has divided the Conner household, and we see plenty of comic diatribe that pokes fun at the left while trying to piece together what sort of values Roseanne holds up today. Barr herself was a Green Party presidential candidate in the 2012 election but lost out to Jill Stein, who is directly made fun of in the premiere.

Roseanne - Headstuff.org
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Barr bringing her personal life into the show is nothing new. Roseanne Barr and Roseanne Conner are an interwoven identity, which makes some of the liberal contradictions in the reboot a little jarring. One such episode addresses her acceptance and defense of her fashionable, flamboyant grandson as he experiments with girls’ clothing.

Roseanne’s politics

However, we also learn she has kept some more traditional ethical standards regarding gun control and entitled millennial ‘snowflakes’ go wildly and unapologetically bashed. The world presented in the reboot lies somewhere murky between centre-left and right-wing ideologue. A now adult DJ (Michael Fishman) served in the military with his wife and has an African-American daughter, which echoes a reversal of DJ’s casual racism seen in a 1994 episode called ‘White Men Can’t Kiss’.

Meanwhile, Becky (played by Lecy Goranson) seems to represent modern feminist ideals as she strives to be independent following the death of her husband Mark, originally played by Glenn Quinn (who died in 2002). As a way to let Sarah Chalke (who served as Becky’s replacement for several years) join the party, she plays a new character named Andrea who hires Becky as her surrogate. When the family learn Becky plans to use her own eggs, this sparks a trademark fit of anger from Dan, who still plays ‘disgruntled daddy’ to uneasy perfection whenever he sheds that cuddly facade.

Besides the undercurrent of political commentary in its droll wisecracks, a lot of the reboot is scarily familiar. You probably remember the harmonica instrumentals and signature cackle from the show’s original run. Good news, both are still intact in the reboot. In fact, mostly everything from the original is in there, even the dated kitchen wallpaper and shag carpet. Like most of the 2010s reboots that have come our way, the show is less a standalone series rather than a continuation of the original, resuming after a 20-year break. We have the same title, the same cast, the same theme tune and the same heart as the original.

Crass orgy of cheap stunts

In order for this tenth season to work, much of the infamously bizarre and dream-like ninth season was retconned to allow John Goodman’s return after his character was supposedly killed off in the series finale. Fans of the original series flooded social media with praise for this decision, and it’s easy to see why. The final season of the show was a crass orgy of cheap stunts and uncanny, nonsensical skits that made it difficult to follow any sort of continuity, if any. Some of the most preposterous episodes saw Roseanne don military gear to fight misogynist terrorists on a train, bring her family on the Jerry Springer show, and party with Patsy and Edwina from Absolutely Fabulous. It was a far cry from the earlier seasons, which tended to focus on working class issues and daily struggles.

Thankfully, the ninth season has been erased from history, although some elements were kept alive for the series continuation. Roseanne’s granddaughter, Harris (born in the final season) is one such element. However the character is a teenager in the reboot despite being born over 20 years ago. The dynamic between Roseanne and Harris propels her to ‘meddling mother’ once again. Although, the latter’s tongue seems to land her in more trouble than her mother’s ever did.

The baby-boomer vs millennial divide seeps into a second battle between baby-boomers and generation Z. We see a 65-year-old Roseanne hold her granddaughter’s head under the sink as she sprays her with the hose to teach her some manners. 2018 Roseanne seems a little more open to harsher methods of punishment, having previously been outspoken against any form of child abuse. A flippant comment about modern laxed parenting being a wimpy replacement to a good old-fashioned spanking proves she has come a far distance from the guilt she displayed in the aforementioned ‘DJ-gets-a-whooping’ episode.

From growing up, I remember worshipping the sarcastic wit of Darlene (Sara Gilbert). She is rightly given an ample spotlight in the reboot. Now a single mother raising a carbon-copy teenage daughter and a gender-bending son, she has ironically followed in her mother’s footsteps of working an endless stream of crappy jobs to make ends meet, not finding that sweet success she longed for in the original. Notably absent for most of the reboot is Johnny Galecki (Big Bang Theory), who played her boyfriend David and solidified the most adorable yet twisted relationship between teens that TV has ever seen. Funnily enough, most of the really great material is given to Gilbert, who has slipped back into Darlene’s shoes almost too easily.

Roseanne - Headstuff.org
Galecki and Gilbert Source

 

Aside from Gilbert, Laurie Metcalf as the chronically single and deeply lost Aunt Jackie is still an indisputable mainstay for the series. Who could not love Metcalf’s effortlessly despondent quirks and endless optimism? She deservedly won three Emmys for the role from 1992-1994, and her real-life pregnancy was written into the show in season six. We last saw the child, Andy, as a toddler when the series came to a close in 1997.

However, he has remained absent and unmentioned in the rebooted series for the time being. Barr herself stated that the characters of Andy and Jerry (the Conner’s fourth child from season eight) were deliberately left out of the current series. This was in hopes that their roles could be expanded if an eleventh season were to be commissioned. More good news; ratings were so impressive for the premiere that an eleventh season has been ordered, so we will see these characters after all.

Surprises

Another surprise appearance in the show is Estelle Parsons. Now 90 years old, Bev returns to torment her onscreen daughters Roseanne and Jackie once again. If you thought the morbid jokes surrounding Bev’s old age and impending death were laid on thick in the original, the reboot boosts it into overdrive. Seemingly immortal, Bev is almost a parody of the sweet-natured yet unpredictably sex-crazed doting grandma from the earlier series.

After getting kicked out of a nursing home for having sex with too many residents and spreading gonorrhea, she shows up at Roseanne’s porch ready to be taken in. Bev’s timeline here is a little muddled. We are to suppose her outing as a lesbian in the original was also wiped from existence within the infamous finale in 1997, and that her alluded death in the reboot’s premiere is a minor goof most likely written and filmed before Parsons agreed to return. A strong scene in which Roseanne pleads to her mother in heaven for some money in the premiere was worth the continuity error, to be honest.

Is it easy to poke holes in the reboot and ponder if it has much more to offer than the original or anything left to say? Yes. Is it easy to overlook these plot holes and enjoy the retro style and humor that we all adored 20 years ago? Absolutely. Whenever a reboot of a classic show is announced, the one thing you’ll hear the most is: ‘who asked for this?’ But the answer for this reboot is best explained by Roseanne herself in a 1990 episode called ‘The Test’. DJ asks Roseanne if he was an ‘accident’, and she tells him he was a ‘surprise’. When he asks about the difference between the two, she tells him: ‘an accident is something that, if you had to do it all over again, you wouldn’t. But a surprise is something you didn’t even know you wanted…till you got it.’

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