A recent posting on the newsgroup alt.tv.roseanne probably speaks for many viewers of Roseanne these days: ”Please, PLEASE make it go away! Roseanne, the first seven years, was one of my favorite shows of all time. But the last two seasons have been pure torture.”
Indeed, Roseanne — always unafraid to deploy bad-sitcom yelling and abrasiveness to create great-sitcom passion and laughs — spent its 1995-96 season becoming increasingly heavy-handed. And now that Roseanne’s TV family, the Conners, have won $108 million in the Illinois lottery, the series’ ninth and final season has taken on a surreal randomness that many people find impossible to square with the shrewdly realistic show that Roseanne Barr, John Goodman (Dan), Laurie Metcalf (Jackie), Sara Gilbert (Darlene), Michael Fishman (D.J.), and whoever was playing Becky that week used to preside over.
It’s dead wrong, however, to complain that this abrupt turn in plot and mood came out of nowhere or was a betrayal of the show’s history. Roseanne’s whim to turn the lovably boisterous Conners into nouveau riche vulgarians is utterly consistent with her vision of Roseanne as a reflection of whatever is happening to her in her off-camera life. In this sense, Roseanne’s eight years as a TV superstar are currently being used as fresh material for the Conners’ forays into high society, major real estate transactions, and trendy health spas. If that means that you and I can no longer identify with the characters, Roseanne’s tacit response has also been completely consistent with the rest of her career: a more blunt variation on ”Aw, the hell with you.”
And so we’ve watched (and we have watched; sure, the ratings have dipped, but less severely than most sitcoms in their ninth year) as Dan had an affair; as Darlene’s pregnant stomach grew; as D.J.’s late-blooming hormones exploded; as pointless guest stars (James Brolin?!) were trotted out; and as whoever’s been playing Becky just about disappeared from the show. And I think I can safely say that America has given up trying to figure out what the devil Roseanne is saying about homosexuality in this season’s ceaseless run of shows about gay relationships, outing, and the apparent population explosion of chipper queens and hags in Lanford, Ill. (Ellen DeGeneres gets all the ink, but Roseanne’s been rolling up her sleeves and doing the arduous spadework in this area.)
As silly and self-indulgent as it often is, Roseanne remains fascinating, even though it now makes laughter seem irrelevant. Or maybe because it makes laughter irrelevant. To me, the show’s final sea- son is like Roseanne’s crotch-grabbing rendition of ”The Star-Spangled Banner” at a 1990 San Diego Padres game: It’s a shock, I wince, but I’m thrilled by the combination of rage, guts, and screw-‘em-all joy that compels her to do it.
This quality is, more broadly, what has made Roseanne such fun and so liberating from the start. All the accolades the series has and will receive for its portrayal of a contentious working-class clan are deserved. Other sitcom families use sarcasm as a deadening reflex, but the Conners use it as a survival tool — they joke and act disrespectfully to others to maintain respect for themselves in a world that either ignores or heaps contempt on loud, junk-food-eating laborers.
Yes, Roseanne is the most groundbreaking kitchen-sink sitcom since All in the Family. Yes, Goodman’s portrayal of a belching, poker-playing man’s man who’s a flop at breadwinning (drywaller, motorcycle-shop owner) yet a loving, sensitive husband and father has been remarkable for its thrown-away subtlety. The same is true of Metcalf’s nuanced work as a vulnerable tough gal (cop, truck driver, divorced single mom). And yes, Gilbert has given us the most believable adolescent (sullen, prideful, insecure) ever seen on the small screen.
But Roseanne’s greatest achievement is the way it has managed to contain its wayward domestic goddess/Tom Arnold tolerator/self-designated incest survivor/New Yorker guest editor/force-of-nature star. Once Roseanne wrested control of the show from its credited creator, Matt Williams, midway through the first season, Roseanne quickly became more uneven and more exciting, deepening its laughs to become the most culturally open-minded series — comedy or drama — in TV history. Roseanne’s ongoing creative dilemma has always been the fact that she yearns for the respect of her industry and her audience even as she wants to explode their timorous, hidebound notions of what a sitcom — and even more crucially what a woman — can be.
Roseanne has said that even disaffected fans will appreciate the series’ concluding story line, which is scheduled to air May 20 and which she vows will explain much of the foolishness that’s gone on this season (gee, even those Xena and Rambo parody episodes?). She told the Los Angeles Times that this season will prove to be ”not about the [lottery] money. It’s about transformation and redemption.” Fine; looking forward to it. But what makes Roseanne and Roseanne great has never been her or the show’s good intentions but rather the way the series’ 30-minute chunks of class resentment were, week in and week out, artfully shaped to depict the volatile irrationality of ordinary family life. She’s the funniest disturber of the peace that we have.
The grade is for Roseanne’s nine-season run: A-