Sunday, April 29, 2012

Dreams of the everyday housewife



On May 20, 1997, Roseanne Barr Pentland Arnold Thomas (which I am hereafter shortening to Roseanne) wrapped up nine seasons of her enormously popular self-titled television sitcom with a page right out of the Newhart playbook: the entire run of the show had all been a dream.  What had played enormously funny on Bob Newhart’s 1982-90 series (with the main character on that show, Dick Loudon, revealed to be Bob Hartley, the main character on Newhart’s previous 70s sitcom) didn’t quite go over too well with regards to Roseanne…and though some might argue that would entail a double standard with regards to gender I think the reason why fans of Roseanne’s sitcom were disappointed is because they saw the series as a far more realistic program—almost like pages from their own family’s scrapbook.  (Newhart, on the other hand, rarely had any loftier pretensions than being an updated version of Green Acres…with the classic premise of a sane man trapped in a town populated by zanies.)

And yet if the two shows were opposite one another in reruns, I’d tune into Newhart as opposed to Roseanne.  I probably need to get this out in the open—while I don’t dislike the sitcom (it was without question one of the most groundbreaking family comedies in the history of the cathode ray tube), I rarely watched it during its original network airing; in fact, it wasn’t until I viewed some of the episodes on Mill Creek Entertainment’s re-release of Roseanne: The Complete Fourth Season a few days ago that I was surprised I had seen more of the series than I remembered.  When I moved back to Morgantown, West Virginia in the winter of 1992 (what has now become known as my “years in exile”) and stayed with my BFF The Duchess for a year before getting a place of my own, I apparently watched Roseanne more than I remembered…The Duchess was a big fan of the show, and so I probably just happened to be in the living room when it was on.  (The dysfunctionality of Roseanne’s TV family sort of mirrored that of my friend’s…though I imagine it duplicated a lot of other real-life clans as well.)

The Halloween shows on Roseanne were legendary...so much so that people joked the reason why the family was always in trouble financially was that they blew the household budget on costumes.  (John Goodman deadpanned on Larry King's show one time that Halloween was the family's "religious holiday" because "they're Satanists.")

Before her sitcom premiered in the fall of 1988, Roseanne was a successful stand-up comedienne whose schtick was wry observations about her life as a housewife and mother (or as she liked to call it, a “domestic goddess”).  She had appeared on both the Johnny Carson and David Letterman shows, not to mention an HBO production (The Roseanne Barr Show) which nabbed her an American Comedy Award as Funniest Female Performer in a TV Special.  This laid the groundwork for the series that eventually became Roseanne; executive producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner wanted to create a “no perks” family comedy for TV and commissioned writer Matt Williams (who had worked on domcom The Cosby Show) to write the pilot.  Roseanne was hired to star in the series and according to record she and Williams worked in tandem to fashion the character on her standup act.  But when the series debuted on October 18, 1988, Williams received sole credit (as dictated by the Writers Guild) as creator, and Roseanne cried foul.  Slighting Roseanne for her contributions to the show sparked a war that lasted pretty much during the show’s entire run; Williams was soon ousted by ABC as executive producer (Williams swore he’d never again work with another comedian but changed his mind after meeting Tim Allen, creating Tim’s hit sitcom Home Improvement) and a revolving door of producers and writers soon become SOP on the show.  By the end of the first season Roseanne was an certified smash, and ended up ranked as the #2 series in TV Land according to the A.C. Nielsen ratings.  (It became the most-watched show among TV audiences in the season that followed, and spent five additional years among TV’s top ten shows as well.) 

The tumultuous history behind Roseanne could be the subject of a blog in and of itself, so I should probably concentrate on the sitcom in general (and its third and fourth seasons, the DVD sets I was asked to review).  For those of you not familiar with the series, Roseanne played Roseanne Connor, a housewife living in fictional Lanford, IL who maintained a blue collar household (I know Roseanne was never comfortable with the term “blue collar,” but she’s got her own damn blog, so she can bitch about my using it over there) with husband Dan (John Goodman), a struggling contractor, and three children—daughters Becky (Lecy Goranson) and Darlene (Sara Gilbert) and son D.J. (Michael Fishman).  The Conner clan were unabashedly working class, which was undeniably part of their appeal to many viewers; throughout the series’ nine years on the air Mom and Dad Conner worked a series of low-paying thankless jobs while attempting to start their own small businesses (sometimes without success)…and the emphasis was always on the struggles (and tiny triumphs) of getting by.  The kids fought like cats and dogs and were fearlessly mouthy toward their parents—who reacted to all this with a refreshing sardonic scorn—but as is the case with most families, there was no denying the love and affection under the sarcastic surface.

Jackie, Dan and Roseanne react in horror when they discover that Becky has gestured that the school is "number one" in "Bird is the Word," one of my favorite Season 3 episodes.  (I relate to this because a similar incident occurred with my graduating class' group yearbook picture...though I cannot stress enough that I did not participate in such shenanigans.)

In the early years of Roseanne, the titular character worked at a company called Wellman Plastics along with her sister Jackie Harris (Laurie Metcalf) and best friend Crystal Anderson (Natalie West).  Roseanne’s tenure at Wellman lasted a single season (she had a falling out with a newly hired foreman, played by “Lazy” Fred Dalton Thompson, and walked off the job along with Jackie and Crystal) and by year two was working a number of menial jobs (including telemarketing and fast food cashiering) before landing a gig at a salon sweeping up floors.  In Seasons 3-4, things started to look up—she was hired by a department store luncheonette as a waitress, creating conflicts with her boss Leon Carp (Martin Mull) and cementing a friendship with co-worker Bonnie Watkins (singer Bonnie Bramlett).  Dan, on the other hand, continued in the contracting/drywall business until the end of Season 3, when an old pal named Ziggy (Jay O. Sanders) talked him into buying a custom motorcycle shop…and then left town, never to be seen on the series again.  (In his defense, he did leave behind an envelope containing $20,000.)  The following season then concentrated on the efforts of Dan to keep his new motorcycle business afloat…but living in a financially depressed community like Lanford, it would not prove to be easy.

Everybody's gotta start somewhere: at left, Alyson Hannigan (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, How I Met Your Mother) plays one of Becky's girlfriends in "Like, A Waitress."  At right, the stupefyingly popular Leonard DiCaprio can be glimpsed as one of Darlene's classmates in the "Home Ec" episode.  (Both episodes are from Season 3.)

From the time Roseanne first went on the air, its star battled constantly for creative control, and in an interview on the Season 4 DVD set she talks about how the fourth season marked the point when the show started to hit its stride.  I have a minority opinion on this: while I still think the show was funny, I’ve always preferred the earlier seasons when Roseanne was less interested in making a statement every week and was content to just make me laugh.  I don’t say this to denigrate the accomplishments of the show; it tackled subjects that at that time were considered third-rails on TV, including birth control, teen pregnancy, abortion and domestic violence.  It fearlessly presented strong, positive female role models—not to mention gay characters—and refused to cast the lead characters with stereotypical “pretty people”; Roseanne and Dan Conner were schlubby but unpretentious, looking pretty much the way normal parents did.

But by Season 4, Roseanne’s quest for realism had an effect on the show’s laugh content—it seemed so wrapped up in its own drama that it frequently forgot how the preceding season was able to strike a balance between the two.  I don’t fault the star for this—it was her sitcom and she was certainly entitled to take it in whatever direction she chose…but it sort of became apparent in revisiting it why I gradually drifted away (save for the occasional Halloween episodes, which became one of the show’s hallmarks).  The creative minds behind the series fashioned a pair of brother boyfriends for Roseanne’s daughters (one of them introduced in Season 3, the younger the following season) that soon became my least favorite characters on the show—I understand why they went in this direction; they were drawing a parallel between how Roseanne dated a guy her parents felt wasn’t right for her and how both Becky and Darlene were going to fall into the same trap.  But there was a marked difference between the Healy brothers (played by Glenn Quinn [Mark] and Johnny Galecki [David—though in his first episode he’s referred to as “Kevin”]) and Dan Conner.  Dan was funny.

In fact, watching John Goodman’s antics on Roseanne is one of the reasons why I’ve never completely abandoned the series; I thought his Dan Conner character was one of the show’s real joys—a father who acted like a fourth kid (something the critics kind of chided the series about) but stepped up to the plate when responsible parenting had to be done, and didn’t always make the right decisions (he’s one of the most fallibly human fathers in boob tube history).  Goodman had a first-rate chemistry with his leading lady, and his dry, throwaway delivery of many of his lines never failed to convulse me.  Laurie Metcalf, who played the part of Roseanne’s long-suffering sister Jackie, was the other reason why I liked the show.  In so many ways, Jackie functioned as the sanest member of the family; a funny, intelligent woman whose low self-esteem issues were borrowed from the most unlikely of sources: classic television deputy Barney Fife.  (Roseanne reminisces in the Season 4 DVD interview that they were inspired to make Jackie more Barney-like, even to the point where actress Metcalf would often lunch with Don Knotts and pepper him with inquiries on how to “Barney-ize” her character.)  If you don’t believe me, check out the Season 4 Christmas episode “Santa Claus” for Metcalf’s first-rate imitation of the Fife character (“Any deviation from this procedure will result in loss of candy cane…”)

A Lucy and Ethel for the 90's: Laurie Metcalf and Roseanne in a riotous Christmas episode where they play a department store Santa and Mrs. Claus.

The source of some of my issues with the Roseanne series is that they always seemed to replace the characters I was fond of with characters I didn’t even want to be friends with in real life.  I genuinely liked Roseanne’s pal Crystal but they started to phase her out by the end of the fourth season (after marrying her to Dan’s father, played by Ned Beatty, in Season 3) and she only made a handful of appearances after that.  On the bright side, the annoying personage of Arnie Thomas (played by Roseanne’s one-time real-life spouse Tom Arnold…whose career in show business is the strongest argument I know of that it’s possible to sell one’s soul to Satan) would soon disappear by the end of Season 4 (he turned up in an additional installment the following season and then thankfully never came back) but he unfortunately left Mrs. Thomas behind—his wife Nancy, played by Sandra Bernhard (always an acquired taste).  Some of the series’ main characters also underwent personality changes, and not for the better; daughter Darlene, whom I always enjoyed because she gave her TV mom as good as she got, morphed into a sullen, mopey teenager (inspired by Roseanne’s real-life daughter descent into gothdom) and threatened to turn the show into a half-hour My So-Called Whine Life.

Legendary rock 'n' rollers Bonnie (Bramlett) Sheridan and David Crosby played lovers on the show and get to sing in this beautiful musical moment from "The Bowling Show."
But I still enjoy watching Roseanne, despite the star’s forays into real-life wacky—I remember that Duchess and I were watching a fifth season episode with a mutual friend of ours and upon seeing Roseanne’s extensive plastic surgery cracked “Well, no wonder her husband’s business is in the toilet—there’s where the money went!”  (Again, what Roseanne did with the money from her show was her own business but I found it wryly ironic that she chose to make herself over despite years of promoting an image that likeability and personal appearance shouldn’t be considered one and the same.)  My mother is also a fan of the show, and during my convalescence back in March 2010 she’d often tune in when I was taking a nap.  When I told her that I had obtained review copies of the Season 3 and 4 box sets she sort of rolled her eyes, prompting me to ask “I thought this was one of your favorites?”

One of my favorite Season 4 episodes, "The Commercial Show."  The Conners are picked to be in a commercial for Rodbell's, and at the last minute the director (Rick Dees) substitutes Jackie for Roseanne.
“It is when there’s nothing else on,” she replied.  (She later amended that she really did like the show…but felt uncomfortable admitting as such to me because she didn’t want to seem “uncool,” as if this would have been the first time I noticed.)

All nine seasons of Roseanne were released to DVD by the now-defunct Anchor Bay Entertainment between 2005 and 2009…and because these editions are OOP, Mill Creek Entertainment has begun re-releasing the sets (the first two seasons back in September 2011, seasons 3 and 4 this past April 3) after acquiring the rights from Carsey-Werner Productions.  The upside to this is that the first season Anchor Bay release featured the edited-for-syndication shows…the Mill Creek version does not.  Season 3 features interviews with Laurie Metcalf and Lecy Goranson, while the fourth season set is a little more generous with the extras, spotlighting interviews with Goranson, Michael Fishman and Roseanne herownself.  (Roseanne also does commentary on two of the episodes, the Halloween and Thanksgiving-themed escapades, and it’s interesting stuff because she offers up her own interpretation of the show while having frequent difficulties remembering the names of people she worked with, something I found kind of humorous.)

The Mill Creek releases are also being offered at a nice price at TVFlashbacks.com—and if you mosey over to this page, you can also use a 25% discount code to pick them up cheaper (but you need to act fast, cartooners—the deal expires on May 15th).  Of course, if you’re in a gambling mood (and want to avoid the agony of the Roseanne two-parter from Season 4, where Roseanne and Dan accompany Arnie and Nancy to Vegas) I have copies of Seasons 3 and 4 to hand out to some lucky member of the TDOY faithful.  Here’s how it works: just send me an e-mail at igsjrotr(at)gmail(dot)com with “Roseanne Giveaway” in the subject header before 11:59 EDT next Sunday (May 6) and the following Monday morning I’ll pick two winners via Random.org and get those prizes out to them posthaste.  (The first name that’s drawn gets Season 3, the second Season 4.)  These prizes (as well as the review copies) were generously provided to me by TV Flashbacks rep Barbara Pflaughhaupt…so the winners will be required to write her a thank-you note without making fun of her last name.  (Okay, I am kidding about that last part.)  So be sure to drop me an e-mail for your chance to win!

3 comments:

KimWilson said...

As you no doubt know my husband George was on the show before becoming an emergency room pediatrician, so I have a soft spot in my heart for it. In addition, unlike most people I loved it when those crazy AbFab bitches came to Lanford in the last season.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

As you no doubt know my husband George was on the show before becoming an emergency room pediatrician

This would have been after your husband was fired from that girls' school in Peekskill, NY, if I have the timeline right.

KimWilson said...

That's just a rumor, Ivan. In reality, he quit as to stop being sexually harassed by Mrs. Garrett.