A sitcom family is sitting down at the breakfast table.
L "Hey, is one of the kids missing?" Dad asks, looking around.
"Yeah, where do you think I got the bacon?" Mom says, smiling.
There is only one television mom who could have delivered that line: Roseanne Conner. And, love or hate Roseanne the star, the departure of "Roseanne" the sitcom from our prime-time lives is a television milestone.
"Roseanne" ends a brilliant eight-year run on ABC with an hourlong finale Tuesday night. Actually, "Roseanne" has been on the air nine years, but this last season was hardly brilliant. The Conners won the lottery and spent the season careening from salon to spa, acting as strange and out of character as Roseanne herself does, if you believe tabloid accounts.
Perhaps because of the series' dismal performance this year, the appreciations and retrospectives usually accorded such a long-running hit series have been few.
They certainly haven't been on the level of "Cheers, the last show of similar stature to leave the air.
But "Roseanne" -- which soared to No. 2 in the Nielsen ratings behind "The Cosby Show" in its first season in 1988 and stayed
in the top 10 until last year -- was a far more groundbreaking and important series than "Cheers." In fact, it was one of TV's most important sitcoms.
From Roseanne Conner denouncing the IRS to her apparent savor of a lesbian's kiss, "Roseanne" was liberating on a variety of cultural fronts. And, with an average weekly audience of some 30 million viewers for nine years, "Roseanne" reached more viewers during that period than any other show on the air except CBS' "60 Minutes."
Almost single-handedly, it knocked some working-class sense into a prime-time lineup engorged on the Yuppie excess of the "Family Ties" 1980s. It offered a warm and loving, but ideologically tough-minded version of feminism for working-class women at a time when the medium was serving up the suburban, upper-middle-class flavor found in "Murphy Brown" and "thirtysomething."
"Roseanne" also challenged deeply ingrained attitudes about female body image. One of the series' most consistent $l messages has been: Just because you are not a perfect size 6, doesn't mean you aren't desirable.
"It has broken new ground on the prime-time television stage where the players can never be too rich or too thin, where children and relatives are charming. It has given us instead characters who are just getting by financially, who are overweight and not concerned about dieting and exercise, whose children and relatives are not always pleasant," said Judine Mayerle, professor of television at Marquette University and author of a 1991 essay on "Roseanne" in the Journal of Popular Culture.
"The show started when 'The Bill Cosby Show' was very, very popular, and much of the reason for the success of 'Roseanne' is that it showed us a family that looked more realistic than Cosby's did," said Sheri Parks, an associate dean and professor who teaches courses in television and gender at the University of Maryland. "It was the first show I ever saw where people were talking about bills and wondering how they were going to pay them. Bills are not something TV families talked about."
Roseanne and Dan Conner (John Goodman) and their three kids lived in blue-collar Lanford, Ill. Dan was a private contractor often without a contract or a construction job, and the series regularly dealt with his resultant loss of self-esteem and anger. Roseanne worked at a variety of jobs, from a factory assembly line to "shampoo girl" at a beauty salon. Later, Dan opened a motorcycle shop, while Roseanne started a lunch counter with her sister, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf).
The series was created by Matt Williams, a writer for "The Cosby Show," and was based on his life growing up in the Midwest and interviews he conducted in 1987 with working moms in Indiana and Illinois. But, when he took the series, which was to be called "Life and Stuff," to ABC, the network had him work with a comic named Roseanne Barr, whose act was built on her persona as a working-class "domestic goddess" and feminist. "Life and Stuff" became "Roseanne."
The shotgun marriage came apart by the end of the first season. Williams left and Roseanne took near total control of the series, along with Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, her production partners. Roseanne said at the time that Williams was moving too far away from the essence of her character and the series' distinct sense of social class.
Any appreciation of "Roseanne" must start with its sense of life in the working class.
As Barbara Ehrenreich put it in a 1990 New Republic essay, " 'Roseanne' is a radical departure simply for featuring blue-collar Americans -- and for depicting them as something other than half-witted greasers and low-life louts. The working class does not usually get much of a role in the American entertainment spectacle."
Once upon a time in Television Land, we did have working-class sitcoms in which the characters were treated with some respect. From 1948 to 1958 -- the dawn of prime-time -- we had "The Goldbergs," "The Life of Riley," "The Honeymooners," "Life With Luigi" and "Mama," to name a few.
But once it became clear to Madison Avenue that the white collars and green lawns of suburbia made for a more "advertiser-friendly environment" -- to use the language of networkspeak -- the Ralph Kramdens and Molly Goldbergs were bulldozed to make way for Ward and June and innumerable clones.
It would be 13 years before the next viable blue-collar sitcom appeared -- "All in the Family" in 1971, network television's first series to struggle with the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. Its success spawned "Good Times," "Chico and the Man," "Laverne & Shirley" and "Sanford & Son," though none of them challenged the middle-class values at the heart of prime time as "All in the Family" sometimes did.
Whatever was left of that blue-collar cycle was crushed by 1980 in a Nielsen Land in love with shows like "Dallas" that worshiped at the altar of affluence.
"Roseanne" -- a stark contrast in values, look and tone to that network Zeitgeist -- set off its own mini-cycle of sitcoms that treated working-class characters with some dignity, such as "Roc," "South Central" and "Grace Under Fire."
When "Roseanne" signs off Tuesday, only "Grace" will remain, and "Grace" ended its season last week with its heroine, Grace Kelly (Brett Butler), taking a job in an advertising agency. So ends another cycle.
But the radicalism of "Roseanne" went beyond simply depicting working-class characters in a favorable light. "Roseanne" was not afraid to attack a class system that is rarely acknowledged in prime-time America.
"What makes 'Roseanne' even more unusual is that it occasionally offers viewers glimpses of the class barriers that stand in the way of working families like the Conners," University of Massachusetts professors Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis said in their 1992 book, "Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences and the Myth of the American Dream."
Jhally and Lewis cited an episode in which Roseanne goes to an IRS office to sort out a problem with her tax form and winds up denouncing the system for treating working folk one way and rich folk another. "This is, in the world of television, a rare glimpse at the oppressive side of a class system," Jhally and Lewis wrote. "We are more used to seeing class issues treated in other ways on prime-time television. When class barriers are presented, it is invariably to show them being overcome, not reinforced."
"Roseanne does a wonderful job of modeling class-conscious,
assertive behavior, and she comes across as a woman who knows her own mind and has a strong sense of her power as a working class woman," said Janet Lee, director of women's studies at Oregon State University and author of the essay " 'Roseanne' as Inspiration for Feminist Resistance."
"In the series, we see her refusing to be intimidated by middle-class authority. She has the last outrageous word with her bosses, she refuses to be intimidated by the principal at her daughter's school, or the IRS or anyone else for that matter," Lee said.
On the line
Roseanne's workplace radicalism started on the assembly line at Wellman Plastics. My first memory of the series is her response when her jerk of a boss called a meeting of the workers.
"I have something important to tell you," he began, taking his time and clearly enjoying the power he held over the workers who were worried about layoffs.
"What? That you feel you're a woman trapped in a man's body?" Roseanne cracked.
From Wellman, she moved to one of those fast-food industry jobs celebrated by some in Washington in the 1980s as proof that "trickle-down" economics worked. Roseanne was near the bottom of the trickle at Chicken Divine, where she worked for a teen-ager who ordered her to work weekends.
Her class warfare extended to the classroom when school officials made the mistake of summoning Roseanne to complain about one of her three children.
Roseanne arrived late for a meeting with Darlene's (Sara Gilbert) Yuppie teacher because she had to work late at Wellman. The teacher, irritated because she was late for a racquetball game, told Roseanne that Darlene was barking like a dog and suggested that Roseanne should feel deeply shamed by her daughter's highly aberrant behavior.
On the contrary, Roseanne replied, there was nothing aberrant about it. All the Conners bark like dogs and are proud of it.
Yuppies (or what is now being called the professional class) were a target of "Roseanne."
As Mayerle, the Marquette professor, put it, "When the series lampoons what Roseanne and Dan Conner consider the pretensions of the stereotypical thirtysomething crowd -- gourmet dinners, fine wines and mineral water, jogging and aerobics -- it dramatizes the antithesis of Yuppie culture and flies in the face of the pop culture establishment."
Maybe that's another reason "Roseanne" never got the respect that, say, "Murphy Brown" did, and is now coming up short on retrospective praise: Most of the critics who would offer such praise are members of or, at least, identify with the values of the professional class.
And there is a distinct difference in values between "Roseanne" and a series like "Murphy Brown." When Roseanne had a baby, for example, she took care of it herself. When Murphy had a baby, she had working-class character Eldin (Robert Pastorelli) take care of it, literally becoming the nanny.
Underside of the '80s
"Roseanne is the neglected underside of the eighties, bringing together its great themes of poverty, obesity and defiance. The overside is handled well enough by Candice Bergen ("Murphy Brown") and Madonna, who exist to remind us that talented women who work out are bound to become fabulously successful," said essayist Ehrenreich.
Ultimately, the messages on body image that we've received from "Roseanne" are mixed as a result of the star's widely-publicized plastic surgery -- ranging from eyes and nose to liposuction -- which tends to undercut her show's insistence that women don't have to achieve some media ideal of beauty to be happy. But, at least the show has offered some challenge to a dangerous message about the need to be reed-thin that's been linked to eating disorders in adolescent girls.
The sitcom's messages on sexual orientation have been mixed, too. Just as there has been much praise from the gay community for the lesbian character of Nancy (Sandra Bernhard), there's been equal criticism for the depiction of gay men in the characters played by Martin Mull and Fred Willard.
Is the criticism valid? I don't know, but, given the Realpolitik of network television, there probably wouldn't be a lesbian Ellen today if Roseanne Conner had not kissed a lesbian character (Mariel Hemingway) in 1994 and proved it could be ratings magic for ABC.
The last episode
I wish I could report that "Roseanne" goes out with a great bang Tuesday night, recapturing some of its former glory. But the first 45 minutes, which revolve around Darlene bringing her baby "home" to the Conner household, are almost as lame as the rest of the season has been.
The ending might be a killer, I don't know. For preview copies, ABC is holding back the closing part at Roseanne's request.
During the first three-quarters of the hour, Roseanne herself seems to be walking around in a fog of sedation, about two levels of consciousness removed from the angry, edgy Roseanne we knew and loved.
There is some reminiscing, as Darlene remembers the barking-like-a-dog episode and a couple of other moments of mother-daughter bonding. There's also a nice little speech from Roseanne's sister, Jackie, in which she essentially says the past season has been a bad dream. But that's about it -- not exactly the last "M*A*S*H" or even the final "Cosby."
Still, I'll watch, hoping Roseanne can throw one last, great, subversive punch in the final 15 minutes and somehow undo the implied message of the lottery story line: In the end, the system really does work for everyone even the Conners.
And, if the final minutes don't deliver -- if "Roseanne" ends with an ideological whimper instead of a blue-collar bang -- I'll go to the video library and punch up Roseanne in better times.
THROUGH THE YEARS
1988 -- "Roseanne" debuts. Television mom Roseanne Conner declares herself a "domestic goddess." Says she'll clean house when Sears comes out with a riding vacuum cleaner.
1989 -- Co-creator Matt Williams' departs; Roseanne takes control of the show. Tom Arnold (left), soon to become Roseanne's real-life husband, joins cast.
1990 -- "Roseanne" edges out "The Cosby Show" as top Nielsen-rated show. John Goodman as Dan (left) nominated for Emmy.
1991 -- Two gay characters added to cast -- Martin Mull as Roseanne's boss at the restaurant where she works as a waitress and Sandra Bernhard (left) as Nancy, a lesbian friend.
1992 -- Becky Conner (Lacy Goranson) elopes. Roseanne and her sister, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf, left), launch the Lanford Lunch Box. Roseanne nominated for Emmy. Metcalf wins Best LTC
Supporting Actress Emmy.
1993 -- Darlene Conner (Sara Gilbert, left) leaves for art school. Becky returns played by a new actress, Sarah Chalke. "Roseanne" wins Peabody Award; Roseanne wins first Emmy.
1994 -- Episode featuring a kiss between a lesbian character (Mariel Hemingway, below, right) and Roseanne sets a series ratings record and tops Grammy telecast head-to-head.
1996 -- After years battling with the star, ABC announces this will be the last season. Dan suffers a heart attack. The Conners win the lottery. Darlene has a baby.
Pub Date: 5/18/97