Consistently Nielsen-rated in the top ten programs throughout its 10-year lifespan, the situation comedy Roseanne wielded an unprecedented socio-cultural influence on the American television-viewing nation. The series played a key role in revitalizing an ailing television genre by demonstrating that playing for laughs need not preclude intelligent, thought-provoking scripts. As with its contemporary Cheers (1982-96), fine ensemble playing and even finer writing ensured this blue-collar sitcom's longevity.
That the show actually reached the nation's television screens is as much a testament to a major shake-up in the world of American television as it is to the creative endeavors of those directly involved in its production. The 1980s witnessed a challenge to the power of the Big Three networks, which saw a substantial drop in their near-monopoly of audience share from 90 percent to 60 percent by decade's end. Shaken by the success of Rupert Murdoch's Fox network, and by the rise of satellite, cable, and VCR ownership, the networks were forced to take a long, hard look at their own output. One positive outcome of this reappraisal was that it led to the commissioning and purchase of innovative programs, often made by independent production companies like Carsey Werner, the makers of Roseanne. The challenge to the hegemony of the Big Three, then, undoubtedly helped reinvigorate a tired genre like the situation comedy.
With Roseanne, viewers witnessed the return of the blue-collar family to their TV screens. The Conners, led by mother and father Roseanne and Dan Conner (played by Roseanne Barr and John Goodman), were subject to the stresses and strains of contemporary living. The small, midwestern town of Lanford—the sitcom's fictional setting—was recession-hit for much of the series and the family was unable to escape this context. In contrast to so many sitcoms, the domestic arena in Roseanne did not provide the Connors with a safe haven in a heartless world; rather, that harsh outside world frequently threatened to engulf the family as it staggered from one economic crisis to another. As a result of this, Roseanne's literate comedy often took on a clear socio-political dimension, attributable in large measure to the creative influence of the show's star, Roseanne Barr, a successful stand-up comedienne. The sassy humor of Barr's heavily autobiographical "trailer mom" monologues supplied the show's writers with a ready-made central character around which to build a variety of relationships. As the show's co-creator, Barr unquestionably stamped both her unique personality and her own agenda on the series that pointedly shared her name. In response to an interviewer's query as to exactly how much of the real her was invested in the screen character, Barr observed "that's me up there, [although] there's a deliberate choice of what to expose."
By the early 1990s, on the heels of a successful second season which saw Roseanne take over the top slot in the ratings from The Cosby Show (1984-1992), Barr had gained complete creative control. It was in these early 1990s shows that an explicit political edge emerged, partly as a result of plots that focused on the workplace as much as the home. In one show Roseanne harasses a vote-canvassing Congressional candidate, first when he calls on her at home, and again when he turns up at her husband's failing motorbike shop. When the politician talks of attracting new businesses to Lanford, Roseanne presses him on how and why these companies would want to set up business in her hometown. Given a familiar clichéd answer which points to the lure of tax incentives and inexpensive production costs, Roseanne pithily notes that the promise of cheap, de-unionized labor and generous corporate-friendly tax breaks simply means that the ordinary working folk in her town will be made to pay twice by making up the shortfall in taxation and then taking jobs at "scab" wages. In this same episode, the Connors' son, D.J., ironically wins a regional spelling bee by correctly spelling the word "foreclo-sure," while an inconsolable eldest daughter, Becky, discovers that there is no college fund for her, despite her having achieved the necessary grades.
While Roseanne's ancestry might appear traceable to early blue-collar sitcoms like The Honeymooners (1955-1956), it arguably owed more of a debt to the uncompromising and occasionally uncomfortable humor of a show like All in the Family (1971-1979). It certainly did not have much in common with its anodyne immediate predecessors such as Family Ties (1982-1989) or The Cosby Show. As Judine Mayerle has pointed out, the show simply did not look "televisionish," from the physical appearance, speech, and behavior of the characters themselves through to the variety of cheaply furnished sets that comprise the Connors' household and workplaces (diner, factory, garage, etc). More significantly, the show also consistently denied that familiar sitcom narrative trajectory which offered resolution in the form of the "warm hug," closing moral, or sermon. Instead, Roseanne presented the viewer with a "slice of life" episodic structure more akin to a drama series, offering ongoing narratives that denied comedic closure since problems such as marital or financial difficulties could not be neatly tied up in under half an hour. The fact that the Conner kids appeared destined to follow in their parents' footsteps was often at the very core of the show's bittersweet humor, and such a recognition rested on a successful narrative carry-over from episode to episode, series to series.
Both plots and characterization prompted a more complex set of audience responses to the adventures of the Connors, simply because on one important level we laughed with instead of at them. The show avoided lazy stereotypes of ordinary, working Americans, and as a result Roseanne (who, for example, talks to Darlene about Sylvia Plath in one episode) and her family are played as sharp, intelligent, and funny. While life frequently dealt them and their friends a losing hand, they remained defiant in defeat, their one-liners empowering them where few other options were available. Roseanne spearheaded a late 1980s revival of the satiric, blue-collar sitcom, in the process bucking the trend for shows in which working-class characters were often represented as loud-mouthed bigots in the Archie Bunker mold. The show arguably paved the way for both The Simpsons, begun in 1989 and still running at the end of the century, and Married.. with Children (1987-1997). Both of these, while admittedly presenting cognitively disabled characters, nevertheless offered conflict as opposed to resolution, mercilessly lampooned authority figures, and unflinchingly pointed up America's failings.
Despite its early instances of a direct political agenda, David Marc has pointed out that Roseanne "len[t] itself more successfully to the politics of culture than the politics of labor." For example, the show stirred up conservative ire because of its perceived failure to back traditional family values. Along with Murphy Brown (1988-1998) which the then vice-president Dan Quayle described as "socially disruptive" for its depiction of and failure to condemn single-motherhood, Roseanne brought complaints from pro-family groups about the prime-time representation of poor parenting displayed by the Connors. In his book Hollywood versus America, Michael Medved quoted Ross Perot complaining that "if you watch Roseanne Barr on television you don't get a very good role model … You and I didn't see that kind of stuff growing up." Backing Perot, Medved himself drew attention to an episode in which Roseanne takes daughter Becky to her gynecologist for birth control pills. To Medved, this is an act of gross indecency and parental irresponsibility, tantamount to an active endorsement of teenage promiscuity. "Roseanne's sister Jackie," he writes, "applauds the main character's willingness to facilitate the girl's sex life: 'Isn't it great that Becky has such a progressive, open-minded mom that she can talk to?' When Roseanne moans 'She's all grown up … She doesn't need me anymore!' her sister reassures her: 'Of course she needs you! She needs you to pay for her pills."'
Yet the sheer range of issues aired in the scripts extended the range of subject matter deemed appropriate for future sitcoms. By tackling such subjects as masturbation, lesbianism, same-sex marriage, teenage sex and pregnancy, abortion, drug use, unemployment, and familial abuse in a common-sense way, Roseanne surely contributed towards the fostering of a healthy and responsible attitude towards these previously taboo topics. Thus, in the case of the birth control episode, the show pointed up that it was far better that Becky should avoid running the risk of an unwanted pregnancy or disease, particularly if she was going to "experiment" anyway.
Sadly, the show limped on a season too long. In its final run, the Connors' multi-million-dollar lottery win deprived the show of its satiric engine, in that so much of the humor had emanated from its portrayal of real people facing real daily struggles with flashes of extraordinary wit. Yet, at its best, Roseanne was remembered for its earthy, natural warmth and unabashed display of human imperfection that appealed to millions of viewers, and for fostering a level of audience identification and affection that flew in the face of much critical opprobrium.
Aronowitz, Stanley. "Working-Class Culture in the Electronic Age." In Cultural Politics in Contemporary America, edited by Ian Angus and Sut Jhally. London, Routledge, 1989.
Barr, Roseanne. Stand Up! My Life as a Woman. New York, Harper &Row, 1989.
Dutka, Elaine. "Slightly to the Left of Normal." Time. May 8,1989, 82-83.
Marc, David. Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture. Malden, Massachusetts, Blackwell, 1997.
Mayerle, Judine. "Roseanne—How Did You Get inside My House?:A Case Study of a Hit Blue-Collar Situation Comedy." Journal of Popular Culture. Vol. 24, No. 4, 1991, 71-88.
Medved, Michael. Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values. New York, Harper Collins, 1992.
Rowe, Kathleen. "Roseanne: Unruly Woman as Domestic Goddess." Screen. Vol. 31, No. 4, 1990, 408-419.
Watson, Mary Ann. Defining Visions: Television and the American Experience since 1945. Orlando, Florida, Harcourt Brace, 1998.