ChrisWeigant.com

Roseanne Continues Long Tradition

[ Posted Thursday, April 5th, 2018 – 17:46 PDT ]

This is going to be a rather strange column for me to write, because it centers on a few subjects that I don't normally write about. In fact, I usually studiously avoid writing about these subjects. But with all the hoo-hah over the reboot of the television sitcom Roseanne, I felt it was time to chime in on popular television culture and my own television viewing preferences. Again, two subjects that I normally strive to avoid, mostly because this just isn't that kind of blog. So if these subjects bore you to death, I'd just stop reading right now. Fair warning.

I have to begin an article about Roseanne with a personal admission. It's been a "guilty pleasure" television show of mine for a while now. I actually completely missed the first-run seasons, as I watched little-to-zero television during the 1980s and 1990s. For most of this time I didn't even own a television set. So I missed Roseanne in its heyday. I still haven't seen a complete episode of Cheers, either, which always seems to astonish people when I admit to it.

But after getting married, I did buy a television. At that point, I started paying attention to late-night television comedians, since a very large slice of the American public gets all its news and politics from such shows. But the shows didn't come on until 11:30, and there wasn't much on just before they aired. So I found myself watching Roseanne reruns.

Full disclosure: I thought they were hilarious. You could even call me "a fan" of the show, at least back then when it was on every night (local syndication reruns did move on to other shows at some point in the late 2000s) and I was a regular viewer. There are a lot of reasons to like the show -- number one being: "it's funny." Roseanne Barr is a brilliant comedian, no matter what else might be said about her. She has an excellent sense of timing, and she is always completely outrageous, no matter the given situation on the show.

But the show was interesting beyond just the one-liners as well. Sit-coms about family life usually fall into two categories: those that change, and those that don't. The best example of the latter is one with a built-in advantage: The Simpsons. Being animated, the show's characters never grow older. Bart and Lisa never grow up, and will never get to high school or college. That isn't possible with live actors, and may be one of the reasons the show is still going strong and setting television records (if a recent couch gag/opening sequence is to be believed, they're about to pass Gunsmoke in total number of episodes aired, which would be a monumental milestone -- making it the longest-running scripted series in all of television history).

Of course, most television programs don't last for three decades, which is why most sitcoms rarely advance their storylines much, even if children are present in the television family. In most series, from the pilot to the finale the main characters have the same jobs, the same house, and the same basic situation in life. Episodes may change the storyline slightly, but the basics remain the same.

Roseanne was different. Change was constant, with the exception of the house they lived in. Money was always a problem, since they had so little of it. It's hard to even accurately count the number of jobs Dan Conner or Roseanne had during the series' original run. Dan was, in turn, a drywall installer, a home-flipper (that one didn't last long), a motorcycle shop owner, until finally settling in as a civil service worker in a garage for the county's vehicles. Roseanne was a plastics factory worker (supervised by none other than a very young George Clooney), a telemarketer (from her own home), a waitress (several times), a hair salon shampooist, until finally settling in as a diner owner. Jackie (Roseanne's sister) started in the plastics factory with Roseanne, became a cop, was a long-distance trucker, until also winding up at Roseanne's diner. While a few of these involved money from nowhere (the seed money for the motorcycle shop most notably), most of the time the Conners were continually scrounging for a buck, doing scut work that was decidedly blue-collar. And those lists are just from memory (although I have admittedly been binge-watching old seasons in the buildup to the reboot), so I've probably left a number of jobs off each character's list -- didn't one of them tend bar at one point? It's hard to recall, because there were so many jobs they cycled through.

Change was the only constant, in other words, unlike most sitcoms. The other notable thing that changed was that the kids grew up. Darlene, in the pilot episode, looks about nine years old (although the actress was actually a few years older). Becky was a couple years older, and D.J. was barely old enough to attend school. By the end, Becky and Darlene were married (Becky having eloped before she was 18), and DJ was having sex with his girlfriend. Darlene, Jackie, and Roseanne all got pregnant and had babies during the lifetime of the show. There aren't many sitcoms that dare to change this many characters' storylines, which was part of what made Roseanne so interesting. It wasn't quite Game Of Thrones (no major character died), but you never really knew what to expect next from the Conners.

As for the reboot, so far it's pretty good. They instantly got renewed for a second season, so they'll have time to develop the new storylines and fill in some of the cracks. They'll probably get some of it right and some of it wrong, but that was always true of the show.

But there are two issues everyone's focused on with Roseanne's reboot: politics and economics. Let's take the politics first. Roseanne Barr (the actress, not the character, in other words) is a Trump supporter. In real life, she's also somewhat of a nutjob on several conspiracy theories, and her own personal politics have not been consistent over the years. So the show chose to make Roseanne Conner a Trump voter.

This caused a lot of deep analysis and angst from people who should really know better. Liberals took the position of: "Roseanne Conner was always a loving individual who hated bigwigs who screwed over the little guy, so of course she's a loyal Democrat and always has been." Conservatives amusingly took the position of: "Liberals are getting really annoyed about this, so let's rub it in!" Donald Trump took the lead on that line of thinking, the day after the reboot pilot aired.

What both sides really miss is that even if Roseanne (the actress) hadn't been a Trump supporter, they probably would have had to make at least one major character on the show a Trump guy or gal. The fictional Lanford, Illinois where the show is set is a couple hours away from Chicago. In other words, smack in the middle of Trump country. It would be downright inconceivable that there wouldn't be plenty of people in Lanford who voted for Trump, in other words, and if the show wanted to accurately portray life there, then they would have had to address this one way or the other.

Of course, they could have just ignored it altogether. But then they might not have chalked up the stellar ratings that they did for the pilot. Exploring a family with members who voted differently in 2016 is actually a very relatable subject to millions of American families right now. The show chose to do so with a light touch -- I don't believe the names Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton were even mentioned (although it was clear enough who was being talked about, the show made a conscious decision not to say the names). There was one brief spat between anti-Trump Jackie and pro-Trump Roseanne, and then they largely moved away from the subject.

Even this light touch was too much for some people. And for others, it wasn't enough. Some correctly argued that the original Roseanne almost never addressed any political issues at all, mostly because they were too caught up in their own lives to care. When you're scrambling to put food on the table and wondering if your job's going to be around next week, it's hard to focus on national politics, in other words. And -- this is key -- that is true of millions of American families. Not everybody lives and breathes politics. So they could have easily gotten away with avoiding the subject altogether. There's a strong case to be made for why interjecting politics was a big change for the show. But then again, the show's always been about changing storylines, right?

The other argument being made right now is that the characters didn't delve into politics enough. Why didn't Jackie make a better argument about Obamacare? Why would Roseanne be hoodwinked by Trumpism? Roseanne was always a feminist, so why would she support such a blatant misogynist? People making this argument want the show to stand in for the national political debate writ large, so it can cover all aspects of the deeper arguments. But that's not really a sitcom at all, it'd be more propaganda than comedy. Or, if balanced, it'd be a Sunday-morning public affairs show (which is not where I usually tune in to see comedy). After the initial foray into politics, the show has moved on to much more mundane sitcom subjects, and this will probably be the norm much more than political debates in future episodes (although they can always come back to politics if need be). Which is probably as it should be.

The second subject the Roseanne reboot has everyone talking about is blue-collar television. Her show is held up as a paragon of working-class life, to the exclusion of all others. In fact, most of the people commenting on the blue-collar nature of the show seem to have forgotten the long history of such shows on television. Roseanne is treated as a rare and unusual show, but it's really not all that unique in economic terms. It was just more successful than a lot of other such shows, at the most. Or maybe more recent, perhaps.

Television history is actually chock-full of blue-collar sitcoms. The granddaddy of them all was The Honeymooners, a show that only ran one season but had an outsized influence about what type of family could be portrayed on television. Ralph Kramden was a bus driver. A good argument could be made that one of the most well-loved sitcoms of all time -- I Love Lucy -- was fairly blue-collar (if not exactly traditional in the husband's line of work). Lucy and Desi weren't exactly rolling in dough or living in an impossibly-beyond-their-means house. From the same era came the granddaddy of animated blue-collar sitcoms, The Flintstones. Fred worked in a quarry and loved to go to his lodge or the bowling alley. You can't get much more blue-collar than that.

Skip forward a generation and you come to one of the best sitcoms of all time -- All In The Family. Archie Bunker was a dockworker and cab-driver. This was also a pioneering show in making political arguments a central feature, which was wildly successful. From the same era, there was also Sanford and Son, about a junk dealer and his son, Good Times, and Laverne and Shirley where the two women worked in a beer factory.

Blue-collar shows continued throughout the 1980s and beyond as well, including Married With Children (Al Bundy was a shoe salesman), Cheers (a cross-section of society drank in the bar, including blue-collar types), and of course The Simpsons. Although, admittedly, while Homer hasn't changed his full-time job at all, the show has gotten pretty far away from its roots as basically an updated version of The Flintstones. While in the earlier years Homer's workplace gave birth to many episodes and story arcs, these days they've gone beyond such mundane storylines for the most part. But watch any of the first five or ten years of Simpsons episodes, and you'll see the same sort of storylines as on all the other blue-collar sitcoms.

More recently, we've had The George Lopez Show, The King of Queens, King of the Hill (apparently there are a lot of kings in the blue-collar world...), 2 Broke Girls, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and Shameless, just to name a few.

Beyond the strict blue-collar designation, there have also been other shows where being poor was pretty central to the story or the background. Some of these shows it was just a peripheral thing pretty much unconnected from the dialog (shows like The Dukes of Hazzard or The Wire), while in other shows it was central to the plot (Everybody Hates Chris and The PJs). Even historical dramas often had poverty or near-poverty as a central part of the family situation (Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons).

Different socioeconomic situations have always been on television, when you look at the record. Whether a show is set in poverty (whether rural or urban) or explores the socioeconomic divide, difference in relative wealth has always been ripe for both drama and comedy. You could even make a case that Gilligan's Island had a few things to say about the one percent. Much more common, though, is the age-old "rags to riches" story, which television has long been fond of, right back to The Beverly Hillbillies. Or, more recently, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The most amusing one of these I regularly watched was an interesting twist on the rags-to-riches story, because the "riches" in My Name Is Earl were pretty paltry, but that was enough to elevate the main character into a benevolent philanthropist (even though he only had something like $100,000 in lottery winnings to hand out). The royalty theme continues in these titles, as we've gone from kings (of Queens or the hill) to minor royalty: dukes, princes, and earls.

Of course, there have always been plenty of shows -- sitcoms especially -- where all the characters live glorious lives untouched by money problems in any way, living so far beyond their means it isn't even funny. The usual classic example of this is Friends, with their spacious apartments that they seemed to live in rent-free. In New York City.

Some series even change, over time, from being socioeconomically aware to living in fantasy worlds where money drops off the trees. I watched Parenthood for its first few seasons, because it portrayed (more or less accurately) an extended family trying to make it in Berkeley, California, which is not a cheap place to live. Some family members had high-paying jobs, others didn't. Some had money emergencies, and some didn't. Jobs were occasionally lost. Foreclosure was an option. But then at some point, everything became so peachy-keen that they must have all won big lotteries that they didn't tell us about. One character with a freelance work record buys a home in Berkeley to impress his girlfriend/fiancée/wife, and later teams up with his brother to open a recording studio on Haight Street in San Francisco, as a lark. Another gets annoyed at the public school system and opens her own private school in Berkeley (with no mention of how it was paid for). Can't remember whether that was before or after she ran for mayor. This is the usual thing in some television shows, but it was a jarring change in the more-realistic plotlines they had been building for the first few years.

But shows change, which seems like a good place to bring this soliloquy to an end. Roseanne was probably the most jarring example of this out of all the blue-collar shows throughout television history. In the final season (and because it was the final season), they completely ran off the rails, in hilarious fashion. The Conners won over $100 million in the lottery and have to learn how to live as wealthy people. Merriment ensues. At the end of the year, the finale explains that it was all in Roseanne's imagination, as she launched a career as a writer. Dan was either alive or dead, depending on what you believed.

The new reboot glossed over this, as expected. There were no lottery winnings. It was all a fantastical dream. Dan was still alive. The show went on.

No matter where you stand on any of the Roseanne political arguments, that is what is worth admiring, at least for the time being. The show goes on. Maybe, like Archie Bunker, Roseanne's current politics might soften over time. Who knows? Or maybe she'll dig her heels in and refuse to listen to Jackie. She certainly has in the past, on many occasions. Roseanne has so far (three episodes in) done an admirable job of carrying on the tradition of portraying blue-collar life on television -- a tradition it was already a big part of. But Roseanne certainly wasn't the only show to cover this ground. The theme goes all the way back to Jackie Gleason, please remember.

I don't see Roseanne as a show that only one side of the political divide can watch and enjoy, which I think is a good thing in the end. How can we ever talk across the political divide if we're not even supposed to watch television shows the other side likes, after all? Maybe it's just my personal bias. As I've already admitted, watching Roseanne was always somewhat of a guilty pleasure for me. Politics aside, the show has retained the most crucial thing imaginable -- it's still funny. Roseanne really predated the wide use of the term "snarky," but her character pretty much defines it, as she always did. Whatever her personal politics, her skills as a comedian have not atrophied at all. So I, for one, will keep watching. I don't care if they talk politics or not, and if they do I certainly don't care whether they manage to solve the country's political divide in one episode or not. That's never what I watched the show for previously, and that certainly hasn't changed.

-- Chris Weigant

 

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

22 Comments on “Roseanne Continues Long Tradition”

  1. [1] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    I don't want to die, I just want everyone else to. I certainly would not be lonely. It would be exciting never having to listen to another person again but just my own self droning on and on. That's why I write a blog.
    ~roseanne

    :D

  2. [2] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Television's depiction of blue-collar life goes back further than The Honeymooners. You're forgetting, for instance, The Amos 'n Andy Show, which aired 1951-1953 (having migrated to television from radio). A typical plot line from the show, in the episode "Leroy Lends a Hand" (1951):

    Sapphire's brother, LeRoy comes to live with them. He goes to work for Kingfish and Andy at their parking lot. Thinking it is a used car lot, he inadvertently sells one of the cars.

    Although the show was the first show on television to feature an all-black cast, it (understandably) came under fire from civil rights groups for its stereotypical and degrading depictions of its characters, and was finally cancelled in 1953, after four seasons. It stayed on television in reruns however, into the early sixties, when it was finally taken off the air for the same reasons.

  3. [3] 
    Kick wrote:

    CW: making it the longest-running scripted series in all of television history

    You have perhaps forgotten SNL? For shame! ;)

  4. [4] 
    Kick wrote:

    I probably should have said Homer has forgotten Saturday Night Live.

    ~(_8^(|)

    Doh!

  5. [5] 
    Kick wrote:

    So Roseanne Barr is now the darling of conservatives because she's a Trump supporter?!

    I guess they forgot:

    ** Their righty outrage when Roseanne screamed the National Anthem off key and then grabbed her crotch and spit. George H. W. Bush called her "disgraceful" while the righties had multiple meltdowns on cue.

    ** Their righty meltdowns when Roseanne tweeted out the home address and phone number of the parents of George Zimmerman, the NRA and Fox News poster boy at the time. Zimmerman's parents sued Roseanne and lost.

    ** Pro marijuana, pro gay marriage, pro single-payer universal health care, and pro just about every lefty cause you can name Roseanne coming in second to Jill Stein for the nomination as the Green Party presidential candidate in 2012 and subsequently running for and winning the 2012 presidential nomination of the Peace and Freedom Party. Fact is indeed stranger than fiction when you consider the 2012 presidential election had Roseanne Barr coming in 6th place behind the Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, Green, and Constitution Party candidates.

    I have a treat for you CW. There is a documentary movie about Roseanne's 2012 candidacy: Roseanne For President! Streaming on Hulu. It's kind of crazy, includes quite a bit of her life story, intended for mature audiences, viewer discretion advised. Don't say I didn't warn you. ;)

  6. [6] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    The longest-running scripted series in all of television history is measured in this case by number of episodes.

    Gunsmoke held the crown for 42 years (since 1975), clocking in at a whopping 635 episodes.

    The Simpsons have now surpassed that with a cool 639 episodes and counting.

    But Dr. Who, which premiered in 1963, has aired for a total of 37 seasons, compared to The Simpsons' 29 seasons.

    The Guiding Light was the longest-running television show ever: it was on the air continuously for 57 years (15,000+ episodes), for 72 years if you count the years it was on radio. I believe it might also have the record for longest continuously told story.

    But the granddaddy of them all, fellow news junkies, is Meet the Press, which has been on the air continuously since November 6, 1947, a whopping 70 seasons, and is miraculously still there.

  7. [7] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Re: [6] Honorable mention should be given to The Tonight Show, which has aired continuously since 1957 (62 seasons). I can't imagine life without it. Even the 'Year of Conan'.

  8. [8] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    It would be nice if the writing about something you don't normally write about was the beginning of a trend.

  9. [9] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    TV trivia question:

    Can anyone name the show that started on a UHF station in NJ (channel 68) and claimed to be the first show to air on public broadcasting (channel 13), in syndication (channel 11 in NY) and on a major network (NBC at 2 or 3 in the morning) at the same time?

  10. [10] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Balthasar[6],

    Meet the Press is scripted?

    I'm pretty sure Chris is aware of the long history of MTP.

  11. [11] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    [7],

    Of course, we're not talking about non-scripted series.

    Let's at least try to stay on topic, shall we? :)

  12. [12] 
    TheStig wrote:

    The Roseanne series struck me as an off pitch tune about the "working class." As CW noted, the characters were always hopping between opportunities, failing, and moving on to the next opportunity. This was TV fantasy. The working class of that era was desperately holding on to whatever job they had, because the next job, or jobs, were few and a few rungs down the social - economic ladder. A few hops and you are living in your car, the kids are farmed out to older relatives and your spouse has left you for somebody with more money.

    The Seinfeld series also aired mostly during the 90's and followed the Larry David rule of NO Hugging-NO Learning. I liked the Seinfeld series very much. Dead on social satire about young urban professionals of the time.

  13. [13] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Liz, [10] and [11]:

    Meet the Press is scripted? Of course, we're not talking about non-scripted series.

    I'm pretty sure that even Chuckie has some idea of what he wants to ask, do, and say to the camera, i.e., has a script.

    Even more so with the Tonight Show, which has employed a team of writers since the 1950's. They're not there to bus tables, y'know.

  14. [14] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    I will give the show credit for their handling of Darlene’s son being gender-fluid... a tough topic that they have presented in a very open, honest way. Roseanne and Dan, especially Dan, don’t know exactly what to make of his choice of clothing, but they make it clear to him that they love him and will support him — no matter what! I cannot imagine how many lives might be saved thanks to this show presenting the family dealing with this topic in such an amazing fashion! It allows not only gender fluid kids to see someone like them represented on TV, but also let’s their parents know that they aren’t alone as well!

    The gay & lesbian communities haven’t been nearly as supportive of the trans community as we should have been. But when it comes to kids, there is no question that they deserve to be protected, regardless of how they identify themselves.

  15. [15] 
    Kick wrote:

    DH
    9

    I would guess Open Mind.

  16. [16] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    Kick-
    Sorry, my bad. I should have said OBSCURE TV trivia. It may not have been widely syndicated and was only on NBC for a season and possibly just a summer season, so it may only be locally known. It's nothing as cerebral as Open Mind.

    In fact, it was kind of a kids show. But not the Sesame Street variety.

    But I will leave the guessing open for a while.

  17. [17] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    the electric company?

  18. [18] 
    chaszzzbrown wrote:

    [9] DH

    Obscure is right! That'd be 'Uncle Floyd' Vivino; carrying on in the tradition of other ostensible 'kids shows' like the more well-known Soupy Sales.

    Saw him and his crew do a live show in the 70s, in Huntington, I think...

  19. [19] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    oh, firetruck.

  20. [20] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    nypoet22 [1] -

    Heh. I can relate to that. Ever read "All You Zombies" by Robert Heinlein (short story)? Similar solipsistic ending...

    Balthasar [2] -

    Good point. I only did limited research for this article, because I started finding so MANY shows, from the early TV days to the present.

    Isn't that the same Amos as Famous Amos cookies? Inquiring minds want to know.

    Kick [3] -

    D'oh! Good point! I should have said: "the longest-running scripted PRIME TIME show of all time."

    Because, as we all know, SNL was started by the
    Not Ready For Prime Time Players.

    :-)

    [4] -

    OK, I gotta remember that ASCII art, too. Never seen it before, but it's brilliant!

    ~(_8^(|)

    Woo hoo!

    Kick [5] -

    I will check that documentary out. Sounds like a wild ride! Thanks!

    :-)

    Balthasar [6] -

    Daytime doesn't count either. Thpppbbt! And MTP has been reminding everyone of the 70 yr thing throughout their anniversary year...

    The argument for Dr. Who is better, but also not continuous. Not the doctors -- they change, we all know that... but the show itself. How many reboots has it gone through now? I lost count...

    Don Harris [9] -

    Um... The Weather Channel? Just a stab in the dark, really...

    TheStig [12] -

    Thing about the Conners was there was two of them. They were rarely both out of work at the same time, so they had the luxury of occasionally quitting or getting fired. But they were always living on the ragged edge...

    The motorcycle shop was a little bit of money-from-nowhere, but the diner they tried to get a loan and a small business grant, and got turned down, so they had to turn to silent investors (the gay former Roseanne boss, and Roseanne's mom) to get it off the ground, so that wasn't as fantastical.

    ListenWhenYouHear [14] -

    Roseanne was always pretty gay-positive, back in the 1990s, when gay characters barely existed (and were usually pretty stereotypical). Roseanne had a gay boss (um... Leon?), a gay best friend (Nancy), and even eventually a gay mom (Roseanne's mom "came out" at Thanksgiving dinner, no less). Roseanne even had an on-air woman/woman kiss in a gay bar.

    These days, pretty standard stuff, but it was fairly gutsy back then -- especially portraying gays as downright normal instead of a collection of cliches.

    Don Harris [16] -

    Kids show... kids show... um... Dora the Explorer? I give up.

    chaszzzbrown [18] -

    OK, you lost me, there...

    Glad to see everyone enjoyed this detour from the normal thing!

    :-)

    -CW

  21. [21] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    Chaszzzbrown-

    Nice job. It was obviously more obscure and/or local than I thought. He still lives in the town right next to me here in NJ.

    Floyd Vivino was in a movie where he was in an insane asylum. Don't remember whether it was the one where Dudley Moore used the patients to run an advertising agency or the one with Michael Keaton, Christopher LLoyd, Peter Boyle lost in NY after losing their doctor on day trip to Yankee Stadium.

    But he played a song (he plays piano for those not familiar with Uncle Floyd) with the resident that would only say "hello" who would fill in that word when it came up in the song.

  22. [22] 
    James T Canuck wrote:

    Of course, it goes without saying that Blackadder's, one through four, are famously the most obvious of all sitcoms that deal with the spiriling down of the socal ladder.

    Edmund, a wretched creature with which we all share sympathy, goes from royalty to disgruntled Tomy in less than 24 episodes, a feat unmatched by any American sitcom. Corner Gas, a surprisingly funny Canadian show has retreated into cartoon format, and I apologize in advance for any discomfort that fact generates.

    LL&P

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