TV Land has never been a stranger to shows starring brash, female leads. But when an outspoken and oversized comedian named Roseanne Barr burst onto television, she made America stand up and take notice in a way they hadn’t before. The gritty realism of 1970s sitcoms such as “All In The Family”, “Good Times” and “Maude” had long disappeared from airwaves by the time “Roseanne” premiered on October 18, 1988. “Roseanne” was an anomaly on many levels. A sitcom starring not only an overweight woman as its lead, but an entire cast who actually looked like ordinary people. The Conner family was comprised of Roseanne, husband Dan, daughters Becky, Darlene and son DJ. Roseanne’s frequent sidekick was her younger sister Jackie (played by Laurie Metcalf). Their extended clan of friends and relatives weren’t yuppies climbing the corporate ladder in a big city, but were instead toiling away at working class jobs, dealing with the frustrations of parenting and realities of making ends meet in the fictional small town of Lanford, Illinois. The relatable storylines, abundant laughs and electric chemistry between Barr and her tv spouse (played by equally heavyweight actor John Goodman) kept “Roseanne” in the top four most watched tv programs for six of its nine season run.
“a fierce working class domestic goddess.”
Roseanne Barr (she later dropped the Barr from her name) was a standup comic whose material was mined from her own hard scrabble lower middle class class background and her desire to do a television show about “a fierce working class domestic goddess.” If you doubt that “Roseanne” was in any way revolutionary, just try to name one show from that time period where a family’s living room couch was so worn and ratty that they had an afghan thrown over the back of it for cover. Though Roseanne and Dan undoubtedly loved each other and their kids, they also weren’t afraid to let them know just how annoying they could be. Example:
Roseanne also didn’t apologize for not loving all aspects of the life of being a wife and mother:
“We’re America’s worst fear, we’re white trash with money!”
Loving her tell-it-like-it-is persona, viewers couldn’t get enough of the acerbic, blue-collar heroine! The newfound wealth and fame brought by the show’s success markedly affected Roseanne’s personal life. She and first husband Bill Pentland went through a bitter (and costly) divorce after Roseanne had an affair with Tom Arnold, a comic and sometime actor who was one of the show’s writers. Roseanne and Arnold married following her divorce in 1990 and she gleefully told the press: “We’re America’s worst fear, we’re white trash with money!” Thus began a series of transformations for the star, which included undergoing gastric bypass surgery and extensive plastic surgery on her face and body that drastically changed the appearance of the formerly dowdy star. Stories of Roseanne and Arnold’s increasingly diva-like behavior both on and off the set routinely made for tabloid fodder until the two split for good in 1994.
Though at its core it always remained a comedy, “Roseanne” would bravely go on to address many controversial topics that sitcoms usually avoided, such as alcoholism, domestic abuse and gay and lesbian rights. Roseanne frequently clashed with the show’s producers and writers over whether the material was funny enough, which contributed to a near constant turnover in staff. Original daughter “Becky” played by actress Alicia Goranson, departed the show in 1993 to attend college and her role was recast with the significantly more photogenic Sarah Chalke. Viewers remained tuned in, but as the latter seasons rolled onward it was hard to dispute that much of the undeniably low rent charm of the series’ early years was diminishing. The death kneel for the series undeniably began in season 8 when Dan had a heart attack (and Goodman exited from the show) followed by a bizarre storyline in which the Conners’ won the Illinois State lottery. With Roseanne’s sparring partner gone and their revamped home now resembling sparkling McMansion, virtually all the magic had been scrubbed away too. The series ended in 1997 in an episode watched by 16 million viewers, memorable largely for the last few minutes in which Roseanne reveals the entire series itself is actually a story written by Roseanne Conner about her life, wherein she changed many details to feel more in control. Roseanne’s attempts at a feature film career outside of the show were never very successful (“She-Devil” in 1989 bombed) but she did have minor success as host of her own talk show from 1998 to 2000. Goodman went on to a prolific career in film and television which he continues to this day.
In the years following its cancellation, the cast always spoke fondly of each other and the part the show played in injecting some authenticity into television history. Perhaps that’s why in May 2017, it was announced that a nine new episode revival of the series will air as a mid-season replacement on ABC beginning March 27, 2018, with the full original cast (!) slated to return. Let’s hope another visit with the Conner family keeps us laughing as much as they did 30 years ago.
ABOUT OUR CONTRIBUTOR:
Greg Lewis is a pop culture and entertainment vulture. As a freelance writer living in LA, he’ll never run out of material, even if he runs out of Xanax.