Roseanne's one of those shows I watched sporadically growing up. I remember finding it funny and knowing intellectually it was supposed to be significant for some reason, but I didn't fully appreciate it back when it was airing (hey, I was only a teenager).
Looking back, it's incredibly impressive. Casting a pair of leads more closely resembling the average American than Hollywood stars was courageous. Also, ingenious: they clearly got their pick of undervalued comedians, since they wound up with two of the best.
The episodes are formulaic, but not in a bad way. There's an impressive balance here between slapstick comedy and serialized storytelling. Even jumping from year-to-year, I found myself getting caught up in the character and plot developments.
Santa Claus (1991)
The next day, Roseanne takes a part-time job playing Santa at the department store she works at. This transitions to a sequence of her in costume interacting with kids. It's a hilarious scene thanks to strong writing and Roseanne committing to the situation.
While there, she meets Carol, who's she's shocked to discover is a grown woman who owns an independent bookstore. After her shift, Roseanne visits her store to learn more about this "new friend." She finds she likes Carol quite a bit, but that there's a whole aspect to her daughter she doesn't know (and that it's an aspect she'd prefer to the version she does).
Darlene shows up and is mortified her mother is snooping on her. They have a fight, and Roseanne takes off. At the end of the episode, Darlene returns home and makes a silent but meaningful gesture, leaving a science fiction story she'd written on the refrigerator. In the context of the episode, it's a sweet moment that avoids being over sentimental.
This was a fantastic episode overall. I could have watched easily watched another thirty minutes of Roseanne interacting with kids as Santa Claus: she was funny and surprisingly good at the role-within-a-role. The more dramatic bits were well executed and always blended in comedic elements, so even if you didn't care about the characters, you'd still be entertained.
This was a very good example of how the sitcom format can be used effectively to deliver laughs without sacrificing story.
No Place Like Home for the Holidays (1992)
Despite it getting the least screen time, the section with Darlene and David was the most significant. While there, she sees his mother abuse him. She consoles him after that in a touching moment. At the very end of the episode, she comes home and kisses Roseanne, which of course leaves her mother shocked and confused.
It's a solid episode with a decent number of laughs. But the scene where David's mother yells and slaps him feels contrived. Her actions lack believable emotion, undercuts the impact. My guess is the direction was the result of some sort of negotiation where they had to tone back the intensity to get permission to use the plot point. Whatever the reason, it leaves the result feeling timid rather than sad or scary. Fortunately, Darlene and David's reactions are much more believable, so they mostly salvage it.
It's a fine episode, but it's nowhere near as funny or touching as the series' best.
White Trash Christmas (1993)
Meanwhile, they give their oldest daughter, Becky, a check for Christmas - enough money to pay for a semester at community college. But instead of enrolling herself, she uses the money to pay for her husband's tuition to trade school, leading to an argument with her parents. Tensions get worse when she takes a job at "Bunz," a Hooters analog. Dan and Roseanne are never happy with her choices, but ultimately they realize the decisions are hers to make.
Finally, DJ's grandmother brings him with her to Chicago to see a performance of The Nutcracker. While there, they drop in on Darlene to surprise her, and in the process DJ discovers (and at least for the duration of this episode sits on the secret) that her boyfriend is living with her.
If you'd listed these out as elements of a sitcom storyline, I'd have been horrified at the prospect of sitting through it. But the episode itself was hilarious. Roseanne and Goodman were absolutely terrific, selling every joke and building empathy, even when they were clearly acting irrationally or being cruel. The rest of the cast did great work, too, and the punchlines delivered the sort of laughs most sitcoms only try for.
The plot was mostly just a slice of much longer story lines, something our approach doesn't really give its full due, but it's impossible not to appreciate the structure - this is comedy (and great comedy) built as if it were a soap opera. And even without being deeply invested in these characters, it works really well.
The Parenting Trap (1994)
This is a Christmas episode in that it's set just before Christmas, and the holidays permeate the background. but the plot's got nothing to do with the holidays.
Instead, it mainly focuses on trouble DJ's having in school. When Dan investigates, he discovers the issue is due to DJ having trouble controlling his erections. Rather than risk embarrassment, he's pretending he doesn't know anything, so he won't be called to write answers on the board.
Which is, frankly, an awfully contrived premise in the first place. Only that's not really what the episode's about. It's more concerned with Dan and Roseanne arguing over how to address the problem.
The entire thing feels like a convoluted attempt to build drama and comedy, and neither really pulls it off. The episode has some funny moments, but it's pretty clear the series isn't at its zenith this season. The B-plot centers around David, Darlene's ex-boyfriend who's now living with the Conners for the usual sitcom reason (i.e.: a very special episode about child abuse earlier in the season). Darlene finds out he has a crush on her married sister or something - I'm assuming this is more interesting in the context of the larger story arc.
The episode wasn't bad, but the jokes felt much more forced than before. Like I said at the start, there are gifts, decorations, and holiday outfits establishing the setting as being in December, but it barely comes up. Still, Christmas is Christmas, so here we are.
December Bride (1995)
In terms of its Christmas credentials, this is really just nominally holiday-related. It's set right before Christmas, as is evident from the liberal use of decorations in both Roseanne's restaurant and the Conner household. But while these form a backdrop, the season goes almost entirely unmentioned. By my count, the word "Christmas" was spoken once, and even that was a throw-away joke. I'll get to some theories on why this was set during December in a moment.
The episode opens by introducing Roseanne and the audience to Scott, a wily man who immediately gets along with the star. After a few misdirects, we discover he's going to marry Leon, who'd been keeping his marriage a secret in an effort to keep Roseanne from finding out about it. The wedding's been a long time in the making: the couple was supposed to get married years earlier, but Leon got cold feet at the last minute.
They're busy, so Scott convinces Leon to let Roseanne plan the wedding. This quickly spirals into an awkward sequence where she arranges for a ceremony that includes male strippers and drag queens, which the antithesis of what the conservative Leon wants.
He panics when he sees the decorations and threatens to call off the wedding once more. While the rest of the Conners deal with the guests, Roseanne locks Leon in a bathroom to keep him from leaving. Finally, she tones down the ceremony, only to find that wasn't really the issue - he's just scared again. She talks him down, and the wedding goes on.
I have a few guesses for why this was presented as a holiday special. The simplest and least interesting is that it may have been coincidental. In other words, it's possible the Christmas tropes were added to coincide with the fact the episode would be released right before Christmas. Likewise, it may just have been an attempt to capitalize on the "December Bride" pun in the title (i.e., an older bride, since Leon was getting up in years).
The more interesting interpretation is that it may have been an attempt to increase the episode's exposure. By presenting the wedding in the guise of a Christmas episode, they may have been able to signal that it was an important one to watch.
As I said, any progressive aspects are undercut by its refusal to even show the men kissing. Instead, the camera pans to Roseanne and Dan talking about the kiss in a scene that culminates with a cameo from the woman who kissed Roseanne a few seasons earlier. Still, it was an honest attempt and an important step in television's slow trek towards representation.
While the over-the-top antics could have been trimmed back, there's still quite a few laughs in this one. The story is also pretty good and sweeter than the synopsis probably makes it sound. All in all, not one of the best, but still an enjoyable episode.
Home for the Holidays (1996)
The last season, according to Wikipedia, centered around some major plot twists. The biggest is that the Conners won the lottery, which upended the status quo but also kind of undermined the premise of the series. On top of that, Dan was gone for most of the season. You can thank the Dude for that - John Goodman was busy playing Walter while the Conners were dealing with their new lives. If all that's not enough, the last episode apparently revealed the rest of the season was a fictitious version of events created by Roseanne to cope with the death of her husband. Also, a bunch of details from the entire series were fake.
Actually... I kind of want to see that finale.
At any rate, let's dive into this installment without worrying too much about what level of a story-within-a-story-within-a-TV-show we're at.
This is the episode where Dan makes a reappearance after spending most of the season caring for his mother. Now he's home for Christmas, and everything's... kind of off. They go through various holiday traditions, now up-scaled due to their newfound fortune, and Dan tries to act like everything's okay, but it's clear something isn't right.
By the time they've exchanged presents, things are almost back to normal. Everyone seems happy, and the the writers imply the only problem is that Dan's a bit shocked by their new standard of living. Then at the very end Jackie overhears him on the phone. She assumes he's chatting with his mother at first, but it quickly becomes obvious he's speaking with a woman taking care of his mother. Likewise, it's pretty obvious he's having an affair.
The reveal was well done, though it wasn't exactly surprising. The episode as a whole suffered from the same issues most sitcoms have in the later parts of their run: jokes get stale, primary character traits get modified to the point of absurdity, and everyone gets just a little less intelligent as the writers try to keep things funny. These aren't new flaws to this season - we could feel the show slipping since The Parenting Trap - but it was pretty clear this was the season it crossed the point of no return.
Still, even with these problems Roseanne remained funnier than most sitcoms of its day.