The Bad Mother: What the Hell Is Happening to Roseanne?
RoseanneABC, Tuesdays, 8 p.m.Has anyone else noticed that the best show on television -- or, at least, the only one that really matters -- has abruptly become one of the worst? One viewer told me she tried watching a recent episode of Roseanne but soon turned off the show and vacuumed. Choosing housework instead of a half-hour with the "domestic goddess"? If that doesn't set off alarm bells over Roseanne's sudden irrelevancy, nothing will. There was no reason to worry about Roseanne when it launched its ninth season this fall. The show had set up a promising new dramatic direction with its final episodes last spring. Ambitious daughter Darlene (Sara Gilbert) had turned up unexpectedly pregnant, and married her meek boyfriend, David (Johnny Galecki), much to the disappointment of her father Dan (John Goodman). ("She'll still make it, Dan," Roseanne assured her husband, worried that their daughter had given up on success. "She'll just do it with bags under her eyes and Cheerios in her hair.") Dan's season-long midlife funk culminated in a heart attack; he emerged from his brush with death and, rather than being chastened into a healthier lifestyle, seemed bent on self-destruction. Last season's final episode, penned by Eric Gilliland from a story by Sid Youngers and Cynthia Mort, was hair-raising and brilliant. Dan and Roseanne's comic bickering over his artery-clogging eating habits slowly turned darker, more cutting (at one point the obese couple taunted each other with cries of "Fat! Fat!"). It felt less like watching a sitcom than seeing a real-and dangerously out-of-control-marital spat. The Conners screamed at each other about the Big Things: money, kids, death, and failure. By the time Dan called Roseanne a "bitch" and turned over the coffee table and Roseanne hurled a tchotchke through the TV screen and hauled ass, it was clear there was no going back. Roseanne had reached a place where pop entertainment and emotional truth are indistinguishable from each other.Well, it turns out that as the new season unspools, Roseanne has snuck back across the border, and into La-La Land. The show has turned into not only a conventional sitcom -- which it never, ever was -- but a really stoopid conventional sitcom, thanks to a deus ex machina twist: The Conners of zero-glam, working-class Lanford, Illinois, won $108 million in the state lottery. In an eye blink the show went from the most authentic sitcom ever made about American families to The Beverly Hillbillies.No, I take that back -- it's an insult to The Beverly Hillbillies.Hillbillies, at least, scored some satirical points from its rags-to-riches premise. Roseanne, by contrast, has worn its nouveau riche-ness poorly. Aside from the ridiculousness of the lotto win-and this season's dearth of laughs -- we've learned nothing about the characters since they were handed the big prop check. Is Dan still scared of mortality? Is Roseanne still angry over Dan's failures as a provider, and guilty over her own failures as a mother? Are David and Darlene anxious about their impending early parenthood? These threads were connections to the show's audience -- ties to viewers' own hopes and dreams and fears -- and they've been inexplicably snapped, maybe for good.The new direction doesn't even exploit the dramatic possibilities of the Conners' sudden wealth. Lottery winners and experts will tell you that if there are any cracks in a relationship, an unearned windfall will bust them wide open. The Conners have endured plenty of cracks, all right, but there's no evidence yet that the $108 mil is making them crack up.Instead the new Roseanne gives us one fluffy and sloppily executed scenario after another. The Conners appear on a daytime talk show, bragging about their wealth. Roseanne's sister, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), dates a foreign prince. The sisters go to a health spa. The sisters try to mingle with New York society (!) and meet up with Absolutely Fabulous' Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley. Pros that they are, episode cowriters Roseanne and Saunders managed to drop a couple zingers into that particular outing -- "She's the perfect weight for New York," one snooty partygoer hissed about another, "two pounds above organ failure" -- but Roseanne's kitchen-sink authenticity and AbFab's exaggerated farce didn't mesh smoothly.Roseanne has said in interviews that she wanted to "make [Roseanne Conner's] dreams come true" this season. But there's an ugliness in the show's new direction that contradicts the underdog values Roseanne -- and Roseanne -- supposedly stood for. How many weeks are viewers worried about paying their phone bills, day-care providers, and landlords, going to tune in to hear the Conners bray yet again about how they're "sitting on a mountain of cash"? (Millions are already tuning out: According to Nielsen Media Research, the Roseanne season premiere ranked as the 23rd in the ratings the week it aired, but the October 22nd episode ranked 30th, a loss of about 8 million viewers.)So what happened? Did the show, in its ninth season, simply run out of gas?Lots of critics and viewers would say that's the problem: Roseanne just went on too long. Maybe so. But an aging sitcom doesn't usually die that way. Instead it recycles what's worked before, ad nauseam (e.g., Seinfeld's increasingly tired antics); engages in stunt casting (Murphy Brown's addition of slumming genius Lily Tomlin); or gradually erases the boundaries between its stars' on- and off-screen personas (M*A*S*H's prematurely feminist Korean War docs). It doesn't suddenly scrap its entire tone, direction, and message in the last lap, as Roseanne has done. The creators of a successful series might limp across the finish line, but they don't suddenly forget how to run.If not simple creative fatigue, then, what did go wrong with Roseanne? And why should viewers care? They should care because, for years, Roseanne was truly great. It did something revolutionary: For the first time on television, American women -- working-class American women, that is -- were presented realistically. Roseanne Conner was the first married TV mom whose paycheck was essential to her family's support, who believed that there were more urgent matters in a household than housework, who was blunt about the fact that she sometimes hated her parents, her spouse, and yes, even her children. (Remember her definition of parental duties? "If the kids are still alive at 5 o'clock, I've done my job.") She was the first sitcom mom to make plain that "having it all" really meant doing it all -- and she seethed with resentment over the magnitude of her thankless mission.The show also hammered away at all the American taboos -- of class, race, sexuality -- with varying degrees of grace, but it was always intent on unearthing cathartic laughs. It created a matriarchal universe -- not for nothing did Mrs. Conner, in one of many breaking-the-fourth-wall moments, dub the show Father Knows Squat. And if it accomplished nothing else, Roseanne is notable for giving us the first realistic teenage girls on television: Darlene endured a deep depression, and older sister Becky threw away her future for sex -- just like real adolescents often do. For years, Roseanne the show remained unscathed by the excesses of Roseanne the star; instead the program just got better and better. The writing astounded, the cast gelled, the leading lady learned to stop laughing at her own jokes. And despite who she'd married, who she'd fired, or what she'd recently had lifted or tattooed, Roseanne -- within the confines of her sitcom -- proved to be the most important and influential comic artist since Richard Pryor. She killed the June Cleaver myth, forever.Maybe this whole puzzling season is just an elaborate setup for her biggest, most subversive joke of all. (I'm still hoping the lotto win will prove to be just a dream Darlene's baby is having. Or a surreal indictment of Americans' worship of wealth. Or at least, funny.) Or maybe it's this simple, and this sad: Roseanne and her collaborators peered into the dramatic abyss they'd created -- the most authentic, unsparing portrayal of working-class lives ever on the small screen -- and lost their nerve.