When Roseanne triumphantly returned for its tenth season on March 27 — a little over two decades after airing its final episode — over 25 million people tuned in. No question about it, that’s a lot of people, and an audience of that size speaks volumes to the overall impact that the show made on the television landscape, not only during its original 1988-97 run, but in years of reruns when a whole new generation started watching — and embracing — it.
What is it about the Conners? For starters, Roseanne, Dan, Becky, Darlene, DJ, Jerry, and Aunt Jackie, and their working class lifestyles, is — and has been from the very beginning — reflective of a large portion of society. Obviously not those in the top percent, but the millions of others who were and are struggling to get by, doing their best to find humor in their lives wherever they can and holding on tight. No question that the show provided plenty of laughs — and some great ones — but just as importantly, it raised a mirror to who we are, not only bringing the laughs, but tackling some truly complex issues that television had rarely done before. Oh, that door was definitely nudged open in the 1970s with shows like All in the Family and MASH, but Roseanne swung it wide and seldom pulled punches.
To see what we mean, take a look at this guide to some of the show’s greatest, and most controversial, episodes.
Roseanne A Bitter Pill To Swallow
"A Bitter Pill to Swallow" (Season 4, Episode 1)
At the same time that Dan and Roseanne are preparing to open their bike shop, Becky talks to Roseanne and Jackie about obtaining birth control, as she and Mark (Glenn Quinn) have already slept together. While the idea of teens sleeping together was certainly nothing new for television, there was a reality to this that made the episode particularly powerful. And in that regard, there's the realization on the part of Roseanne and Dan that their daughter is going down a terrible path with a guy they genuinely dislike.
"Aliens" (Season 4, Episode 25)
Things are not going so well in the Conner household, with the luncheonette Roseanne works at closing down, and the bike shop looking like it's going to go under. Very real emotions explode later, though, from Becky's response that there is no college fund for her (apparently it went to things like electricity and food), and she feels like all her hard work to get good grades was for nothing. You get her frustration over the situation, but, man, are the emotions raw: Becky's disappointment in her parents, and her parents' embarrassment over their state in life. A conversation held in millions of households all the time, which is why it feels so real.
Roseanne A Stash From The Past
"A Stash From the Past" (Season 6, Episode 4)
David (Johnny Galecki), covering for Darlene, says that pot Roseanne found in his room actually belongs to him, and is punished for it. Shortly thereafter Dan realizes that that pot is actually 20 years old, so he, Roseanne and Jackie do the only responsible thing they can: they smoke it. You want to talk about taboos being broken on television? A kid is wrongfully punished for something he did not do, and the parents do away with the evidence in a way that just wasn't done on TV. Amazing.
"Bingo" (Season 4, Episode 13)
After winning a bit of cash playing bingo, Roseanne feels like she can win even more if she keeps playing. That drive to do so starts teetering on addiction, and the family has to pull her back. While on the surface it may sound like a dopey premise, it actually conveys the desperation Roseanne feels to get out of their situation.
Roseanne Chicken Hearts
"Chicken Hearts" (Season 2, Episode 13)
Working at a fast food restaurant, Roseanne finds herself answering to a real putz of a 17-year-old, who doesn't treat any of the employees with respect, but she finds she needs to treat him with it if she hopes to get weekends off to spend with her families. Toward the end of the episode she's fired, and lashes into him verbally in a way that captures so much of the power of Roseanne in general: "I need that job! I hate like hell that I do, but I need it! And I'm not working there because I'm not getting enough allowance. I'm paying a mortgage and buying clothes and putting food on the table for three kids! But I don't think you'd even understand that. I don't think you understand anything. You're not grown up enough yet to understand that your life doesn't always turn out the way you plan it to be, and sometimes you end up doing stuff you thought you'd never do in a million years, but you still have to do it, 'cause there's nothing else you can do." Wow!
Roseanne Crime And Punishment2
"Crime and Punishment" (Season 5, Episode 13)
With Jackie behaving oddly, Roseanne pushes and pushes as only she can until she discovers the truth: that Jackie's boyfriend, Fisher, has been physically assaulting her. When Dan finds out, he flips, and does a little assaulting of his own, ending up in jail as a result. So good and so powerful in so many ways, with a direct addressing of domestic abuse. Laurie Metcalfe won the Emmy for her performance in this installment.
Roseanne The Dark Ages
"The Dark Ages" (Season 5, Episode 3)
A balancing of two different issues in this one. For starters, David accidentally falls asleep in Darlene's room and her parents refuse to believe them that they didn't have sex. Sara Gilbert is dead-on delivering her frustration with Dan and Roseanne, and the fact they don't believe her simply because Becky has screwed up so much with Mark. Meanwhile, when the Conners can't pay their electric bill, the power is shut off in the middle of things. Anyone who has ever lived hand-to-mouth knows full well the devastating feeling that accompanies that.
Roseanne December Bride2
"December Bride" (Season 8, Episode 11)
As a series, Roseanne was revolutionary in many ways, but that truly crystallized with this episode, which saw recurring characters Leon (Martin Mull) and his boyfriend, Scott (Fred Willard) get married. As such, it was the first time American audiences had ever seen a same-sex marriage on television, paving the way for much that would follow along those lines. June Lockhart (Lassie) guest-starred as Leon's mother.
Roseanne Dont Ask Dont Tell
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (Season 6, Episode 18)
Trying to prove how progressive she is, Roseanne goes to a gay bar with friend Nancy (Sandra Bernhard), but she starts to question just how open she is to other lifestyles when Nancy's girlfriend (Mariel Hemingway) kisses her. This really sends the character reeling, and provides some interesting self-exploration.
Roseanne Glengarry Glen Rosey
"Glengarry, Glen Rosey" (Season 5, Episode 23)
This one is a true nightmare for anyone struggling along. The Conners get involved with a business partner named Roger (Tim Curry) to flip houses, but in the middle of things, Roger disappears and strands Dan and Roseanne with a huge debt that threatens to bury them. Luckily at the end, Jackie decides to buy the house, but there are some real scary moments there. This episode also gave us what is perhaps the greatest sitcom line ever. Dan comments, "Oh, Rosie, we are so screwed," to which she responds, "Dan, we're so beyond screwed that the light from screwed would take 10,000 years to get here."
Roseanne Inherit The Wind
"Inherit the Wind" (Season 2, Episode 1)
Changing television doesn't mean you have to be serious all the time, you know. Take this episode for instance. Where else on TV are you going to find this simple, and hysterical, a situation? Becky is devastated due to the fact that while giving a speech in front of the student council, she let out a fart. Oh, don't make that face: you know you're laughing. Roseanne handles it the way we'd expect, beginning with sitting on the bed with Becky for a heart-to-heart, which she begins by asking, "You're not gonna do it again, are you?"
Roseanne The Little Sister
"The Little Sister" (Season 2, Episode 2)
The sister rivalry between Roseanne and Jackie was a part of the original series and the current reboot, but this episode captured it nicely. Roseanne, who seems to get off dictating to her sister what she should be doing with her life, does not take the news that Jackie has enrolled in the police academy well. Jackie assumes that this is because she's just trying to undermine her, but the reality is that Roseanne is afraid something could happen to her. Great performances by both of them, but Laurie is really strong.
Roseanne Maybe Baby
"Maybe Baby" (Season 7, Episode 11)
Dan and a pregnant Rosanne start getting nervous about their baby, and the subject of abortion actually comes up and is debated over is a two-part episode. Naturally, everyone has an opinion, which results in the subject being discussed more openly than it ever had been before, with an emphasis on a woman's right to choose.
Roseanne Terms Of Estrangement
"Terms of Estrangement" (Season 5, Episodes 1 and 2)
While Dan and Roseanne are struggling with the loss of the bike shop and being in an even worse financial situation than they were, Mark is given a great job offer in Minnesota. Becky decided to run off with him and, once there, the two of them get married, much to the devastation of her parents. In the second part of this two-parter, Becky comes home to pick up some things, with Roseanne attempting to accept the marriage and Dan wanting nothing to do with Becky. Again, it's that realism, and John Goodman is dead on with his performance and conveying a sense of betrayal by his daughter.
Roseanne Trick Or Treat
"Trick or Treat" (Season 3, Episode 7)
A true indictment of sexism when Roseanne attends a Halloween party at the Lobo Lounge dressed as a bearded lumberjack, and is accepted as one. What follows are the misogynist comments of the male patrons, and her scathing commentary back to them. So funny and so reflective of society.
Roseanne Wait Till Your Father Gets Home
"Wait Till Your Father Gets Home" (Season 5, Episode 16)
Roseanne and Jackie learn that their father has passed away, and rather than them mourning the loss, they, instead, look back at how abusive he was to them growing up, the duo often being on the receiving end of physical violence. Even worse is when they encounter the woman who has been his partner for many years, and she relates that he always spoke warmly of his days raising his girls and, if anything, spoiled them with kindness. Probably one of Roseanne Barr's finest performances at episode's end when she goes to the funeral home and talks to her father's coffin.
Roseanne White Men Cant Kiss
"White Men Can't Kiss" (Season 7, Episode 9)
When DJ refuses to kill a girl as part of the school play, his parents are supportive of him, believing he's being forced to do something he doesn't want to do. However, upon visiting the school Roseanne learns that DJ's reason is that because the young girl is black. Roseanne can't believe his racism and is demanding that he do the play the way he's supposed to, but Dan actually supports him. A fascinating look at two sides of the same coin, with parents perhaps being a little surprised at the other's response. It may not be PC (but when is Roseanne ever PC?), but it certainly feels reflective of life.
Roseanne Into That Good Night
The appeal of Roseanne from the start was the fact that it truly represented Middle America in the form of a family who struggled to get by and managed to keep themselves relatively intact along the way. In the final season, the Conners won the lottery (taking home $108 million) and the show dealt with the impact of that money on them. On the surface, this seemed like a great opportunity to do a modern version of the '60s sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies, where, after striking oil and getting rich, the Clampett family of hillbillies move to California. The humor was built with their values set against their new neighbors. Roseanne should have been able to do the same thing, but, instead, the storylines just became weirder and weirder. Jackie dated a prince, there were constant fantasy sequences… it was as though Roseanne had told the writers, "Anything goes."
And then there was that ending, where we were told that the series was essentially the contents of a book that Roseanne had written to cope with the fact that Dan had died of a heart attack. As she explained in a voice-over at the series' end, "My writing’s really what got me through the last year after Dan died. I mean at first I felt so betrayed as if he had left me for another woman. When you’re a blue-collar woman and your husband dies, it takes away your whole sense of security. So I began writing about having all the money in the world and I imagined myself going to spas and swanky New York parties just like the people on TV, where nobody has any real problems and everything’s solved within 30 minutes. I tried to imagine myself as Mary Richards, Jeannie, That Girl. But I was so angry I was more like a female Steven Segal wanting to fight the whole world."
That final season was probably as controversial as Roseanne ever got, but for all of the wrong reasons. Whereas America had embraced the series and the woman who had starred in it, now there was nothing but disdain for how it was all wrapping up. It's probably why the revival's premiere reached over 25 million people: they were desperate to have their palette cleansed of Season 9. And the truth is, it worked. Through a couple of jokes they basically wrote off that ending, had Dan alive ("Why does everybody keeping saying that I died?" he asks in Episode 1), and we see Roseanne throw that book she had written into the garbage.
And right out of that new gate, the show was at its controversial best. Whereas shows like Will and Grace (another well-done revival) have danced around the current state of politics and the guy in charge, Roseanne embraces it fully, openly debating the situation and maybe providing an explanation for why so many people continue to support what's going on out there. Agree with Roseanne or don't, but it's the only sitcom out there tackling the tough questions.
Welcome back, Roseanne. We've missed you.