'Elvis' TV movie is Roseanne-rich

April 17, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

"The Woman Who Loved Elvis" is more unadulterated Arnold than it is pure Presley.

Roseanne Arnold and her husband Tom produce and star in this offbeat film, which airs at 9 Sunday night on WJZ (Channel 13). Based on the novel, "Graced Land," ostensibly it's about the working poor in Smalltown, Iowa.

But the real terrain in subject, theme and style is Roseanne Country -- that familiar territory mined by Roseanne in her weekly TV series, her stand-up comedy, and a previous made-for-TV movie. If you love her Tuesday-night series, if you're devoted to her weekday reruns, if you tape her HBO specials, you will like "The Woman Who Loved Elvis."

Roseanne plays Rejoice Jackson, a welfare mother who has built a shrine to Elvis on her front porch and has taken Elvis as a decorating theme indoors as well. Elvis plates, Elvis portraits, Elvis sweat shirts abound. And, we are told, Rejoice took the King to an even higher ground once upon a time when her husband walked out on her and her two daughters.

While this might be the stuff of stereotypes in other hands, the Arnolds and director Bill Bixby know this is the raw material of the Arnolds' fame and fortune. Rejoice, like the character Roseanne plays in her TV series, is funny, wise and down to earth.

The plot isn't much. It has Rejoice up against the welfare system and a particularly motivated caseworker out to prove that Rejoice is a welfare cheat. But, like "Roseanne," the film is not about plot. It's about Rejoice's take on life. Rejoice and Roseanne overlap in major ways.

When a new caseworker first comes to Rejoice's house, she asks, "How many adults live here?"

"I count as a part-time adult," Rejoice answers.

And, then, there's Rejoice asking her ex-husband, "Jack, do men think they're only as old as the women they sleep with?"

The character might be named Rejoice, but it's the voice of the same acerbic observer of life, love and laundry that we've heard in HBO specials.

Roseanne has carved out as specific an area of TV comedy and fTC style as Lucy did in the '50s and '60s. Love them or hate them, Roseanne and Tom Arnold are the Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz of the '90s. Besides their performances and characters, they have a production company, like Desilu, to make them masters of their own fate. Evidence of that mastery was shown again this week when Roseanne publicly threatened to take her hit weekly sitcom from ABC if it doesn't renew Tom's series "The Jackie Thomas Show."

But Roseanne Arnold has a large agenda as a producer, and women are at the top of it. "The Woman Who Loved Elvis" is about three women -- Rejoice, her social worker, and Rejoice's best friend, Sandee (Sally Kirkland). And, though the themes aren't new and the subplots verge on predictable, welfare moms and Elvis shrines aren't the usual subjects of "serious women's stories" on TV.

This is brand new for TV: Poor, white women who are not portrayed as cheats, trash or idiots. Roseanne keeps her characters' feet on the ground. Even when, like Rejoice, they believe there's an angel named Elvis sitting on their shoulder.

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