'Roseanne' - colored glasses The sitcom's view of working-class life was anything but rosy. The series, ending nine years on TV Tuesday, was ground-breaking in its realism.

May 18, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

A sitcom family is sitting down at the breakfast table.

L "Hey, is one of the kids missing?" Dad asks, looking around.

"Yeah, where do you think I got the bacon?" Mom says, smiling.

There is only one television mom who could have delivered that line: Roseanne Conner. And, love or hate Roseanne the star, the departure of "Roseanne" the sitcom from our prime-time lives is a television milestone.

"Roseanne" ends a brilliant eight-year run on ABC with an hourlong finale Tuesday night. Actually, "Roseanne" has been on the air nine years, but this last season was hardly brilliant. The Conners won the lottery and spent the season careening from salon to spa, acting as strange and out of character as Roseanne herself does, if you believe tabloid accounts.

Perhaps because of the series' dismal performance this year, the appreciations and retrospectives usually accorded such a long-running hit series have been few.

They certainly haven't been on the level of "Cheers, the last show of similar stature to leave the air.

But "Roseanne" -- which soared to No. 2 in the Nielsen ratings behind "The Cosby Show" in its first season in 1988 and stayed

in the top 10 until last year -- was a far more groundbreaking and important series than "Cheers." In fact, it was one of TV's most important sitcoms.

From Roseanne Conner denouncing the IRS to her apparent savor of a lesbian's kiss, "Roseanne" was liberating on a variety of cultural fronts. And, with an average weekly audience of some 30 million viewers for nine years, "Roseanne" reached more viewers during that period than any other show on the air except CBS' "60 Minutes."

Almost single-handedly, it knocked some working-class sense into a prime-time lineup engorged on the Yuppie excess of the "Family Ties" 1980s. It offered a warm and loving, but ideologically tough-minded version of feminism for working-class women at a time when the medium was serving up the suburban, upper-middle-class flavor found in "Murphy Brown" and "thirtysomething."

Body image

"Roseanne" also challenged deeply ingrained attitudes about female body image. One of the series' most consistent $l messages has been: Just because you are not a perfect size 6, doesn't mean you aren't desirable.

"It has broken new ground on the prime-time television stage where the players can never be too rich or too thin, where children and relatives are charming. It has given us instead characters who are just getting by financially, who are overweight and not concerned about dieting and exercise, whose children and relatives are not always pleasant," said Judine Mayerle, professor of television at Marquette University and author of a 1991 essay on "Roseanne" in the Journal of Popular Culture.

"The show started when 'The Bill Cosby Show' was very, very popular, and much of the reason for the success of 'Roseanne' is that it showed us a family that looked more realistic than Cosby's did," said Sheri Parks, an associate dean and professor who teaches courses in television and gender at the University of Maryland. "It was the first show I ever saw where people were talking about bills and wondering how they were going to pay them. Bills are not something TV families talked about."

Blue-collar evolution

Roseanne and Dan Conner (John Goodman) and their three kids lived in blue-collar Lanford, Ill. Dan was a private contractor often without a contract or a construction job, and the series regularly dealt with his resultant loss of self-esteem and anger. Roseanne worked at a variety of jobs, from a factory assembly line to "shampoo girl" at a beauty salon. Later, Dan opened a motorcycle shop, while Roseanne started a lunch counter with her sister, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf).

The series was created by Matt Williams, a writer for "The Cosby Show," and was based on his life growing up in the Midwest and interviews he conducted in 1987 with working moms in Indiana and Illinois. But, when he took the series, which was to be called "Life and Stuff," to ABC, the network had him work with a comic named Roseanne Barr, whose act was built on her persona as a working-class "domestic goddess" and feminist. "Life and Stuff" became "Roseanne."

The shotgun marriage came apart by the end of the first season. Williams left and Roseanne took near total control of the series, along with Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, her production partners. Roseanne said at the time that Williams was moving too far away from the essence of her character and the series' distinct sense of social class.

Any appreciation of "Roseanne" must start with its sense of life in the working class.

As Barbara Ehrenreich put it in a 1990 New Republic essay, " 'Roseanne' is a radical departure simply for featuring blue-collar Americans -- and for depicting them as something other than half-witted greasers and low-life louts. The working class does not usually get much of a role in the American entertainment spectacle."

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