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Twenty-five Years and Nothing to Show for It?: ‘Roseanne’ and the Realities of Class on T.V.


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You might not have realized it yet, but this is a momentous week in television history. Twenty-five years ago, at 8:30 EST on Tuesday October 18, 1988, the groundbreaking sitcom Roseanne first introduced America to the Conner family. Coming at the end of the Reagan era, the Conners were a revelation, a deft subversion of the Ozzy and Harriet style family dynamics that sitcoms tended to depict in t.v.’s first three decades. When viewers tuned in to watch Roseanne, Dan, and their family, they saw characters that looked and acted a lot more like a regular folks than any fictional family this side of the Evanses. At the time, too much of the commentary around the show focused on the Conners as a “dysfunctional” family — a misrepresentation that sadly still persists — but the truth was that Roseanne offered a realistic depiction of a loving family, functioning as well as they could while facing the daily pressures that life threw in their way.

In fact, the way the show dealt with specific types of pressure was what really made it exceptional television. Not only did the Conners look, act, and dress like a lot of us in their audience (and yes, like modern-day hipsters) they were also, like a lot of us, poor.

Of course, sitcoms about poor and working-class people had been around forever. Ralph Kramden drove a bus, Archie Bunker worked on the docks, Rhoda was a window dresser in a department store, and the characters in Taxi drove . . . well, taxis. But while all of those characters were identifiable as workers, the writers on those shows rarely made their work — or lack thereof — and its financial consequences into major plot points. Roseanne was different. Both Roseanne and Dan (and that both is important) held a variety of jobs and were intermittently unemployed throughout the show’s run, and changes in their employment had real consequences for both their family and the tone of the show. It sounds like a simple difference, but it’s really striking how rarely sitcoms have dealt with the precariousness of living paycheck to paycheck in anything approaching a realistic manner. Before Roseanne, the best example was the aforementioned keeping-their-heads-above-water exploits of the family from Good TimesBut as soon as J.J. Walker pulled a proto-Urkel and stole the show with his DYN-O-MITE! shtick, the writers on Good Times felt compelled to leave the serious stuff behind. The dynamics of class on Roseanne, on the other hand, stuck around throughout the show’s nine seasons. Even the crazed-fever-dream events of the last season, like the Conners winning the lottery, are eventually explained as fantasies cooked up by the (fictionally) real Roseanne Conner, a working-class mom from Lanford, Illinois, who had been writing the show all along.

For me, at least, it’s that commitment to working classness that gives Roseanne its staying power. When I tune in to one of the countless Roseanne marathons on Oxygen or TV Land or whatever other gazillion channels play the show constantly these days, I get a funny, heartwarming, and — most importantly — realistic glance back at what it was like to live in a working-class family in the late eighties and early nineties. And it feels like home.

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Looks a lot like it, too.

So why didn’t the occasion of Roseanne‘s 25th anniversary make more noise? Sure, there were some superficial retrospectives and (of course) Roseanne herself spoke up to mark the date, but the internets have been surprisingly absent of the critical hosannas that usually accompany such important milestones.

One answer might be that the show has stayed so ubiquitous over the years that it’s simply faded into the wallpaper of popular culture. When an important album, movie, or book reaches a milestone like a twenty-fifth anniversary, there’s often a rerelease of some sort, which is generally preceded by some significant period of time spent not really thinking much about it (I know I hadn’t listened to In Utero for at least a couple of years before its twentieth anniversary rerelease prompted me to revisit and reconsider it). T.V. shows are different, though. How can you get any critical distance from a show like Roseanne when you watched three episodes on three different cable channels just yesterday?

But Roseanne‘s ubiquity belies its continued distinctness in the sitcom universe. Maybe we’re not making a really big deal about the show’s twenty-fifth birthday for the same reasons that so few other sitcoms have successfully taken on its challenge to make class an important part of the dramatic equation. If you measure significance through influence, then the overwhelming favorite for most significant sitcom of the late eighties and early nineties isn’t Roseanne; it’s Seinfeld. All of the best sitcoms of the past twenty years — here I’m thinking about FriendsArrested DevelopmentIt’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, etc. — have drawn on Seinfeld‘s absurdist take on innate human selfishness, finding most of their laughs in the ridiculous fact that a species so individually self-centered needs to cooperate in order to survive. Like the working-class heroes of t.v.’s past, the characters in these shows all (mostly) have jobs, but the types of jobs they work and the implications that those jobs carry don’t really matter to the story. George Costanza is nearly as precariously employed as either Roseanne or Dan Conner, but when George loses a job, the worst thing that might happen is his mother walking in on him not mastering his own domain in the bathroom. Even the American version of The Office, which is ostensibly about work, throws out the British version’s emphasis on the not-so-quiet desperation of trying to find fulfillment in the washed-out grey of postindustrial work, focusing instead on a rosier, work-is-family tableau. This absurdist streak has even bled through into the flagships of t.v.’s “golden age”: the anti-hero prestige dramas. Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White are more like comic book characters than they are real people; they’re extraordinary, towering but cracked monoliths that we watch with awe and pity, not the rough-hewn real-life folks that Roseanne gives us. Class might be embedded in the structure of all of these shows — wealth definitely subsidizes the insanity of the characters in Arrested Development and It’s Always Sunny — but only to the extent that class is embedded in everything when you look hard enough for it. Overwhelmingly, it’s a topic that writers would rather avoid than approach in any real, Roseanne-influenced way.

The lesson of Roseanne’s legacy, then, might be that we’d rather keep reality off of our televisions . . . except for when we wouldn’t. If we branch out a bit from the sitcoms we’ve mentioned, the most influential t.v. show from the Roseanne era might actually be The Real World, MTV’s early foray into “reality t.v.” Over the past two decades, shows based on the semi-scripted format MTV pioneered with The Real World and perfected with Laguna Beach/The Hills have filled up a significant portion of the t.v. landscape formerly occupied by sitcoms. Again, though, the quasi-reality of these shows has more often been based in the extraordinary than in the ordinary, focusing on absurd characters and artificial conflict over common people and real problems.

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Even with all of it’s reality programming, the closest modern t.v. comes to duplicating Roseanne‘s realistic depiction of working-class families is . . . and stick with me here . . . TLC‘s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. If you only know the Shannon/Thompson family of Honey Boo Boo fame from clips you’ve seen on The Soup or late-night talk show monologue jokes, then you’re probably considering clicking over to the main KSR site to read more recruiting news right now. But again, please stay with me. Most of the mainstream commentary around the Honey Boo Boo family has focused on what some people perceive as their willingness to degrade themselves for attention, whether it be through a child beauty pageant or farting on t.v. But while there’s certainly nothing unproblematic about the carnival-style voyeurism lurking around the edges of the Honey Boo Boo phenomenon, if you actually watch the show, you realize pretty quickly that, like the Conners, the Shannon/Thompsons are a family that loves each other deeply.

And like on Roseanne, the implications of class are everywhere to see. Before the precocious (and legitimately hilarious) Alana scored the family a t.v. deal, Momma June got by on child support and disability thanks to a work-place accident involving a forklift, and paterfamilias Sugar Bear still works his day job in the chalk mine. Accordingly, the family’s home, lifestyle, and don’t-care-what-you-think-of-me attitude is representative of a very specific strain of working-class Southern culture that’s even distinct from the more bourgeois outdoorsism of the (equally hilarious) Robertson family on A&E‘s Duck Dynasty. Ultimately, though, it’s pretty impossible to make a reality show about a working-class family really about what it’s like to live in a working-class family when everyone knows that the family is getting well-paid to be on the show. So again, the “Rosie gets laid off at the factory” or the “Dan can’t find any drywall work because housing construction has dried up” story lines that drove many of the best Roseanne episodes aren’t found anywhere on t.v. except for . . . well . . . on Roseanne

If all you want from a t.v. show is a chance to escape — which is a totally valid desire, by the way — then you’re probably ok with the lack of any shows as true to working-class life as Roseanne. And don’t get me wrong, I like escape too. There’s nothing overtly realistic about Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Firefly and I love both of those shows. But a part of me thinks that all of our lives would be a little bit better if producers of popular culture were brave enough to give us shows like Roseanne more often. The reasonably affluent middle has been falling out of the American economy since the 1970s, and that trend has only worsened since 2008. It seems like we would be ripe for a show like Roseanne, to remind those of us who struggle day by day that we’re not the only ones, and — most importantly — that we can all get by a whole lot easier if we just stick together.

Article written by J.D. Holler

5 responses to “Twenty-five Years and Nothing to Show for It?: ‘Roseanne’ and the Realities of Class on T.V.”

  1. Tom Paine

    Great article. You should try The Middle. It’s a lot like Rosanne.

  2. macon_volfan

    Very thoughtful piece of work here. So many ‘family’ shows are all about the upper middle class. Modern Family—which is funny—doesn’t resemble a real modern American family. So much money in that show!! Maybe The Simpsons, when it’s not being absurd, is somewhat working class.

    And ditto on The Middle. It’s pretty funny.

  3. jonathan

    J.D., read your post on PJ the other day and it’s taken me awhile to comment, although it appears now the comments are closed so I’ll drop them here. In full disclosure I’ll admit I’m an ardent, long-time PJ fan, though I feel I’m able to be reasonably objective about their music. While I agree with some of your general points about the difficulty of staying relevant over time, I took exception with a few things as well. When you say that “no one really cares” about this release, I’d agree that it’s not going to be received the way an offering from a younger, albeit less accomplished, band would be. However, I’d argue that PJ still has a rather sizable fan base and their #1 billboard debut is a testament to that. I think you’d agree that over time it’s difficult for a band to stay in the spotlight because after 5 or so years everyone’s already decided if they’re going to like your music, so you really don’t accumulate fans so much as retain the loyal, fervent variety. And when it comes to relevance and the spotlight PJ has never shown an affinity for the fame and attention (as you alluded to). So for me, any questions of their relevance or notoriety have to be couched by the fact that they likely don’t care. I think one of the benefits of longevity in this business is that it buys you the freedom to take artistic license and produce music more for yourself (the band), and not the fans. I’m sure they hope it’s well received, but I don’t believe that’s the driving factor for a group of successful guys well-off enough to do something else to keep producing record after record of “safe, generally predictable music”. I certainly don’t take offense to you (or anyone else for that matter) not liking their latest offerings. For myself, I don’t care for Lightning Bolt that much outside of a couple of tracks. However, I’ve found their last two albums (the eponymous album and Backspacer) to be exceptional. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t see these guys sitting around deliberating between “taking chances” with an album or settling for an “elite 8” equivalent album. I understand music critics tend to think that way, but for a veteran, distinguished act that’s not searching for an identity (or fans or acclaim for that matter) I think it’s misguided. Anyway, I’ve rattled on enough, just wanted to offer my two-cents. But glad to see PJ being discussed and I’ll look forward to checking out your future posts.