Friday, July 30, 2010

The Original Domestic Goddess - in praise of Roseanne

One of the joys of not having TV is watching TV on DVD, and consequently rediscovering certain programmes. While browsing in remaindered bookshop The Works recently, I picked up season 1 of Roseanne for a ridiculously discounted price (£2.99!)

When I was a child, Channel 4 screened Roseanne in their 6pm teatime slot and, as such, I had fond (if vague) memories of the Conner family. What I didn't remember is just how good Roseanne is.

The action centers on the Conners, a typical blue collar family from the fictional midwest town of Lanford, Illinois. While the Conners are in many ways a typical family, they represented something fairly new on American television. Roseanne doesn't depict a dysfunctional family, but the Conners are far from the Waltons, the Cunninghams or the Huxtables in their utter ordinariness.

The idea for the sitcom came from Roseanne Barr's stand-up persona. It's interesting to note that Roseanne coined the phrase 'Domestic Goddess' to describe her character. Roseanne takes a humorous look at family life, with Roseanne herself as the domestic goddess at the centre.

I love the first season title sequence. It was modified slightly in the next few seasons before changing considerably later in the show's run, but I think there is something wonderful about this title sequence, in which the family are gathered around the kitchen table. As the theme plays, the camera circles round the table, taking in the family talking, squabbling, eating and laughing, finishing on Roseanne herself laughing. It's almost elegant in its simplicity, signalling to the viewer that the comedy has domestic concerns. I suppose I also like it because it directly relates to my own experience - the kitchen is definitely the focal point of both my parents' home and my grandparents' homes.

Roseanne doesn't pull its punches in its representation of family life. The Conners struggle to make ends meet. Dan's work as a contractor is irregular so Roseanne has a succession of jobs to supplement the family's income. When the show opens she is working on an assembly line in Wellman Plastics with her sister Jackie and their friend Crystal, but she quits this job, protesting against bad management and unachievable quotas. In the episode Lobocop in season 2, Roseanne is working two jobs. She has a day shift in fast food restaurant Chicken Divine, and a job at local bar Lobo Lounge. She's only able to see her children for about 20 minutes a day, and she is able to see Dan even less than this. The episode considers the effect that this has on Roseanne's relationship with her children, the effect that it has on her relationship with Dan, and it also looks at how this makes Roseanne feel about herself. There isn't an easy resolution. By the next episode, Roseanne is no longer working at the Lobo but the issue of how to run a household and work on a marriage when both partners work full time is recurring.

Another way in which Roseanne is refreshingly honest is in its depiction of the parent-child relationship. Roseanne loves her children and this is very clear, but they argue and bicker frequently. Roseanne worries that she isn't close enough to her younger daughter Darlene, and she worries that she is turning into her own mother. Dan has an uncomfortable relationship with his own father - he's angry at the way his father was absent for a lot of his childhood, and fears that their similarities mean that he is turning into his father. In the season 3 episode Her Boyfriend's Back, Dan and Becky clash when Becky secretly takes out Dan's vintage motorcycle. Dan is so angry with Becky for disrespecting him that he gives her the silent treatment for days, relenting only when he realises how much he is hurting her. It's hard to watch, and it is very moving when they make amends, and it is a very thought provoking representation of the complexity of family relationships.

A lot of criticism about Roseanne focuses on how the show approached 'issues' such as sex, pregnancy and so on, so I'm not going to repeat that, but what I would like to think about is how Roseanne thinks about women. I've been really pleasantly surprised by Roseanne's thoughtful and intelligent approach to feminism. The women in Roseanne have largely supportive and cooperative relationships. Roseanne works with women at Wellman Plastics, at the Beauty Parlour, and in the Cafe in Rodbell's Department Store and, in all of these situations, the relationships the women share enable them to find some enjoyment in their difficult and menial jobs. Roseanne tells Dan that she finds sweeping floors and washing hair to be demeaning, but that she enjoys working in the Beauty Parlour because the other women make her feel good about herself. Roseanne's relationship with her younger sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf, who is wonderful) is loving and supportive, despite their different outlooks on life. Roseanne has a very positive attitude towards different modes of femininity. Elder daughter Becky is clever and hardworking, and she is interested in her appearance and attracting boys (in watching Roseanne now, I can imagine how a contemporary Becky would keep a daily outfit blog!) Darlene, her younger sister, is a sporty tomboy. In the episode Dances with Darlene, Darlene is invited to her first formal dance. Roseanne is really excited for Darlene and brings her home a variety of prom dresses to try, none of which are quite right.

Darlene and Roseanne argue about which dress she should wear and how she should wear her hair, and eventually Darlene decides she doesn't want to go to the dance at all. Contrite, Roseanne tells her:

Roseanne: I've got a great idea! I've just thought of this. Hey! You oughta call up Barry and tell him that you will go to the dance, you know, and just wear whatever you want and have your hair however you want.
Darlene: No
Roseanne: Come on Darlene, don't miss out on this just to get back at me. There's better ways of getting back on me. Maybe Becky's boyfriend has a little brother!
Darlene: Mom, I didn't blow the dance because of you. I mean, it was a lot of things. Like, every time I would put on those dresses everybody would start treating me weird. I just didn't feel like the same person any more.
Roseanne: Well, you know, you're kinda not like the same person any more. [She plays with Darlene's hair and piles it on top of her head] Sorry, I guess I shouldn't do that.
Darlene: Aaah, it's okay. Look, I may just never get into proms and stuff. I mean, I like dating and boys and everything, it's just that I don't think that you should have to go through all the crap to get to the good stuff.
Roseanne: You've been hangin out with Aunt Jackie too much.

Roseanne celebrates the different types of femininity, and the different ways in which women can express themselves. Roseanne walks out on her job at Wellman Plastics because she finds the new supervisor's misogynist attitude to be intolerable, and at every step Roseanne celebrates the different choices made by its women. Roseanne's sister Jackie becomes a police officer, and walks out on a relationship with a man who attempts to make her choose between the job and him. Roseanne's choice, to be a wife and mother, is celebrated in the episode Home-Ec. She gives a talk to Darlene's Home Economics class about the responsibilities of running a home and eloquently illustrates how it can be a rewarding, if difficult career.

Where Roseanne is particularly strong is in its performances. Every one of the main cast is fantastic in their role, right down to little Michael Fishman who started playing D.J. Conner at the age of 6! I have a particular soft spot for John Goodman, who is cracking as Dan. He has just the right amount of warmth and humour, and the chemistry between him and Roseanne is a joy to watch. I could write screeds about how good Roseanne is, but don't read it - just go out and get hold of the DVDs. You won't regret it!