Saturday, September 23

Working class heroes

Lately I've been watching a lot of Roseanne reruns on Oxygen. I remember watching the show way back when I was a kid and it was ABC's big hit for all those years, but only now that I'm older and there's some learnin' in my head do I realize what a truly fantastic show it is, on tons of different levels.

Obviously, the show is funny in its own right, progressive agendas notwithstanding. The writing is consistently solid, the jokes coming mostly in the form of well-crafted insults and barbs lobbed between characters who exchange them mostly out of affection. John Goodman and Roseanne both share the same sort of winky, mischievous, deadpan delivery that makes their put-upon blue-collar existence so endearing, and it's fun to see their snarky comic sensibilities echoed by the actors playing their kids on the show.

The Connors are a family of smart-asses -- hard-working, unattractive, moody, badly dressed smart-asses living in a cluttered house with mismatched furniture and hideous wallpaper, dealing with problems like bills, unemployment, broken coffeemakers, unruly children, adolescent depression, teenage puppy love, family tension, and more.

It's a portrayal of what a lot of real families look and act like and have to deal with.

It's certainly more realistic than any show I can think of on TV right now. If we were to formulate a hypothesis about what our culture is like judging solely by the sit-coms that are on TV right now, you'd think everyone in America was well-dressed, manicured, attractive, upwardly mobile, and living in clean suburban houses within walking distance of award-winning schools that churn out CEOs and beauty queens at an alarming rate. No one's average on today's sit-coms, much less borderline below-average. Familial drama revolves around quirky, inconsequential problems and communications snafus that can be solved neatly in half an hour, during which time no one's hair gets messed up, even a little. Envelopes rest easily on tables, never being disturbed, much less pushed.

But think of the issues "Roseanne" tackled that no other sitcom had the gravitas to approach: Masturbation, poor and working-class economic issues, birth control, breast reduction surgery, teen marriage and pregnancy, homosexuality, etc.

And all these issues are happening within a household led by an unruly woman — a loud-mouth, overweight, take-charge matriarch who runs her household as equal partner to her husband (though there are occasional polite deferments on behalf of both parties, like in any good partnership). Roseanne — the character — is unapologetically herself, faults and all. She isn't afraid to occupy her rightful space in the world, and throw her weight around when she feels like it. And how refreshing to see a woman of physical substance on television who hasn't been made completely sexless.

I was Googling info on the show and ran across this excellent blog post at Feminist Reprise that I'm going to quote at length because it pretty much eloquently says everything I'm feeling about this show:

What other show even attempts to portray the real lives of working people? Sure, Roseanne got really weird the last few seasons, when all the money and fame went to her head, but the early seasons are priceless. It's like going home again, but in a good way. The furniture's old and doesn't match, the house is kind of run-down and tacky, the girls are real people with real problems and complex relationships with each other and the adults, not just adorable props, like kids are on most sitcoms. The adults have crappy jobs that they get laid off from, their businesses fail, they run out of money and the electricity gets shut off. Or they drift from job to job without having or even seeming to aspire to anything like a "career." And most remarkably, the problems don't go away at the end of half an hour. The other night I caught the episode where Becky runs off to get married at 17, and I actually cried because the show did such a great job of portraying the struggles of all of the characters--the desires of Roseanne and Dan for their kids to have a better life than they had, their frustration at not being able to provide that life, their love and concern for Becky, Becky's frustration at not having the material things and life opportunities that her middle-class friends take for granted, like a car or the chance to go to college, and her impatience for her life to start. It demonstrated how lots of times people have to learn to live with situations we don't like and didn't choose. It didn't gloss over the discomfort, the awkwardness, the lack of resolution. These problems are real, problems that lots of families actually struggle with, unlike the usual sitcom fare of lovely wife, obnoxious and usually ordinary-looking husband, and flock of beautiful children living in a tastefully appointed bland interchangeable McMansion solving their hilariously light-hearted and perhaps even slightly wacky problems in 22 minutes.

... "Roseanne" calls to me and sucks me in every time and makes me laugh out loud and somehow feel hopeful despite seeing this family get slammed over and over again by a system that there's no way they can beat. If there were more shows like this, TV might actually be worth watching.


Now I'd like to see some "Grace Under Fire" reruns to see how they strike me these days. If memory serves, "Grace" was yet another poignant show that aired when "Roseanne" did, also featuring an unruly working-class woman from an unsavory background who's not afraid to take up space in the world.


Blogger John H said...

Good post. This past season HBO aired a show called 'Lucky Louie' that my wife and I really liked..I don't know a lot of people who liked it, but it carried on the tradition of The Honeymooners and Roseanne..shows that reflected poor working-class families with all the warts and without pimping them with some false nobility.

The first four seasons of Roseanne are masterful. I wish more networks would take chances on shows like Roseanne, Grace and Lucky Louie. Roseanne really was a domestic goddess, just not the deity-type worshipped on this year's TV sets.

Sat Sep 23, 08:52:00 AM  
Blogger jag said...

For the same reasons I really like Grounded for Life, and also because the main dude was that gross cab driver in the MTV commercials way back when.

I guess I'll have to revisit the old Roseanne eps - she did get so friggin weird there in the end that it turned me off the whole series. Between her new face and the new Becky - ick.

Mon Sep 25, 09:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everybody Hates Chris is also a great show.

Mon Sep 25, 05:05:00 PM  

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