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Classic Television Rundown: Roseanne

In this very special episode of Classic Television Rundown, I'm going to talk about a very special television program that just so happens to be the show of the month in the next installment of the TV Party at the Red Stag Supperclub in Minneapolis. That show is...


As always throughout its run with our lovely Girl Germs co-hosts who founded it, this month's TV Party spotlight is on a show with strong lead female characters, characters who are woefully underrepresented on a majority of scripted television throughout history. And very few female characters (or, for that matter, female sitcom actresses) have been stronger than Ms. Roseanne Barr.

Started in 1988 in the wake of the success of The Cosby Show, Roseanne originally set out to be a sort of anti-Cosby Show, where the main family of characters were working class, got into trouble, fought with each other, dealt with real issues, and so on. Despite these intended differences, to me there are more similarities between The Cosby Show and Roseanne than there are differences. Aesthetically, the shows are different, but ultimately they both deal with what then-staff writer and future Gilmore Girls showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino called "small issues on a big scale". That, and they are both terrifically written shows.

Roseanne, in fact, historically was a hotbed for writers who are writing on television today. The aforementioned Sherman-Palladino got her start on Roseanne, having written numerous episodes, including one that will air at the TV Party on Monday. As did Joss Whedon, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Dollhouse/Firefly creator, and the constantly-in-the-news creator of Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory Chuck Lorre, as well as Cynthia Mort, the creator of HBO's Tell Me You Love Me. Though the series behind-the-scenes drama was well-documented (Roseanne herself gives a lot of great detail in this fascinating recent article in New York Magazine), clearly the fact that the show housed so many writers who have gone on to do their own shows is a testament to the great writing.

The show is also unique in its cast. Outside of Roseanne, who started as a standup comic, most of the cast had backgrounds in theater. It shows, as John Goodman's performance as Dan Connor is a thing of comic beauty, he a surprisingly complex man with some basic wants and needs, and Laurie Metcalf's performance as Jackie, Roseanne's insecure sister. Their theatrical training is perfect for a show that is often hysterical despite very rarely going for the setup-the-joke-then-knock-the-pins-down routine that most sitcoms, even the best, go for. In that sense, Roseanne was a bit ahead of its time in its character-based humor. Of course, her kids, most notably Sara Gilbert as Darlene, are pitch-perfect in their roles.

As the series went on (and even in some earlier episodes), the show arguably went off the rails a little too much, perhaps indulging a little too much in the whims of Roseanne. (It only took into season two to get into a largely imagined musical-themed episode, season two's "Sweet Dreams".) By the end of the show's run, the plot twists had taken its toll, with the Connor family having won the lottery, and then the final episode's reveal that the season (and, perhaps, the series?) was something the Roseanne character had written to cope with life's difficulties was a little wacky. But it's also a testament to a show that ran throughout its run with largely no network input, and maintained a stranglehold on the Nielsen Top 20 all the way through. In today's highly fragmented (and, yes, still sexist) TV landscape, it's unlikely we'll ever see a show as powerful, frank, sweet and funny as Roseanne.

TV Party with Girl Germs is co-sponsored by Fancy Pants Gangsters, and takes place at the Red Stag Supperclub in Minneapolis starts at 9:00 pm on Monday, July 11.

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