When good TV goes bad: how Roseanne’s dream turned into a nightmare

The sitcom’s honest portrayal of a working-class family made it a hit for eight seasons. Then the Connors won the lottery and everything got weird

The implosion of Roseanne hurt. It had been so good, so funny, so groundbreaking when it first appeared in 1988. The show was the product of Roseanne Barr’s standup act as a self-styled “domestic goddess”, which she began in 1980 as a 28-year-old housewife in Colorado and which gained in popularity massively over the next five years, courtesy of flinty lines such as: “They say never hit your kids in anger. Like, when should you hit them? When you’re feeling particularly festive?”

Roseanne the sitcom, with Barr as the eponymous matriarch of the blue-collar Connor family (married to construction worker Dan; three kids), ended its first season as the second most-popular show on TV and became No 1 in the next. It was the first time a working-class family had been portrayed in depth, realistically, with love and without sentimentality or condescension, and viewers took it to their hearts accordingly. It didn’t drop out of the Top 10 for another five years.

In season eight, however, it fell to 16th place. Some blame the panic this must have induced for the horror that was about to unfold. Others blame the star’s egomania, which had been ballooning during the years of success. Others simply cannot talk about it yet. Because season nine was a truly terrible thing to unleash upon a viewing public, let alone one as loyal and committed to a show as its fans were to Roseanne.

In season nine, the Connors win the lottery and everything that has gone before – the brilliant dark humour in the face of adversity, the loyalty forged amid the insecurity of living pay cheque to pay cheque – vanishes to be replaced by frothing madness as the family live out their supposedly wildest fantasies. Roseanne parties with Patsy and Edina from Ab Fab (complete with long Rosemary’s Baby parody dream sequence); plays Evita (another dream sequence but the reality for us is that Barr is playing Evita, so keep taking your tablets); saves then-first lady Hillary Clinton from a trainful of terrorists; is pursued by a Moldavian prince; I could go on, but you have the gist.

Not content with trampling its blue-collar bona fides into dust, the series also sees Dan have an almost-affair with his mother’s nurse. The Connor marriage is the rock the family and the show is built on and this betrayal of all that has gone before is perhaps the worst crime, narratively speaking.

But it was the volte-face at the end that garnered headlines. In a two-part finale, Barr delivers a 10-minute (which is, in television terms, endless) voiceover explaining that Bobby was in the shower all along. That’s right – it was all a dream. Dan, she says, died of the heart attack he has at the end of season eight and in order to help deal with her grief, Roseanne has been writing a book set in an alternative, lottery-winning world. The series ends back in the real world, on the old, brown-sofa’d set. “Don’t blame us,” the busted couches seem to say. “We never asked for this.”

If you were feeling very, very generous, drunk or both, you could say that the finale was a last-minute admission of how wrong Barr had gone, an attempt at course correction and apology in one. But if it was (and Barr has never properly spoken about the final season), it was far too little of either, far too late.

Contributor

Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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