Roseanne Barr cooked us oatmeal for breakfast.
She’d invited me to her Brentwood house west of Hollywood back in 1992 to talk about her top-rated ABC comedy “Roseanne” (1988-1997), which I’d praised in print for its authentic laugh-through-the-tears portrayal of everyday family issues that other sitcoms would manipulate for glib punchlines.
Money troubles. Job losses. Brooding kids. Family members pushing each other’s emotional buttons. The sort of gut-punch situations that TV had never mirrored with such perception, nuance and empathy — never mind loving (if twisted) humor.
The big-time TV star came down to her kitchen wearing a bathrobe and a towel wrapping her wet hair. She was what she was, whether that was just out of the shower at home, or sticking up for herself in backstage dust-ups that dominated ’90s tabloid headlines. No pretense, no prettying-up..
“I don’t have the guile that this town is made up of,” she declared over the stove in her Tudor estate. “I would say exactly what it was I wanted,” she said, “from the beginning.”
Gee, imagine — a big name doing that, charging into a company town with a blunt personal agenda and a disruptive way of operating, often creating a wake of chaos and controversy.
Where have we seen this lately?
So it seems no coincidence that “Roseanne” returns just as a similar disruption has overtaken Washington politics. And it should be no surprise that both Roseannes, real-life and TV-alter, proudly boast of their “deplorable” status as Donald Trump voters.
Which means you really should tune to ABC Tuesday, March 27, 8-9 p.m. to see those sparks fly, as the show’s Conner family comes back into focus 20 years later.
“There’s a lot going on in that first episode,” admits showrunner Bruce Helford, the veteran TV producer-writer (“Drew Carey,” “George Lopez”) who cut his teeth on “Roseanne’s” acclaimed fifth season (1992-1993). That busy reintroduction “leads to a lot of problems that come home to roost in other episodes,” Helford continues, ticking off topical threads involving opioid abuse, health care, job woes, military service, birth surrogates and more.
“We’re done with politics in the initial stage,” Helford hastens to note, after Roseanne and sister Jackie (returning co-star Laurie Metcalf) go toe to toe over their opposing 2016 election views. “We didn’t want to make it a bully pulpit. There’s no agenda there, and we don’t have the room, not with our struggling working-class family.”
Hey, yeah, where have those been since “Roseanne” left the air? Sitcom characters haven’t exactly been fighting real-life headwinds on “Friends,” “Frasier,” “The Big Bang Theory.” Those comedic adventures lacked the palpable sense of peril, pain and simmering rage that permeated the Conner household back in the otherwise rip-roaring ’90s. They’ve been permeating the larger populace since, what with 9/11, economic collapse, cultural shifts, political polarization and other gnawing tensions.
So how would the scrappy Conner household be coping these days? Sara Gilbert wanted to find out. The child actress who played black-clad middle kid Darlene Conner went on to appear on “24,” “ER” and other shows, before finding a new TV home as producer-host of CBS daytime chatfest “The Talk.” Consider the issues debated there, and you know the Conners would have opinions on them all. Unlike other TV families, they didn’t enact “very special episodes” to make a statement and move on. The Conners lived societal issues weekly in their bones — Roseanne and hubby Dan (John Goodman) got and lost jobs, they owned small businesses that failed, their kids got bullied and became sexually active. This family rarely found tidy solutions, instead coming to terms with the lack of them, and the need to battle onward anyhow.
“Sara really wanted this” series revival, says Helford, “and she went to John and to Roseanne, and got the whole thing going in three weeks, it was a whirlwind, it was crazy.” Then they approached Helford, whose ’90s “Roseanne” season had earned Emmys, Golden Globes, Peabody, Humanitas and even Kids Choice prizes. Helford sat down with Barr to make sure they were on the same page. “She had so much perspective. She has grandkids now. Her life has mellowed out, she’s got a great guy in her life, and we talked about all the things on her mind and on my mind.”
Then they returned to Lanford, the Conners’ fictional Midwest hometown, where they live in the same old house, Dan still hanging drywall, Roseanne now an Uber driver. Darlene has just moved back in, bringing her gender-exploring son and morosely mini-me-Darlene teen. Son DJ (Michael Fishman) is out of the military, with his young daughter, whose mother remains deployed. Living nearby is eldest kid Becky (Lecy Goranson). Having lost her husband (actor Glenn Quinn died in 2002), Becky embraces an unusual income opportunity that sets Roseanne and Dan on edge.
“We made the censors pretty crazy,” Helford says. “We really tackled a lot of stuff.” Sometimes that’s as mundane as seeing Dan in bed using a C-PAP breathing machine. On TV, “you never see anybody paying a bill,” notes Helford. “Nobody says a prayer,” as Roseanne does in the show’s return. “There are so many everyday things that aren’t being explored.”
“Roseanne” always managed to pinpoint what other shows didn’t. Scripts showed kids feeling neglected when parents worked two jobs to make ends meet. Spouses cheating on each other. Parents abusing their kids. Lack of trust. Ruptured relationships. These story nuggets might have seemed small, but the stakes loomed huge, and the wounds often lingered. Showrunners like Helford faced them head-on, nurturing such distinguished “Roseanne” alums as writers Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), Chuck Lorre (“Dharma and Greg,” “Mom”) and Amy Sherman-Palladino (“Gilmore Girls”).
That intimate landscape is where today’s “Roseanne” finds its footing. Helford’s writers waste no time on diversions like continuity from the original run’s misguided final season, dispensing quickly with the notion of Dan’s “death” (“Why does everybody always think I’m dead?” he asks) and the two Beckys (actress Sarah Chalke, who followed Goranson mid-run, turns up as a different character in a clever confluence).
“TV is just a mirrored world that reflects the truth back, twisted,” Roseanne had told me back in 1992, topping her oatmeal with bananas and strawberries. She said “only somebody like me who watched so much TV could see that.”
She wanted to keep it real. And she got the ratings to prove she was right. “Roseanne’s” first six seasons ranked in Nielsen’s top 5 (one first-place tie, three second-place finishes).
Now she, the original cast and former hands like Helford are back at work together, ready to dispense some 21st century truth.
WATCH VINTAGE ‘ROSEANNE’
See ABC’s 1988-1997 original:
ON TV WEEKDAYS 10 a.m.-noon on CMT; 5-7 p.m. on Logo; 9-11 p.m. and 1-2 a.m. on Laff; 4-5 a.m. on TV Land.
STREAMING AT AMAZON PRIME All nine seasons and 222 episodes, but in cropped widescreen.
DVD COMPLETE SERIES 27 discs for about $25, from Mill Creek.
TEN ESSENTIAL EPISODES
“Life and Stuff” (Season 1 — Oct. 18, 1988) The series pilot laid down the working-class household template, expanding on Roseanne’s “domestic goddess” stand-up act. George Clooney plays her factory boss. (Airs Tuesday, March 27, 10:30 p.m. on Laff)
“Like a Virgin” (Season 3 — Oct. 2, 1990) — Roseanne considers the “sex talk” for eldest daughter Becky, then sees middle kid Darlene in action.
“Trick or Treat” (Season 3 — Oct. 30, 1990) — Halloween (annually a Conner classic) explores gender images: Roseanne dresses in drag, son DJ wants to play witch.
“Confessions” (Season 3 — Dec. 12, 1990) — In a deft study of parental expectations, Roseanne is hurt to learn her mom always considered her “ordinary.”
“Darlene Fades to Black” (Season 4 — Oct. 8, 1991) — The family copes with formerly peppy Darlene’s black-mood retreat into her room.
“Santa Claus” (Season 4 — Dec. 24, 1991) — Roseanne is happy to hear mopey Darlene has a new friend, until she discovers it’s an adult woman.
“Crime and Punishment”/“War and Peace” (Season 5 — Jan. 5-12, 1993) — Jackie’s tumultuous romance leads to Dan being arrested and Darlene bailing him out. (Airs Sunday 9:36-10:48 a.m. on TV Land.)
“Wait Till Your Father Gets Home” (Season 5 — Feb. 9, 1993) — Roseanne, Jackie and their mother reassess their family’s past when Dad dies. (Airs Sunday 10:48 a.m. on TV Land.)
“It’s a Boy” (Season 5 — March 2, 1993) — Darlene’s friend David wants to flee his abusive mother. (Airs Sunday 11:24 a.m. on TV Land, Monday 11:30 a.m. on CMT.)
“Stash From the Past” (Season 6 — Oct. 5, 1993) — Marijuana found in the house turns out to be a vestige of Roseanne and Dan’s younger days. (Airs Sunday noon on TV Land.)
— DIANE WERTS