It’s the pilot episode! Naturally this series begins in the kitchen, on a typical crazy morning. Becky has the phone permanently glued to her ear, Darlene is a tazmanian devil of sports and trouble and chaos, and DJ is… wait, who’s that kid?
It’s Sal Barone, playing DJ for a fleeting moment before everyone came to their senses and fired him. The official reason they gave for replacing him with Michael Fishman is that he and Sara Gilbert fought too much on set, but anyone who watches this pilot can see the real reason: the kid acts as well as a wooden plank. I don’t mean that to be mean, because frankly, at that age I couldn’t act to save my life either. Unfortunately there is video footage of these endeavors, but at least mine weren’t aired to American audiences everywhere.
One of his worst bits comes just after the moment above. DJ has told Roseanne there’s something in his shoe, so she tells him to wear loafers. The audience laughs, and he looks out to stare at the audience until they’re finished so he can deliver his next line. That’s the caliber we’re working with, here. He continues to give a wooden performance throughout the episode, appearing blank as he eats the forbidden pie, rather than cute and mischievous, a combination that Michael Fishman completely nails in the early years. I think we can safely say the right call was made here, albeit a little late. Sorry, kid, but I’m sure he’s over it by now.
The basic plot is… well, interestingly, there isn’t a whole lot of plot in this episode. It’s more like a series of vignettes establishing What We Need to Know About the Conners. This is pretty common with pilot episodes. The thing is, I hate pilots. I’m sure I’m not alone on this. It’s one of those things you have to suffer through while the characters baldly provide exposition and character development via stilted dialogue instead of just getting on with it and letting us learn these nuances as we go. So, my criticisms on this are not unique to Roseanne.
There’s a good deal of this in the kitchen scene, which, interestingly, lasts at least a third of the episode. It isn’t until 7 minutes and 45 seconds in that we move on to Wellman Plastics. During all that time, there’s no plot development, no idea where the episode is going to take us (will it be Becky’s “poor people” food drive or one of the many other topics of conversation?), and yet it works. It seems to work because we’re already interested in these characters. Less so in the kids, but the relationship between Dan and Roseanne is compelling within their first moments of interaction. This is something I’m sure I’ll harp on a lot throughout the series, but I really admire what they did with these two. There’s so much gentle ribbing (and plenty that’s not so gentle, for that matter), but every jab is delivered with love.
This is one of the things that really sets this show apart for me, personally. When I think of sitcom couples, I think of shows like Married with Children, According to Jim, and so many others where the husband is a bumbling buffoon, the wife a shrieking harpy, and every episode is a series of barbs traded in spiteful voices and why-did-I-marry-this-asshole looks. Sure, by the end of the episode they might hug or, I don’t know, lay next to each other in bed amicably, but everything just feels hostile. It never did on Roseanne. Dan and Roseanne would say far worse things to each other than the couples on other shows, but it never felt bitter or hateful. There’s always a sly grin playing on Roseanne’s lips, and the gentle giant-esque performance of John Goodman brings it home. The audience never once doubts how much these two love each other, and how much fun they have together. You can sense all of that just within these 7 minutes and 45 seconds.
While I admire this character work, it still falls within the things that annoy me about pilots. Right after this scene ends, we’re treated to a scene at Wellman Plastics that provides us with some more things we apparently need to know about the characters: 1) What kind of a boss Booker is, 2) Dan is a great husband, and 3) Jackie is one of those people who buys in to things like The Secret.
Booker is played by the incandescent George Clooney (just look at that hair, though!)
Booker gives a brief speech about everyone in the factory being like a football team that has to work together. In order to establish to the audience that he does this a lot, there’s an exchange between Roseanne and the other female employees along the lines of, “Oh, is he doing that thing he does again? Boy, he sure does that thing a lot,” followed by imitations of the thing he does. This trick is used in probably every pilot that’s ever aired ever and it is so transparent. But sure, I guess now we as the audience know this about Booker, which maybe is important but I don’t think ever matters again after this? Frankly he’s not a super great boss or even one worthy of contempt, he’s just sort of hanging around until he and Jackie hook up.
We learn about Dan’s quality as a husband courtesy of stilted dialogue from Crystal telling us so. Crystal is sort of a weird character in my mind, but she doesn’t do much in this episode, so I won’t dwell on that here.
Then we learn Jackie’s character via her telling Roseanne and Crystal about the seminar she attended, entitled “See It and Be It.” Full disclosure, I wasn’t yet born when this episode aired, but I do vaguely remember there being late-night commercials for these sorts of products and classes in the early 90’s, so I can definitely believe this was a mock-worthy thing in American culture at the time. (Nowadays we have Dr. Oz, and “bone broth,” and “chemical-free” everything, so things don’t really change.) This conversation is intended to show the audience how gullible Jackie is, I guess, because Roseanne scolds her for attending all these “seminars” in general. It’s odd, though, because I don’t think this ever comes up again for the next 9 seasons. But maybe it was merely intended to tell us that Jackie can be pretty flighty and indecisive, switching courses frequently– that definitely continues for her character. Also odd? HER hair.
The stilted exposition tricks largely end here, thank goodness. So, my complaints about pilots out of the way, back to the plot, what little there is.
Roseanne has to take off from work early in order to have a conference with Darlene’s history teacher and replace Becky’s backpack. At the conference, Darlene’s teacher “Ms. Crane the Pain” becomes the first character in the series to be presented as the bourgeois, hoity-toity contrast to the Conners’ blue collar lifestyle. This trope is used quite a lot in the series, as it’s one of the central, and winning, themes of the show. It’s particularly blatant here, though, as Ms. Crane is in a rush to get off to her squash game, and treats Roseanne to a little psychotherapy on Darlene. Darlene has been barking in class, and Ms. Crane has concluded that it’s because Roseanne doesn’t spend enough time with her. All because Darlene barked, was asked to stop barking, and stopped barking. Roseanne doesn’t suffer fools, and like many of her opponents over the next few seasons, we are supposed to agree that this woman is a Class A fool.
Also of note in this scene is the first of many jokes about Roseanne’s weight, when Ms. Crane asks her to have a seat in the tiny student desk.
What I find endearing is that, although the punchline is “She can’t possibly fit there!” this joke is not at Roseanne’s expense, really. In fact, most of the “fat jokes” about Roseanne and Dan are never really at their expense. Any time someone actually does make a joke like that, the audience moans like “That guy is in for it!” Roseanne and Dan don’t stand for that kind of crap, and in the future some foolish trucker is going to get knocked out for it.
Back at the house DJ has eaten the pie and not reacted in any way to anything, so whatever. Darlene is good at sports, we’re told. She will continue to be good at sports until she abruptly isn’t and turns grunge/goth as a teenager. Becky hates her new bookbag because it’s blue instead of red, which apparently will make her look like a “freak.” So begins Becky’s whining, yelling, bratty reign of terror in the Conner household.
Of course, Dan didn’t fix the sink, and it turns out this is not because he was working, but because he was helping a buddy with his truck while Roseanne had to leave work (and lose part of her paycheck) to run around town taking care of the kids’ stuff. The two fight over this. Roseanne, understandably, goes off about how he never does anything around the house, she does all the work, yadda yadda… and at this point I was sort of surprised, because as I said above, I think of this as a show where the mother and father don’t fall into the typical shrill, bitchy wife and no-good husband trap, yet that’s the central conflict right here in the pilot. Roseanne yells at Dan and does get quite shrill. Their argument is cut short by Darlene, who has cut her finger.
They spring into action, and it becomes clear why this marriage works and why we’ll rarely see a fight quite within this trope again: Dan and Roseanne make a great team. Together they get Darlene up on the counter, Dan trying to distract her while Roseanne applies first aid.
Dan distracts her by telling her to think of a flower, but Roseanne knows her daughter and tells her to think about a demolition derby. Darlene gets all bandaged up and is good to go. With that, the fight’s over. Cue the harmonica riff.
Overall, not much happens in this episode because it falls prey to pilot treatment. But we do get hit with many fantastic Roseanne stingers, such as “This is why some animals eat their young.” So in the end, it’s only decent when compared to the full Roseanne catalog, but that’s one of the necessary evils of TV.
– Where does a person buy a red refrigerator? Also, I think that fridge is going to change color at some point soon, but I can’t really remember. Guess I’ll find out soon.
– Out of curiosity, I looked to see what else was airing the year Roseanne debuted. That fall season it aired opposite Matlock over on NBC Tuesday nights. (Boyfriend: “I like Matlock, not Roseanne.”) Murphy Brown and Designing Women were also running around that time, two more shows with strong female characters. Other classics of the era ran as well, including Night Court, Coach, Growing Pains, Cheers, L.A. Law, Full House, and Dallas. Roseanne came in second in the ratings that year, behind The Cosby Show and ahead of A Different World, two shows that I didn’t realize were produced by the same company behind Roseanne, Carsey-Werner Productions. I used to have a lot to say about the greatness of the Cosby Show as well, which I held up next to Roseanne as examples of truly loving sitcom families on shows that were ahead of their time. Not so much, now, and I don’t want to take the time to write about that show (or its creator) anymore.
– Sal Barone kind of reminds me of that kid who played Anakin in Episode 1. One wonders about child casting sometimes.