10 episodes that show the heart and soul behind Roseanne’s cynical exterior

10 episodes that show the heart and soul behind Roseanne’s cynical exterior

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch those 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

Roseanne shouldn’t have worked. When it debuted in 1988, the family-sitcom landscape was dominated by the middle-to-upper class—your Cosbys, your Seavers, your Micelli-Bowers. (Although a change was brewing on the then-nascent Fox network in the form of Married With Children and some shorts on The Tracey Ullman show starring a certain yellow-skinned clan of weirdos.) Furthermore, it centered on a brash, opinionated woman with a grating voice and a body type that was unusual for television, then and now. And, most significantly, Roseanne was plagued by creative squabbling from the word “go,” as star Roseanne Barr clashed with creator—or co-creator, depending on whose side you take—Matt Williams over who received credit for the series, which was conceived with Barr’s working-class, “domestic goddess” standup routine in mind, though she only received a “based upon a character by” credit. (Williams and the show’s producers maintain this was due to Writers Guild regulations.) Over time, more and more stories emerged of Barr battling with an ever-changing stable of writers—whom she reportedly assigned numbers, rather than referring to them by name—and ABC executives over the direction of the series that shared her name, which she dictated and protected with a fervor and impudence that informs the reputations of both the series and its star to this day. By all rights, Roseanne should have imploded in its first season.

But the show was a hit out of the gate, reaching No. 2 in the ratings in its première season, hitting No. 1 in its second, and never falling out of the top 10 in the first seven of its nine seasons. Roseanne’s success further emboldened Barr and her writers (whose ranks included Joss Whedon and Amy Sherman-Palladino, among other notables), who used the Conner family to tell the sorts of stories that weren’t often being told on sitcoms, at least not in the ’80s. In addition to storylines informed by Barr’s feminist stance and facilitated by a cast with two teenage girls—featuring issues like birth control, menstruation, PMS, and teenage sex—the show was and remains one of very few successful sitcoms to engage, routinely and enthusiastically, with the struggles of the working class. Because of its propensity, particularly later in the series, for memorable, issue-driven episodes, Roseanne is often remembered most for its aggressive promotion of its star’s pet concerns (which were never particularly consistent), but informing all of that were the twin pillars of Roseanne, the two major concerns that dictated everything the Conners did: family and money.

Based in the fictional factory town of Lanford, Illinois, Roseanne concerns a nuclear family rotating around the titular force of nature at its center. While Barr is undeniably the loudly beating heart of the show—so much so that producers’ efforts to remove her when she became problematic proved futile—the rest of the Conner clan are its other vital organs: John Goodman as dad Dan, Laurie Metcalf as ever-present sister Jackie, Lecy Goranson (and later her replacement, Sarah Chalke) as older sister Becky, Sara Gilbert as middle child Darlene, and Michael Fishman as youngest son DJ. (Okay, DJ isn’t exactly vital; let’s call him the show’s spleen.) The manner in which the Conners snipe at and mess with each other has earned Roseanne a reputation for mean-spiritedness, but the family members’ loyalty to and twisted affection for one another are evident throughout the series, particularly in the early seasons. The Conners are very much the sort of people who laugh to keep from crying, and their dark, cynical worldview is both a symptom of and a salve for the indignities they face as a blue-collar, moderately educated family just trying to get by. If that sounds suspiciously like another working-class TV family that debuted around the same time, well, it’s meant to.

But while other series that earn the “blue-collar” designation typically settle for placing their breadwinners in menial jobs that are nonetheless stable and profitable enough to keep the family-sitcom wheels greased, Roseanne put both Dan and Roseanne through a grind of unrewarding and erratic employment that frequently left them on the cusp of poverty. Things smoothed out for the family, occupation-wise, around the series’ midpoint, as Roseanne opened a restaurant and Dan earned a stable job working for the city, but thanks to the foundation laid in those early seasons, the show never abandoned the idea that its central family could lose it all at any time.

That was true until the infamous final season, one of the most universally despised retoolings in television history. Following its first season spent outside the Nielsen top 10, Roseanne took a major chance in its ninth (and last) season by having the Conners win the lottery. The choice failed miserably because it knocked down those twin pillars that supported the show through seven good-to-great seasons. In addition to taking away the family’s blue-collar bona fides and attendant empathy, by having the family strike it rich, Roseanne messed with Dan and Roseanne’s marriage, sending him off to California for half of the season (due to Goodman’s increasingly busy movie schedule), where he had an affair. Dan and Roseanne’s marriage was always the rock upon which the Conner home was built, and replacing it with a bunch of unearned, unnecessary riches knocked Roseanne off balance and sent it spinning off into the realm of surreal indulgence—that is, until a series finale that, depending on one’s outlook, makes either excuses or amends for the season that preceded it. 

Though it was received tepidly at the time, the Roseanne finale is worth a second look and possible reconsideration for the way it valiantly attempts a major course correction in its final moments. Having Roseanne essentially rescind the ninth season via a voiceover that claims it was all a story she wrote smacks of last-minute whitewashing, but at least it strips away all the fluffy bullshit and returns to the series’ core DNA, reestablishing Dan and Roseanne’s marriage as one of the “till death” variety and calling back to Roseanne’s long-forgotten aspiration to be a writer, something she gave up to help support her family. Though it doesn’t appear on this list, the Roseanne finale says a lot about what the series was and what it became. 

These 10 episodes show the steps along the way, the building blocks of one of TV’s all-time great blue-collar sitcoms.

“Language Lessons” (season one, episode four): This early episode shows the Conner family at home on a weekend, where the most dramatic event is a skirmish between Dan and his know-it-all sister-in-law, Jackie. Roseanne, still very much the “domestic goddess” she was originally conceived as, manages to smooth everything over, but “Language Lessons” is essential for its portrayal of the marriage of Dan and Roseanne. Roseanne is often pegged as being mean-spirited, but in these early episodes, especially, the love between the two characters is readily apparent, as they vacillate between bickering and flirting seemingly with no real conscious distinction between the two. The chemistry between Barr and Goodman was apparent from the start, especially in the scene where Becky and Jackie give them a “lovebirds quiz” from a magazine. In many ways, the low-stakes, hangout vibe of “Language Lessons” is far from what Roseanne would eventually become, but it does a good job establishing the familial love and respect buried underneath all those withering remarks.

“The Little Sister” (season two, episode two): In 1989, an aspiring TV writer named Joss Whedon got his first major gig on Roseanne, where he served as a writer, and then story editor, during the show’s first two seasons. Though only four episodes are credited to him as a writer, any of them would be a contender for this list. (A couple more appear in “the next 10” below.) “The Little Sister” bears Whedon’s stamp in both its witty dialogue—as when Jackie responds to Roseanne’s accusation that she drinks as a coping mechanism with, “Well, have another shot of pancake, Roseanne”—and its unexpected poignancy when Roseanne reveals the real reason behind her objection to her younger sister’s idea of becoming a cop by pretending to pull a gun on her. (This follows a hilarious mock-fight between them that ends with Roseanne pinned to the couch, a fun bit of physical humor that makes the resolution hit even harder.) “The Little Sister” fleshes out the relationship between Roseanne and Jackie and creates a subtle mirror image of them in Becky and Darlene; the push-pull between both pairs of women would continue throughout the series and facilitate many more humorous yet heartfelt stories along the way.

“Chicken Hearts” (season two, episode 13): Roseanne earned its “blue-collar sitcom” label through its willingness to engage with the uncertainty and indignity that comes with being a workaday wage slave beholden to the whims of bosses who look down their noses at their uneducated, unskilled workforce. Neither Dan nor Roseanne had anything approaching job security for most of the first four seasons, and Roseanne in particular cycled through an impressive number of jobs of varying respectability. Her short-lived gig at a fast-food chicken restaurant may be the most demeaning, and “Chicken Hearts” shows why, pitting Roseanne against a snotty 17-year-old manager who can’t, or won’t, comprehend why a mother of three can’t work weekends. Rather than going all Norma Rae on him—as she does at the end of the first season, where she stages a walkout at the plastics factory—she attempts sucking up to “the little weasel,” which goes against everything she stands for as Lanford’s preeminent smartass. She fails and gets axed, which leads to a wonderful conclusion where the family bands together to humiliate their mother’s tormenter more effectively than he could ever humiliate her. 

“An Officer And A Gentleman” (season two, episode 15): In many ways, this is an extremely unrepresentative episode of Roseanne, in that its namesake is almost entirely absent. But it’s notable for being a byproduct of the series’ notorious backstage battles. Following an escalating backstage war with Williams—who left the series after the first season to co-create Home Improvement—Barr boycotted an episode over some dialogue, so this episode was written around her. She appears only in the opening scene, when she leaves the house to visit her parents in Moline for a few days, and in the last scene, when she returns. The rest of the episode is a wonderful showcase for Jackie, who takes over Roseanne’s motherly duties in her absence, and Dan, whose grudging respect for his sister-in-law’s domestic aptitude gives way to actual respect, and their heretofore-antagonistic relationship begins to soften. The episode feints toward suggesting romance between them, but backs away just in time for a very sweet conclusion that strengthens both characters, thankfully without messing with the marriage between Dan and Roseanne. 

“Trick Or Treat” (season three, episode seven): A list of essential Roseanne episodes wouldn’t be complete without mention of at least one of the series’ loving celebrations of Halloween, and truthfully, any of the show’s seven Halloween episodes could have a place on this list. But “Trick Or Treat” is a nice blend of the zany costume and prank antics that would come to define these episodes with the sort of gender politics Barr loved exploring. (The fact that the episode is credited to noted Roseanne antagonist Chuck Lorre adds an interesting wrinkle.) Having Roseanne dress as a man for Halloween, then get stranded at neighborhood bar The Lobo, where she mingles with the ball-scratching, Y-chromosome-possessing clientele, isn’t exactly subtle social commentary—but then again, Roseanne was never exactly subtle when it came to its feminist statements. Couple that with a B-plot where Dan freaks out because DJ wants to be a broom-riding witch for Halloween instead of a wand-wielding warlock, and it could all seem very ham-handed. And it is, a little bit, but it’s also very funny, and the resolution of the Dan-DJ plotline in particular is quite sweet. 

“Darlene Fades To Black” (season four, episode four): This episode marks the beginning of younger sister Darlene’s transformation from smartass tomboy kid to the smartass misanthrope she’d remain throughout the rest of the show’s run. Roseanne was often at its best when it explored the relationship between Dan and Roseanne and their two daughters as individuals, rather than as a unit (see also: the excellent “Fathers And Daughters”), and “Darlene Fades To Black” does an admirable job portraying the widening gap between Dan and Darlene, his former sports buddy who now spends all her time moping on the couch. Sara Gilbert was a great young actress from the get-go, with an unusually canny grasp of comic timing, but her growth is apparent in this episode, where she manages to be aloof, vulnerable, and darkly hilarious all at the same time.

“Terms Of Estrangement Part 2” (season five, episode two): The second half of a season-opening two-parter, “Terms Of Estrangement Part 2” finds Becky returning to the Conner home after she eloped with boyfriend Mark (Glenn Quinn) in “Part 1.” Becky’s surprise marriage at age 17 was one of the better twists Roseanne pulled, and marked a major shift in the series, as the family unit began to expand outside the residents of the Conner home. (Mark and his brother/Darlene’s boyfriend David, played by Johnny Galecki, both became series regulars and in-laws.) But the fallout in the second part is interesting in how it places Roseanne and Dan at odds with each other over something neither of them wants. This might be the Conner family at its very lowest—both Dan and Roseanne are unemployed and deeply in debt following the closure of the motorcycle shop Dan opened in season four—and they work through it with their standard blend of dark, world-weary humor and unconditional love for one another.

“Looking For Loans In All The Wrong Places” (season five, episode six): Starting in the fifth season, Roseanne would transcend the cycle of wage-slave drudgery that defined the early seasons by opening The Lunchbox, the loose-meat restaurant she’d run (along with Jackie and Sandra Bernhard’s Nancy) until the family hit it rich in the final season. But Roseanne’s transition from perpetual employee to business owner didn’t come easy, and “Looking For Loans In All The Wrong Places” shows her humbling herself to achieve a better life for herself and her family. This means buttering her mom up for a loan, a process she bears with gritted teeth as Jackie gnashes and wails at the prospect of having her mom as a business partner. Roseanne and Jackie’s mom Beverly, played by Estelle Parsons, got progressively more cartoonish in her passive-aggressive villainy as the series went on, and this episode is a good barometer of her place in the series at this point: a batty, shrill antagonist to Jackie, whose hatred for her mom borders on pathological, but provides plenty of opportunities for the reliably great Metcalf to have fun with Jackie’s outsized reactions. 

“A Stash From The Past” (season six, episode four): Roseanne and Dan’s nostalgia for their counterculture past is alluded to sporadically throughout the series (and forms the center of the also-great season-two episode “Born To Be Wild”), but “A Stash From The Past” mines it for one of the most purely funny episodes of the show’s run. The second act, in which Dan, Roseanne, and Jackie hole up in the bathroom after smoking some weed they found in the basement (and presumed to be David’s, before realizing it actually belonged to Roseanne long ago), features Goodman and Metcalf at their goofiest and makes its way toward a refreshingly reasonable anti-drug message: Pot seems a lot less fun the older you get and the more responsibilities you take on. 

“Lies My Father Told Me” (season six, episode 21): Roseanne frequently waded into “very special episode” territory, particularly in its later seasons, with patchy results, as the series sometimes struggled to reconcile its sardonic worldview with sincere sentiment. “Lies My Father Told Me” engages this disconnect head-on, with Dan getting mad when Roseanne and Darlene react to Dan’s mom being admitted to a mental institution by cracking jokes as a coping mechanism. “Lies My Father Told Me” is a dramatic showcase for Goodman, as Dan is forced to re-evaluate his parents’ troubled marriage through the lens of his mom’s mental illness. It’s not a laugh riot by a long shot, but there is a great runner where Darlene, Becky, David, and Mark team up to make DJ think he’s fallen victim to hereditary insanity. (It also features this list’s sole appearance of Second Becky, Sarah Chalke, whose assumption of the role Lecy Goranson vacated then occasionally reassumed became a running gag on the show.)

And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Lovers’ Lane,” (season one, episode six); “Nightmare On Oak Street” (season one, episode 15); “Brain-Dead Poets’ Society” (season two, episode 10); “Fathers And Daughters” (season two, episode 23); “Like A Virgin” (season three, episode three); “Aliens” (season four, episode 25); “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home” (season five, episode 16); “Labor Day,” (season six, episode 19); “Nine Is Enough” (season seven, episode one); “Into That Good Night (Part 2)” (season nine, episode 24)

Availability: All nine seasons are available on DVD, and are probably running somewhere in syndication at this very moment. Streaming options are non-existent, though most episodes can be found on, shudder, YouTube.

Next week: Erik Adams tells you how to get all caught up on 30 Rock—just in time for it to end!