On a “very special” Roseanne, the most lethal substance is nostalgia

On a “very special” Roseanne, the most lethal substance is nostalgia

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. Now through March: some of our favorite episodes of all time.

Roseanne, “A Stash From The Past” (season six, episode four; originally aired 10/5/1993)

In which this is Roseanne, Dan, and Jackie. This is Roseanne, Dan, and Jackie on drugs…

Molly Eichel: I’m a DVR hoarder. When I see an episode of television that I love, I keep it on my DVR and watch it on a regular basis. There are a couple episodes—my favorite Friends episode, any Simpsons involving Jon Lovitz—that I have had on my DVR for almost six years at this point. But the episode I watch the most is easily Roseanne’s “A Stash From The Past.” I know this episode backward and forward. I recite lines from it. I still crack up at everything Jackie does as if it is the first time I’m seeing it.

“Stash,” like a few other examples in the Roseanne canon, is the show’s screwed-up version of A Very Special Episode. It begins with some banally adult issues: Dan hates his job, Jackie needs her carpet fixed, D.J. has taken to hanging out on the roof (“I figured it was safer than the park,” Roseanne tells Dan). Roseanne finds a bag of weed and assumes it belongs to David, chastising their ward for a sin he did not commit. Turns out, it’s not David’s weed at all, it’s Roseanne’s. There’s a perfect look of glee on John Goodman’s face when he tells her the truth. When Roseanne was pregnant with Becky, she asked him to trash her stash, but Dan just couldn’t. “I tried to flush it, but as I watched it float helplessly, I thought to myself, am I really ready for this part of my life to be over with?” Dan explains. “Next thing I know, I was down on my hands and knees with an aquarium net and your hairdryer.” So Dan, Roseanne, and Jackie decide to relive their glory days, only to find that their previous favorite pastime isn’t as much fun as they remember. Sure, first it’s all giggles and good times, until D.J. comes home from a sleepover early and Roseanne and Dan are snapped back into their parenting reality.

One of the reasons I love this episode is that it feels so real. When other shows deal with weed, it’s so comically ridiculous, like Seth Cohen’s forays into drug use on The O.C. The gales of laughter, the paranoia, the Popsicle eating: “Stash” feels like a lived-in experience for these people. There’s an easy comedic gag in weed, but for Roseanne all of that humor is character-based. Of course Jackie would sit in the bathtub and spazz out (“Is this a sink? I am shrinking?”), because Jackie’s a bit of a spazz to begin with. Of course Roseanne would razz Dan about his initial paranoia (“Birds! Birds! Birds!”), because that’s the kind of marriage they have.

One of the better scenes in the episode has nothing to do with pot. When David calls Darlene to ask her if he’s just taken the blame for her, Darlene plays out a scenario in which they could never get out of the situation unscathed, so David might as well take the heat. This is the same kid who literally got down on his knees to beg for forgiveness for something he didn’t do. He’s sure as hell going to take whatever punishment is coming to him even though he doesn’t know why.

However, what makes this episode special for me is that the pot is not the subject of the cautionary tale; it’s nostalgia. While the stoned state is played for laughs, it’s not the drugs that are the problem. There is a real reason why the characters get high. “When did it happen, Roseanne? When did we go from doing stuff to yelling at people for doing stuff? When did we get old?” Dan asks. But Roseanne and Dan aren’t kids anymore. They have responsibilities and a family and the instant gratification that comes along with smoking pot is no longer what it used to be. When D.J. returns home to ask where his sleeping bag is, Roseanne freaks. She’s a horrible parent. “Say he falls down or something and breaks one of his organs and he needs a transplant, but I can’t give him any of my organs, because they’re all full of pot!” she says. Sure, getting high is nice, but being a parent is better—even if it really sucks sometimes.

Throughout Roseanne’s run, the Conners’ hippie past is alluded to in the same way that most parents allude to their pre-child coolness. While I’m not a parent (nor do I like to think of myself as old enough to be out of the phase of my life that Bruce Springsteen is fond of singing about), I certainly heard these sentiments echoed by my parents.We used to have a life before you, we promise.” The Conners, like the Huxtables and the Bundys, were surrogate families for a kid like me whose favorite babysitter was always the television. Even though I couldn’t directly relate to the predicament, I saw it reflected in my home life. And, as I get older, I see it in me.

But you know what they say about hindsight: As much as Roseanne and Dan (and Jackie) want to warp back to a time when they didn’t have to fire anyone or care for someone else’s well-being, they’re not the same people they used to be. Roseanne can wear her fringe vest, but it will never fit the same as it did in the ’60s. Eventually, Roseanne and Dan come to this conclusion: “Were we really ever stupid enough to enjoy this?” Dan asks. “Yes, we were, Dan,” Roseanne replies in one of the episode’s many killer lines. “But that was a very different time. There was a war going on. Everything was a lot more fun.”

So what do you think, guys? Is my view clouded by the same hazy nostalgia that precipitates Roseanne, Dan, and Jackie’s smoke sesh? Or do you agree with my fondness for this episode?

Ryan McGee: I’m going to make a bizarre comparison, but hear me out. For me, watching this episode reminded me a lot of my experiences watching the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy. There’s no real aesthetic comparison that can be made between Roseanne and that Richard Linklater-helmed trilogy, except that both felt equally appropriate in terms of my own life experiences coalescing with those onscreen. I’m not a parent, but I remember watching this episode when it initially aired—viewing it two decades later was a vastly different experience. Much in the way I grew up with Jesse and Celine as they wove in and out of each other’s lives, this viewing experience forced me to realize I suddenly sympathize with a different subset of Roseanne’s characters.

As a pure television viewer, I can appreciate certain aspects of “A Stash From The Past” more clearly than I did as a teenager. There’s a specificity of both writing craft and acting delivery that represents the show at its most potent, yielding a program so confident in its own strengths that it never has to reach for uproarious laughter. (Most of my notes are just one-liners I wanted to preserve for my own amusement.) But while you’re absolutely right to zero-in on the Conners’ realization that they became “adults” without realizing it, the best part of this episode is how muted the response to that revelation is. Both Roseanne Barr and John Goodman play this revelation not as some huge, life-altering moment, but rather a succinct explanation for the hundreds (if not thousands) of small weights that have been slowing them down over the past decades. They don’t suddenly have severe midlife crises and abandon their kids to live the “fun” life they experienced during the Vietnam War. Growing up isn’t so much a burden, but rather something that snuck up on them when they were too busy making sure D.J. didn’t fall off the roof again.

It’s something I can certainly relate to, especially as one year turns into the next with increasing rapidity. Roseanne assumed she and Dan stopped smoking pot simply because they “ran out,” but what the pair really ran out of was time to simply exist for themselves. The beauty of “A Stash From The Past” lies in the realization that their lives are actually better for having expanded their scope of care, even if the everyday is filled with minefield after minefield of worry. That worry doesn’t reduce their humanity—it expands it. The warmth of Roseanne isn’t always apparent in casual viewing, but comes through loud and clear in moments like this. What did everyone else think? Has Roseanne been part of your pop culture radar, or did you two discover something new after wading back into this show’s rhythms?

Phil Dyess-Nugent: I know it wasn’t part of the plan when Molly picked this episode weeks ago, but it was interesting to watch it again against the backdrop of the current move to legalize recreational pot smoking, and the gaseous outbursts it’s inspired. For example, David Brooks’ notorious New York Times op-ed, which opens with a recollection of how Brooks and his friends used to smoke marijuana as teenagers (“It was fun”) and the reflection that “those moments of uninhibited frolic deepened” their bond.

Brooks then proceeds to denounce any changes in the legal system that might destroy the lives of young people who experiment with marijuana today, because, in an ideal world, government “subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.”

The scene in which Roseanne parodies the PSA about “your brain on drugs” could also be a parody of Brooks’ arguments, which goes to show that some kinds of bullshit never die. Brooks feels relevant to this discussion in another way, though: He’s about 10 years younger than Roseanne or John Goodman, and speaks for a generation of conservatives that has been pushing back against the ’60s their whole lives. I’m reminded that shows like Roseanne and The Simpsons represented a comedy of working-class pride and anger, speaking up for all the people who felt shut out in the 1980s. But Roseanne was also one of the last of the TV shows and movies that came along in the Big Chill/thirtysomething ’80s that tried to define what it meant for the children of the ’60s to accept the responsibilities (and defeats) of adulthood. These are people for whom growing up sometimes feels like a defeat for reasons that go beyond selfish hedonism. They want to do what’s right for their kids, but does that have to mean surrendering the flag of Woodstock Nation?

I didn’t need reminding that this was one of the best-cast comedies ever on TV—though I was reminded of that. Stoner comedy can be deadly, but that bathroom scene is a beauty: Laurie Metcalf’s glazed-over depressiveness; John Goodman’s shifts between giggly amusement and irritability, before adopting a weary pothead’s version of the reassuring, protective tone that was his character’s default mechanism throughout this series. (“That’s not going to happen, honey.”) Seriously, is this show not one of the greatest slices of off-Broadway that anyone ever packaged as a sitcom? Or does it just strike you as warmed-over Cheech & Chong, in flannel and work boots?

Erik Adams: Color me impressed by that sequence, Phil—for reasons of authenticity as well as the “muted” quality Ryan alludes to above. By everyday TV logic, three leads getting blazed in an upstairs bathroom should be the centerpiece of an episode. Yet “A Stash From The Past” reserves the Conners’ hippie revival for the third act, necessarily limiting the amount of time Barr, Goodman, and Metcalf have to act stoned and the number of stoner jokes the show’s writers needed to dream up. The scene feels all the more “slice of life” for these reasons, a commitment to reality that isn’t surprising coming from a show that later cast Martin Mull, because its star was a huge fan of the so-real-it’s-unreal talk-show parody Fernwood 2 Night. The episode doesn’t call attention to its attention-grabbing climax, and that’s certainly worth our praise.

I want to return to Molly’s observations about nostalgia, because that type of temporal homesickness is essential to more than just our discussion of “Stash”—it weaves throughout this entire Roundtable theme. To mark an episode as a favorite is to dog-ear it for a future re-viewing, which is an experience as ripe for disappointment as Roseanne, Dan, and Jackie’s reunion with Mary Jane. The reasons we love the shows we love change and morph with time, to the point that we may find ourselves sympathizing with different sets of characters in later years (as Ryan did). It’s a fraught process: What if we’re remembering it wrong? What if (as is often suggested when we discuss the multi-camera sitcoms of yore) we’re just fond of these shows because they taught us what to value in a TV comedy? What if (gulp) “Stash” wasn’t as funny as Molly remembered?

I’m getting too cerebral, which is a disservice to an unfussy episode with so many tangible charms. (Almost in a literal sense: I’ve been fixated on the idea of shows with “texture” lately, and the fantastically lived-in sets of Roseanne certainly qualify there.) But it’s intriguing to me that “A Stash From The Past” is now an object of reminiscence for two bygone eras: the ’60s its characters lived through and the early ’90s that we lived through. Reactions to the “this is your brain on drugs” joke go through multiple filters too: It may call to mind the original PSA, but for me, it was more reminiscent of the heroin-specific sequel in which Rachael Leigh Cook cops Roseanne’s style while trashing a kitchen. (And then there’s the alarmism-taken-to-the-furthest-logical-extent Robot Chicken parody.) In the end, time might be the most mind-bending drug of all. 

ME: I want to highlight Laurie Metcalf’s performance in this episode. One of the aspects of “Stash” that we’re all bringing up in various forms is that it’s the “weed episode” in which the pot-related jokes are minimal. But Jackie isn’t supposed to have the revelatory moment that Dan and Roseanne experience. She’s supposed take the brunt of the stoner jokes without the personal growth. And Metcalf is totally perfect at doing so. She’s always been my Roseanne MVP, but writer Kevin Abbott gave her even more to work with in this episode: pulling out her cop terms when Roseanne first finds the stash, chastising her sister for rolling a joint on their mom’s coffee table (and doing it wrong), and freaking out in her bathtub hideaway. (Fun fact: Jackie sits in the bathtub during the pot-smoking scenes, because Metcalf was pregnant at the time, but the writers hadn’t written her pregnancy into the show yet. The father of Metcalf’s kid? Matt Roth, who played her abusive boyfriend Fisher in earlier seasons.) Her final line of the episode is akin to Some Like It Hot’s “Nobody’s perfect” in it’s greatness: While still sitting the shower, ignorant to what’s going on around her, Jackie calls out, “Guys, I don’t think this stuff is working.” It’s the perfect ending.

Phil, I’m glad you brought up David Brooks’ column, because it made me wonder how this episode would play today, especially now that legalization efforts have caused weed to lose some of the taboo cachet it once held. In a way, weed was already losing some of its illegal appeal. A year before this episode aired, Bill Clinton famously revealed that he’d tried smoking weed, but never inhaled. Still, the attitude toward the drug itself gives the episode some of that retro glow that we’ve all brought up in some capacity. While the “drugs are bad” message holds up throughout the episode, there’s one aspect that intrigues me: Drugs have their faddish moments, just like Roseanne’s fringed vest. It’s interesting to me that David and Darlene—who would fit into classic stoner tropes—both eschew the drug, because they just don’t like it. Both readily admit that it’s not their thing. (“I don’t smoke pot. It dulls my hatred.”) I read it as a strange signifier that the times, they are a-changin’. Or is their non-stoner status a way to drive home that anti-drug message by having two beloved characters stay sober?

RM: I’m not sure there’s a liberal strain to this episode so much as a libertarian one: Dan and Roseanne are free to live their lives as they see fit, and drugs were once part of that lifestyle. There’s no “right” or “wrong” here. There are just decisions that are made. “A Stash From The Past” doesn’t glamorize weed, but it also doesn’t make it that big a threat. It’s something that no longer works for any of the parties involved, with neither the adults nor the children finding much use for it. Rather than portraying marijuana as either a glorious high or a terrible low, the episode presents its pros and cons in a relatively sober (pun intended) manner. Roseanne, to my recollection, never presented any single morality as the correct one, but rather showed the messy adjustments that add up to something collectively called “parenting.” If there’s anything that provides a through-line in the show, it’s trust: Both Dan and Roseanne want to trust their children to make the right choices, rather than actively guide them at each juncture.

Some probably view that as laziness, but it suggests that these are people who enjoyed the freedom to occasionally fuck up and learn from those mistakes. They’re not hands-off parents; they keep a distanced eye that is constantly fixed on the situations at hand. Had the weed indeed been David’s, attitudes would not have been severely altered. Making drug use seem like a casual thing undoubtedly ruffled some feathers, but in making the act less sexy and more prosaic, “A Stash From The Past” is equally (if not more) effective than those “this is your brain on drugs” ads that Phil so effectively and thoroughly addressed above. I’m not convinced this is a Very Special Episode of television, but that doesn’t mean this episode isn’t something special anyway.

PDN: I don’t think I thought about it much when I first saw this episode—probably because I was a lot closer to my own adolescence than I am now—but it’s interesting that the kids don’t have “much use” for the pot. I don’t think the actual term is ever used in the series, but Darlene and David are pretty much straightedge. They see themselves as smarter than the kids around them and less screwed up and hypocritical than their parents. Not being interested in drugs is an important part of their self-identity, just as recreational drugs were a big part of how Roseanne and Dan saw themselves as being different from their parents.

I likened the acting on this show to off-Broadway earlier, and that was a blooper on my part. It’s more like Chicago theater, the kind of brash, working-class naturalism associated with playwrights like David Mamet and Tracy Letts and the Steppenwolf Theater Company, where Laurie Metcalf got her start. It seems as if this kind of thing ought to be the natural language of network television, especially in the days when it was critically unbeloved and seen as a plug-in drug for blue-collar people. Yet I can’t think of many shows that achieved Roseanne’s working-class authenticity and did it so entertainingly, while maintaining that sort of sly, built-in political edge. I do think the show has some hard-and-fast moral lessons about parenting that it wants to impart, but they’re not delivered in that Father Knows Best, “the word from the mount” way. The show’s message, again and again, is: Family members should have enough respect for each other, and for themselves, to be direct and honest with each other. Of course, to paraphrase Lenny Bruce, if everybody actually got their act together and behaved right, Roseanne would have nothing to base its comedy on and would have to shut down.

EA: That sort of naturalism cuts both ways, though: My parents—closer to the Big Chill/thirtysomething end of the baby boomer spectrum—prefer a heavy amount of escapism in their entertainment, and Roseanne and The Simpsons were both roundly banned from our household. I suspect this has to do with the realness of both programs, Roseanne especially. In their words, the show was “rude,” but what Roseanne’s rudeness breaks down to is the honesty we’ve been praising in this discussion: The adversarial edge to Dan and Roseanne’s interactions, or the mere acknowledgment of recreational drug use. We might not see more comedies like Roseanne, because the modern viewer would rather live with the Dunphys for 22 minutes, or scoff with (and at) the group of social outcasts that harbors Johnny Galecki these days.

“A Stash From The Past” demonstrates that Roseanne was great at illuminating uncomfortable truths, in a way that doesn’t sacrifice its characters’ humanity. Parenting involves compromises. Being the boss means disappointing people. The activities we used to enjoy become unenjoyable. Growing up, in general, is a bitch. But we find ways to carry on—or we just laugh off the fact that the fringe vest doesn’t fit any more.

Next time: Sonia Saraiya and her group on Blackadder

More TV Roundtable