Wednesday, 18 May 2011
Sitcom | Television | Roseanne: No Holds Barred
Roseanne is America's greatest sitcom. There, I've said it.
At least in its early years, the show was a perfectly formed, and perfectly performed, slice of working-class America. It was consistently intelligent and emotionally mature. And (as if this matters) it gave Joss Whedon and Judd Apatow their first writing jobs.
I didn't even watch the show when it aired in the '90s but discovering it on DVD has been a revelation. I was reminded of its subtleties this week when I read Roseanne's fascinating account of the behind-the-scenes ructions, posted on New York Magazine's site. Take a few minutes to go and read it too.
And if you need any convincing, here are a few choice extracts:
'The idea that your ego is not ego at all but submission to the will of the Lord starts to dawn on you as you recognize that only by God’s grace did you make it through the raging attack of idea pirates and woman haters, to ascend to the top of Bigshit Showbiz Mountain.'
'I walked into this woman’s office, held the scissors up to show her I meant business, and said, “Bitch, do you want me to cut you?” We stood there for a second or two, just so I could make sure she was receptive to my POV.'
'Imitation is the sincerest form of show business.'
'Hollywood hates labor, and hates shows about labor worse than any other thing. And that’s why you won’t be seeing another Roseanne anytime soon. Instead, all over the tube, you will find enterprising, overmedicated, painted-up, capitalist whores claiming to be housewives. But I’m not bitter.'
All done? Good, wasn't it! Now, for balance, I recommend this rather po-faced response from The Guardian.
Although the network's worries over Roseanne are legendary, what's amazing is that very little of this tension shows up onscreen. In fact, watching seasons back to back on DVD, it's striking that the show has a coherence that's very rare for this era of TV. (Again, I am choosing not to address the last few seasons, when the show was chasing ratings and its star was struggling with mental illness.)
Look at the way each episode begins. I think we learn a lot about television's preoccupations from studying title sequences (that's how I justify the time I spend on Youtube, anyway). Roseanne's one-shot opening is exemplary in the way that it prepares us not just for the show's thematic concerns, but also for its political challenge.
Sorry about the quality of the video, but hopefully you'll have grasped the boisterous to-and-fro of the family unit, the deft sketching of interpersonal relationships and, most importantly, the way the kitchen table is a locus around which discourse occurs. It's a conversation to which we do not have access, true, but the rasping bluesy harmonica conveys its earthiness and its wit. Offsetting the liveliness of the group, the smooth 360° camera movement speaks to their emotional connection.
It is a camera movement that begins and ends with Roseanne, capped off (wonderfully) with her laughter: raucous, unself-conscious, enjoying her family and herself. And this is the nature of that political statement - the show dares to suggest that matriarchy, working-class life, irritation and happiness are all compatible. It's simple enough but I'm struggling to think of anything quite so progressive on our screens today.