Satire, Sarcasm, and Social Commentary in ‘Roseanne’: Past and Present
The Roseanne show and fictional Conner’s family has always been able to represent the issues of America and the world using satire and humor. By using the dynamics of the family to bring these issues to the forefront, Roseanne, both in the older seasons as well as in this new season, writes to the people. She does so with her dynamic wit and sarcastic persona. This show was and still is one of the few sitcoms to successfully portray the struggles of the working class. Roseanne and the other writers create memorable and issue-driven episodes. The struggles of today’s families are as relevant and funny today as they were when the original show aired, and Roseanne is still the best at using satire, sarcasm, and humor to bring those struggles as well as the issues facing Americans to the forefront and allow all of us to laugh with her.
The Evolution of Satirical Strategies
Now that Roseanne is back on the air, the writing of the show, although still about a blue-collar family in the Midwest has taken a different turn. The primary writer is Roseanne Barr, and the tone of the show hinges a lot on her political views and the issues that confront Americans today. The first episode aired on March 27, 2018, after a twenty-year hiatus, and on it, Roseanne and her sister have not spoken for two years because Jackie voted for Jill Stein and Roseanne is an ardent Trump supporter.
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Roseanne, still wanting to target working-class white people, is using her partisan politics to reach them. The new version of the show is tackling the issues of today by including the opioid crisis, the cost of health insurance, high unemployment, and transgender/gay rights. Although Roseanne is an outspoken supporter of President Trump and a conservative, she has maintained the progressivism of the show in the way that her writing addresses common issues and problems that her fictional family is facing. Daughter Becky wants to become a surrogate mother, and although Roseanne is initially against it, she is reminded by her sister Jackie that “You always believed a woman had a right to decide what happens to her body,” and Roseanne relents. (Paskins)
In the second episode of this new season, Darlene, who is now a single mother with two children and a son, Mark, wants to wear girls’ clothes to school. Darlene is okay with this, as she states that he is not gay or transgender; he just likes to dress this way. Dan and Roseanne are also okay with this and go to their grandson’s school to defend him. (“Dress to Impress”) The tackling of the issue of cross-dressing shows how Roseanne, through the scripting of the episode, is tackling relevant issues in today’s world. Having a character like Mark in the new version of the show is important to maintaining the integrity of what ‘Roseanne’ is all about.
The Subtle Transformation
Another new cast member of the show is DJ’s daughter, Mary Conner. In the “White In the Men Can’t Kiss” episode of the seventh season of the original series, DJ would not kiss the black classmate that he was starring opposite in the class play because of the color of her skin. For a sitcom, Roseanne managed to expertly touch upon racial bias and showcase the uncomfortable conversations Roseanne and Dan had when confronting their own bias. (White Men Can’t Kiss”) As the new season progresses, we discover that Mary Conner is DJ’s daughter with his wife, that same black girl now grown and serving as a soldier overseas. The idea of mixed marriage was not as acceptable in the original series, whereas now Roseanne tackles it with honesty and openness.
The writers, Matt Williams and Roseanne Barr based the show, characters, and storylines on their own real-life experiences. Williams, when asked where his ideas came from, said, “You Write what you know.” (Bennett) Williams is the son of blue-collar parents who created the characters as a consolidation of his own family members. Goranson, when interviewed by TODAY, stated that the biggest impact of the show was “this archetypal family that had storylines around money issues and personal issues and love and … that was such a mirroring for families in the United States and around the world.
I think it really helped people communicate better … and also not feel isolated.” (Bennett) Williams said the intent of his writing was ‘to represent the people I grew up with — without condescending — and basically celebrate this working-class family with a husband and wife who loved each other.’ (Bennett) The writing of the original series did just that – it kept it real. Williams stated about his writing and ideas for the show: “They were real people to me, and I wanted to write about their experiences. (Bennett)
The Roseanne show was based in the fictional factory town of Lanford, Illinois, and is about the nuclear Conner family rotating around the heartbeat of the family. Other vital members of this family are husband and dad Dan, played by John Goodman; sister Jackie, played by Laurie Metcalf; daughters Becky and Darlene, played by Lecy Goranson (replaced by Sarah Chalke partway through the sixth season); and Sarah Gilbert respectively, and son DJ played by Michael Fishman. The early show often tackled issues not usually discussed on TV, like birth control, PMS,
teenage sex, money, unemployment, and feminism. It brought forth the struggles of the working class using satire and humor. In its first run, Roseanne was political, but more indirectly than overtly. The show dealt less with debates happening on the national stage and more with the ones happening at kitchen tables, with the frayed purse strings of two working-class parents, and the even more frazzled sanity that came with raising three kids during the 1990s evolving cultural values. (D’Addario) In the new version, kitchen-table debates have been replaced with the cultural confusion of today’s issues.
Satire and sarcasm are used every day to get one’s views across. The Roseanne show, both past and present, does just that. Roseanne is an expert at using not only sarcasm and satire but also humor to express her point of view through the writing of her TV show. The Roseanne show debuted on October 18, 1988 and ran until May 20, 1997. In its early days, the show was created to portray an average working-class family. It was one of the few on the air that mimicked the traditions of shows like The Honeymooners and one of the last to succeed before TV comedy was taken over by upper-class white folks who never seemed to worry about money. (VanDerWerff)
The show was tough, honest, and often provoking. It could pivot from very funny to very heartbreaking on a dime. While we laughed and cried at the original show, will we do the same for the new version? The new Roseanne debuted on March 27, 2018 and while it still portrays a middle-class family, the script has drifted from the trials and tribulations of that family to a discussion about President Donald Trump, current events, and culture. The arguments now are less about how Roseanne examined feminism and class and more about her political views and stance on today’s debatable issues. The old Roseanne blends well with the new Roseanne. She still writes to provoke conversations.
- Bennett, L. (2018, March 23). ‘Roseanne’ at 30: What the cast has said about the groundbreaking show. TODAY. https://www.today.com/popculture/roseanne-30-what-cast-has-said-about-groundbreaking-show-t125790
- D’Addario, D. (2018, March 27). ‘Roseanne’ Review: TV’s Most Timely Revival is a Goofy Delight. Time. https://time.com/5211630/roseanne-review-timely-revival/
- Paskins, L. (2018, March 27). Roseanne returns to its central political conflict – Trump. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/mar/27/roseanne-returns-to-its-central-political-conflict-trump