I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.
I was one of millions of people who marked my calendar when I heard that Roseanne was coming back to ABC. This was a show that my parents watched every week when I was a kid, but I didn’t get into it personally until I was in high school, and by then, the show had been off the air for years. But here I was able to relive exactly what it was like to grow up in a poor, working-class family in the 80’s and 90’s with a strong, opinionated mother and a man’s man but always there for you father. This show hit on many heavy topics but always with a sense of humor, something that is often missing in these moments in real life. This show illustrated how normal this lifestyle was to most of its audience and how looking back, we wouldn’t have had it any other way, even if we had won the lottery.
Darlene’s Appendicitis – Season 1 Episode 18 “The Slice of Life”
Premise: Roseanne regrets calling Darlene out on her brattier-than-usual behavior when she hears that her daughter has been rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy.
Why It’s Great: It’s only season 1 so we know everything is going to be all right, but a little girl going in for emergency surgery is scary. What’s even more scary is the reality that low income families face in the waiting room: insurance issues. While most sitcom families would be dealing with their kid's health first, the Conners have to fight on the phone with the insurance company who insist that they haven't paid their bill that month. Later, Roseanne gives one of her best acting performances of the first season when she delivers a shaky-voiced monologue to the nurse at the front desk begging her for the answers that she needs, reminding her that her daughter is not just a name on a clipboard. This is what it’s like to deal with an ER visit: from Dan not knowing the kids’ health history to Becky taking care of D.J. at home to Jackie trying to help a non-English-speaking man get an update on his wife. All of the actors play it real while remembering to release the tension with their signature humor from time to time. This episodes gives the family a chance to slow down and remember to appreciate each other, no matter how crazy things get or how much tempers can flare up.
The Tornado “Toto, We’re Not in Kansas Anymore” Season 1 Episode 20
Premise: A deadly tornado touches down in Landford, and the family buckles down to ride it out.
Why It’s Great: This is the one and only time that the family encounters a force of nature in the series, despite living in the tornado alley of the Midwest. There is a fun, energetic atmosphere that turns dark real fast when Jackie is initially MIA, and Crystal hunkers down with the Conners to ride out the storm. There are impressive special effects, including wind and a window shattering in the living room to really sell the storm and the danger that the family faces. Once she arrives, Jackie freaks out about what she has seen, scaring the kids and later causing Roseanne to wonder what would happen if she hadn’t made it. The episode shows that no one can be prepared for the end of their life and leave behind those who depend on them, but it also isn’t worth worrying about either.
Halloween – Season 2 Episode 7 “BOO!”
Premise: The Conners celebrate Halloween by turning their home into a haunted house.
Why It’s Great: This episode kicked off the network sitcom tradition of doing a Halloween special each October. The Halloween shows were always the highlight of the show's season, but none of them top the first. Dan and Roseanne try to out-scare each other and Becky gets left out of a high school Halloween party but eventually stays home to help out with the haunted house. The first scene is very atmospheric between the autumn lighting, the small pranks that the family pulls on one another, and the candied apples that Jackie spoons from a pan onto the counter. There is nothing major at stake, just the pure fun of getting into the Halloween spirit. It feels like Halloween, and Halloween feels like it was made for the Conner’s.
Becky Elopes – Season 5 Episode 1 “Terms of Estrangement: Part 1”
Premise: After Dan’s motorcycle shop goes under and Becky learns that there is no money saved for her college tuition, she elopes with her boyfriend, Mark, and the family is left in shock.
Why It’s Great: Jumping forward a few seasons, the drama really starts to heat up with Roseanne, Dan, and their kids. From here on out, it’s always something with this clan, and the show was bold enough to marry off the oldest kid at 17. It shouldn’t have worked. Becky’s marriage should have ended in divorce or pregnancy. Instead, it leads to four more seasons of Becky as a married woman struggling to make ends meet but always battling through the issues to stick with her husband. Mark softens from a leather jacket-wearing punk to a dopey but hard-working husband, but for now, it seems like a huge mistake and a giant blow in the middle of an already turbulent time. The family eventually rolls with the punches, but the sting of the event lingers for several episodes, as it should.
Jackie is Beaten by Fisher “Crime and Punishment” Season 5 Episode 13
Premise: With jobs scarce in Landford, Fisher becomes moody and eventually violent, particularly with Jackie. When Dan hears of this, he goes after Fisher and beat him up, resulting in his being arrested.
Why It’s Great: Roseanne always threatens violence when she goes after her enemies, but it is Dan who always delivers. Domestic violence is not usually covered in a family sitcom, but Roseanne pulls it off in a very natural way that doesn’t turn them into hick stereotypes. Laurie Mecalf really shines in this episode when she breaks down over her embarrassment at the other others learning about her ordeal. What’s worse is when everyone finds out that Fisher has done it before, and even Jackie, an ex-cop was blind to it. Luckily, Dan lighten things up with his cavalier attitude towards being arrested by his cop friends, and Roseanne is proud of him for defending her sister in a way that she never could.
Roseanne’s Dad Dies Season 5 Episode 16 “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home”
Premise: Roseanne gets the news that her father has died, and after a fight with Jackie, makes her sister and Dan plan the funeral.
Why It’s Great: This show proves that even the darkest of moments can be funny without being insensitive. There are a lot of irritating moments that come with planning a funeral. One is dealing with all of the phone calls that you have to make. One of the greatest moments in the series is when Jackie is forced to call her hard-of-hearing aunt and break the news. After not being able to get a word through, Jackie exclaims that her dad is fine and sends his love before hanging up. The realism of the event makes the audience roar with laughter at the ability to comment on these very small and relatable moments that you don't see discussed on TV.
Roseanne, Dan, and Jackie Get High – Season 6 Episode 4 “A Stash from the Past”
Premise: Roseanne finds a bag of pot in the house that had been forgotten for decades so in an attempt to feel young again, Roseanne, Dan, and Jackie smoke some to see how it makes them feel.
Why It’s Great: How they got away with an episode where the main characters get high in the 90’s still baffles me. While you never even see a joint in their hand, the three main characters are let off the leash, giving some of their best comedic performances of the series. Their delivery, expressions, and actions come straight from their talents and not the words on the page. The experience leaves them feeling paranoid and older than ever, but that doesn’t damper the good time that they give to the audience.
Roseanne Spanks D.J. “The Driver’s Seat” Season 6 Episode 11
Premise: D.J. steals the family car and leaves it in a ditch. When an overworked Roseanne learns this from the police, she retaliates by spanking a mouthy D.J., resulting in guilt and traumatic memories being stirred up.
Why It’s Great: It’s not so much great as an important topic. When does punishment cross the line? D.J. pulls off a dangerous and illegal stunt and deserves what he gets, but it also makes Roseanne feel like a monster, not a disciplinarian. Having been beaten by her father numerous times in her childhood, Roseanne vows never to hit her kids again, no matter what they do. Her exhaustion plays a part in this. Overworked parents are more likely to overreact to their kids misbehaving, but it raises the question as to whether that’s any excuse. Dan is quick to dismiss it, believing it was an isolated incident and completely justified given the circumstances, but Jackie sees the abusive patterns of their childhood being reborn in Roseanne’s actions. She realizes that hitting D.J. will not make him behave better in the future, but she does work out a more civil but very Roseanne-level punishment for him in the end.
Roseanne’s Pregnancy Scare “Thanksgiving ‘94” Season 7 Episode 10
Premise: Roseanne gets a call from her doctor’s office on Thanksgiving that there could be something wrong with her baby. As a result she spends a nail-biting holiday dealing with the usual family drama while waiting for a phone call with answers.
Why It’s Great: Roseanne is a very well-rounded character in that she has very concrete beliefs that sometimes contradict one another. One of her most outspoken traits are her feminist viewpoints, including a pro-choice opinion when it comes to abortion. However, once she hears that something could be wrong with the baby, she realizes that abortion is not an option for her, despite what she and Dan had previously agreed upon. This idea gives rise to the belief that a woman’s right to choose can mean always choosing to let nature take its course, despite what her husband wants. It takes a few episodes for Dan and Roseanne to get the good news that nothing is wrong with the baby and then must try to repair their relationship and support of one another. Again, this is not an easy topic to discuss or side with, but the point that this show makes is that it is important to talk it out on both sides, even if two sides agree to disagree. In between phone calls, though, there are still plenty of jabs and laughs, especially from Roseanne's grandmother, Nana Mary, who always has a story and opinion about everything.
Trip to Disney “Disney World War II” Season 8 Episode 18
Premise: Roseanne and Dan decide to use Dan’s final paycheck working for the city to take the family to Disney World.
Why It’s Great: Many sitcom families in the 90’s went to Disney World, but for the Conner’s to go feels like a fish out of water story. There isn’t much conflict in this two-part episode, and that’s what makes it great. For once, we’re not worried about the train wreck around the corner. We get to see Roseanne make a park sweeper chase her around while she throws popcorn on the ground, Darlene’s small heart grow three sizes when she meets Winnie the Pooh, Mark jealously keep Becky away from the cute park mascots, and Dan skip around Epcot trying out all of the beers of the world. At the end, the family comes together to watch the fireworks, and all seems right in the world.
Dan’s Heart Attack “Heart and Soul” Season 8 Episode 24
Premise: After Darlene’s wedding, Dan suffers a massive heart attack and spends the episode recovering in the hospital.
Why It’s Great: If you ever had a parent almost die on you, you know why this episode is not so much great as very real. Tragedy can strike around any corner, and of course for the Conner’s, it had to happen on Darlene’s wedding day. Dan and Roseanne each have a monologue in which they talk to God, blaming Him and then themselves for what unfolded. It’s jarring to see the family visit in their wedding clothes and later have Becky and Darlene talk about nearly losing their dad and what it would be like without him. It’s something that anyone with a dad wonders about and dreads the older they get.
Dan and Roseanne’s Massive Fight “Fights and Stuff” Season 8 Episode 25
Premise: When Roseanne catches Dan cheating on his diet after his heart attack, they blow up into a massive fight, rattling off years of built-up emotions that leaves the living room, and their marriage, in shambles.
Why It’s Great: This is probably the hardest episode for me to watch just because of how it seems to come out of nowhere. Everyone was so grateful that Dan had made it through his heart attack, but you forget about how sometimes traumatic events can stir up buried emotions. Dan's sneakiness leads to tensions which culminate into a blow up where Dan and Roseanne both strike the lowest of blows to each other, spewing insults about everything from their weight to their family life to how they view each other. Roseanne and Dan fight a lot throughout the series, but they never get this personal and downright unforgivable in certain moments. On top of that, there is violence. Roseanne destroys Dan’s precious TV. Dan overturns the coffee table. Pictures are thrown off of the mantle, and the audience is left wondering if this is it for Dan and Roseanne. The audience watches 20 years of suppressed rage spewing out in them. Some of it is justified, but none of it is anything but shocking.
Darlene Gives Birth “The Miracle” Season 9 Episode 19
Premise: Darlene goes into early labor, and her daughter is born severely pre-mature. Roseanne pours all of the money that she can into saving her, but in the end, it’s her resilience without money or machine that saves baby Harris’ life.
Why It’s Great: Even the most die hard fans agree that the Conner’s winning the lottery was a big mistake for this show. Though it made for some new writing material, the family lost their blue-collar relatability. This show starts to bring them back to their old selves when they realize that all of the money in the world cannot save this baby. In the end, they decide not to hook her up to any machines and let nature and her family history of strong woman take its course. Each of the women take turns holding the baby and talking to her, urging her to fight for her life, and she does. Darlene names her Harris, after Roseanne's maiden name, and while things get intense as usual, it all works out in the end.
Dan’s Death “Into That Good Night” Season 9 Episodes 23 & 24
Premise: In the final two episodes of the series, Darlene’s baby comes home, and the family gathers together to celebrate before Roseanne reveals to the audience that most of the previous season and some general elements of the show itself was Roseanne’s fictional account of her family that she began to write after Dan suffered his heart attack and died.
Why It’s Great: This has to be one of the saddest endings in sitcom history. Roseanne is left alone on the couch in her old living room, having not won the lottery or lived the life that we all thought she had lived. The worst part of all is that she doesn’t have Dan by her side. Dan does not define her as a person, but Dan defined her family life, and to not have him around is devastating. However, this series deals with many sad moments.This is a family that never catches a break, and after the lottery experiment, they prove that the audience doesn’t want them to. They can do just fine surviving one tragedy after another, and you do feel like Roseanne will survive without Dan, but things will never be the same. I don't like it, but I accept it. At the same time, choosing to bring him back for the reboot was a relief. That's something that you can't get in real life, but this is a fictional story, and in fiction, you can do what you want.
When people ask me why I like this show, I say, because it is the closest version of my family that I will ever get on TV. When I want the light, airy story lines, I’ll go watch reruns of Full House. When I want to see what I think my teen years should have been like, I’ll watch Boy Meets World. When I want to laugh at people who are like the people I have known my whole life dealing with moments that I have experienced, I turn on Roseanne. I’ll take the tragedy with the laughs and the cringe-inducing storylines with the goofy ones. The show was originally supposed to be titled Life, and Stuff. That pretty much covers it all.
Ashley Morris from Huntington, WV on April 18, 2018:
Wonderful article about one of my favorite shows of all time! You really touched on some of what made this show absolutely golden. Thank you!