Neither Roseanne nor its shrill-voiced lead ever shied away from controversy. Since the show’s departure, TV, at least in its sitcom sector, has lacked that fiery, feminist, DGAF attitude that made the show so captivating. Both Roseannes return to primetime this week dishing out another scoop of revivalism for nostalgia hungry viewers. Its original run spanned from 1988 to 1997, giving us nine seasons and 222 episodes of Barr’s no-BS domestic goddess. The Conner family was a much needed dose of realism in the 90s sitcom world. They struggled to make ends meet, they traded cynical quips, and they happily used laughter and sarcasm to get themselves through life’s tougher moments. Though crass and biting at the surface, the Conners weren’t without heart, and that juxtaposition and ability to keep trucking is what earns their spot in the record books.
Most of season nine will be retconned (thankfully), but the revival looks to pick up right where the series left off: tackling difficult but relevant topics that most 90’s comedies wouldn’t touch. Roseanne and Barr herself were no strangers to controversy. Whether dealing with domestic violence, mental illness or homosexuality, the Conners traversed hot button issues with (low) class and realism, remaining both relevant and far ahead of their time. The revival is set to follow suit, handling the dreaded election that tore families apart, gender neutrality and race, and that’s just what was released to the press.
To celebrate the show’s fearlessness (and fearless leader), here are 10 of its most socially relevant episodes (that you can stream on Amazon Prime right now!) in order of airdate.
“Let’s Call It Quits” (Season 1, Episode 23)
Roseanne and Dan have always been working class people and in “Let’s Call It Quits,” Roseanne fights against poor working conditions and unrealistic expectations. In her own Norma Rae moment, she stages a walkout of her friends from their gig at Wellman Plastics after suffering through bullying and condescension at the hands of their sexist boss, Faber. Faber promises to lower the impossible quotas as long as Roseanne bites her tongue and follows orders. When Faber breaks his end of the deal, Roseanne lets loose. This episode sets up the continuous ebbs and flows of the Conners’ early work life and highlights class issues showcasing gender inequalities in the workplace. It wasn’t the first time Roseanne stood up against sexism and authority, and it sure as hell wouldn’t be the last.
Mr. Faber (to Roseanne): I know how business works, sugar. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. Now, I’m more than willing to scratch your back. The question is, are you willing to scratch mine?
Roseanne: Now, Mrs. Faber isn’t going to jump out of the closet dressed as a Dutch girl, is she?
“A Bitter Pill to Swallow” (Season 4, Episode 1)
Dealing with the fact that your child is having sex must be a difficult…uh…pill to swallow, but the show tackled the topic with its signature sarcasm and heart. Dan and Roseanne aren’t big fans of Mark, Becky’s beau, making the situation that much harder on the mother-daughter dynamic. When Becky goes to her mom for help getting birth control pills, Roseanne is able to keep her cool long enough to maintain Becky’s trust and stay in the know. It’s one of the most dreaded conversations for both children and parents to have and Roseanne handles it with aplomb.
Jackie (after discussing Becky going on the pill): Roseanne, maybe you need to sit down.
Roseanne: No, I need to lie down… in a big pine box.
“Crime and Punishment” (Season 5, Episode 13) and “War and Peace” (Season 5, Episode 14)
What other TV show could bring humor and levity to a domestic violence storyline? In this two-parter, Jackie’s live-in boyfriend Fisher was revealed to be physically abusive. While the show handles the issue with sensitivity and sisterly support, it’s also got one of the best Darlene-Dan sequences when she shows up at the local jailhouse to bail her dad out after he beats up Fisher. Actually, it might be one of the show’s best sequences ever. (And don’t forget the end scene with Dan’s homage to Elvis. It’s a performance that shows off the true raw talent of the inimitable John Goodman.)
Roseanne (to Fisher): You just make sure you never come near Jackie again, because to get to her, you’ll have to get through me, and I’m a lot more dangerous than Dan. I own a loose meat restaurant, I know what to do with the body.
“Wait Till Your Father Gets Home” (Season 5, Episode 16)
After Jackie and Roseanne’s dad dies, the sisters must come to terms with their most painful childhood feelings, including their father’s affair and his physical abuse. This episode is yet another prime example of how emotional and gut-wrenching the show can be, and how insanely fast it can turn itself upside down and have you laughing in near tears. See the quote below.
Jackie: (on phone with her aunt) Auntie Barbara? It’s Jackie…Jackie!…I’m fine…Fine!…I’m fine! I have some bad news. Dad is not with us anymore… I said, Dad has passed away!…He’s passed away!!…Dad is gone!!…Dad’s dead!!…He’s dead!!…No, DEAD!!!…DEAD!!!!…He’s fine! He sends his love! Bye! (turns to Roseanne) I am not going to do that again– you can’t make me! (hangs up the phone)
“A Stash From the Past” (Season 6, Episode 4)
Roseanne has never been sillier than when our titular heroine finds a bag of weed in the basement that she wrongly assumes is David’s (it’s her own forgotten stash). Roseanne, Dan and Jackie decide to spark it up in a scene that’s chock-full of hilarity, paranoia and munchies. Roseanne freaks though after DJ comes home from school and beats herself up for being irresponsible. Though the show never condemns the drug, it does wax poetic on how times change and people grow. Is it possible to retain the carefree hedonism of a 60’s teen after becoming a parent? For Roseanne, the answer was no…but it was hysterical watching her figure that out.
Jackie: [stoned and laying the bathtub] Is this the sink? Am I shrinking?
The Driver’s Seat (Season 6, Episode 11)
In this jarring installment, Roseanne is suspicious that Leon is trying to usurp her role as the Lunch Box leader. While her friends cast her fears aside, her suspicions prove to be true. The heaviness comes after DJ steals Roseanne’s car and her violent response makes her worried she’s repeating the pattern of her own childhood abuse. This episode is uncomfortable, but stands as one of Barr’s best. It goes to show just how deep-seated one’s childhood traumas can be and how far that can reach into adulthood.
Jackie: [upset that Roseanne spanked DJ because her Dad used to beat her and Roseanne] That has *everything* to do with it! These patterns repeat!
Dan: Well then you’d better look out, because my father used to *love* to hit his sister-in-law!
“Lies My Father Told Me” (Season 6, Episode 21)
Roseanne consistently gave its stellar actors amazing material to work with and Goodman’s performance in this tragic Season 6 episode is proof of that. Dan learns that his mother’s mental breakdowns weren’t caused by his father’s extended absences, but rather, the result of mental illness. Dan spent his life blaming his dad for mom’s fragility, something his dad accepted to spare Dan the harsh reality. Dan starts to see his father in a new light, pulling him deeper into his mom’s healthcare issues. The B-story of Darlene and Becky trying to convince DJ that he’s crazy too really lightens the mood here and shows how special (and twisted) these siblings really are.
Darlene: Only in our family can someone be a nutcase for 20 years without anyone noticing.
Roseanne: We notice, Darlene, we’re just ignoring you.
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (Season 6, Episode 18)
Roseanne was always down with the gays (see Martin Mull’s Leon, for one, and Sandra Bernhard’s Nancy for another), but the topic was again explored after Nancy’s girlfriend Sharon plants a hot and heavy kiss right smack on Roseanne’s lips. The aftermath of the kiss brings up the issue of homophobia as Roseanne uncomfortably discusses what went down with Nancy. When the episode aired, the taboo subject caused quite a stir and raised tensions once again between the network and Barr. A couple ABC affiliates didn’t even air it. Thirty million viewers tuned in, however, proving that not only would fans not shy away from controversy, but they were THERE. FOR. IT.
Roseanne to Nancy after being called a hypocrite: “I have friends that are way gayer than you!”
“White Men Can’t Kiss” (Season 7, Episode 9)
When Dan and Roseanne find out DJ refused to kiss a girl in the school play because she was black, they examine their feelings and stance on race in America. Where had he picked up that idea and should they force him to kiss her just to prove they weren’t racist? They consult their black friend, Chuck, to get his take on the situation. This is one episode that will carry over to the revival—DJ now has a black daughter.
Roseanne to DJ: Hey! Black people are just like us. They’re every bit as good as us, and any people who don’t think so is just a bunch of banjo-picking, cousin-dating, barefoot embarrassments to respectable white-trash like us!
“Maybe Baby” (Season 7, Episode 11)
As if Roseanne could leave the abortion issue unturned. When complications arise, Roseanne awaits test results and weighs whether or not to abort her pregnancy. She doesn’t go through with it, but the episode highlights women’s right to make decisions for their own bodies and how much say a partner should have in the matter.
Dan: “Roseanne” and “demand.” Two words that go together like “waffle-iron” and “forehead.”
Roseanne returns Tuesday, March 27 at 8 p.m. on ABC.