Before Joss Whedon convinced an absurdly large number of normal world citizens to see a movie about Norse gods, frozen past-men, and Robert Downey Jr.’s goatee, he was the nerd-worshipped creator of cult hits like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and (the author begrudgingly included) Dollhouse. Even before that, however, Whedon was a sitcom writer. At the tender of 24, he was a story editor and staff writer for Roseanne, securing the writing credit on five episodes in the second season: The Little Sister, House of Grown-ups, Brain-Dead Poets Society, Chicken Hearts, and Fathers and Daughters.
Staff writing on a television show typically isn’t a place for individual flair; writer’s contributions are simply the raw ingredients that are blended into a showrunner’s final vision. However, since Whedon’s wry, hyper-articulate voice is so distinct it’s practically trademarked, I was curious: Would his contributions be evident even in these early scripts? Correlation isn’t causality, but judging his episodes against the rest of the series, it’s pretty easy to see the Whedon chunks in the Roseanne stew. (I’m sorry. End of food metaphors for this piece.)
Whedon’s a staunch feminist famous for writing strong women (strong both in an emotional way and in the way that they punch monsters), and it shows in these episodes. His writing for Roseanne is great: She’s harsh but loving, and her meaner moments are written clearly as defense mechanisms against her everyday life. (Famously, when Roseanne asked Whedon how he women so well, he replied, “If you met mom, you wouldn’t ask.”) But it’s Roseanne’s daughters, Becky and Darlene, where Whedon really shines. They’re fully realized adolescents with distinct personalities, never too precocious or oblivious. He handles potentially maudlin moments like Becky connecting with her father at the end of Fathers and Daughters or Darlene reciting a poem about her insecurities at the end of Brain-Dead Poets Society with earnestness and heart.
However, Whedon also loves himself a good soapbox, and his episodes also feature moments that toe the line between empowering and preachy. In The Little Sister, Roseanne and her daughter Becky have a frank, open discussion of the effects of pornography on teenage girl’s self-esteem that, while touching and progressive, is only marginally funny and not at all related to the main plot. (Highlight: Becky asks why men look at those magazines, Roseanne replies, “It’s because they think they’re looking back.”) Then, in Dead Poets Society, Roseanne takes up the cause of female poets, not only revealing that she herself was once a poet, but casually name-dropping of Edie Brickell, Chrissy Hynde, or Rickie Lee Jones. Not that a middle-aged working class mother can’t be into new wave or alt rock, but I don’t believe her interest in poetry ever comes up again, and that list of names seems suspiciously pulled from Whedon’s iTunes playlist. (Or, I don’t know, whatever they had in 1988.)
Writing class effectively is a recurring weakness of Whedon’s. A third generation TV writer, he often does that very TV writer-ly thing where every character, no matter their age, education, or planet or origin, quips with the wry self-awareness of a pop-culture savvy teenager. Roseanne is no exception: The Conner’s pop culture IQ jumps a distinct ten points when Whedon writes them. In addition to Roseanne’s name-dropping, John Goodman breaks the fourth wall with a Julia Child impression, and Becky refers a boy in her class as “Mandingo.”(A term that Urban Dictionary lists as either a 1975 movie about slavery or “an African male who knows that he has a huge penis that can hit all night and keep a female comin back fo more.” Nice work, 1989 network censors.) Whedon really plants his pop culture flag, however, in House of Grown-ups with the arrival of a new, high-tech VCR. (Like the discussion about pornography, it’s a tangential detail that Whedon seems to enjoy more than the actual plot.) We get a fun run of Darlene wanting to rent “Lethal Weapon 2, Jaws 3, and Nightmare on Elm Street 4,” John Goodman busts out an impressions of Dirty Harry, and Roseanne proclaims her love for Dr. Zhivago. And, for the ultimate Whedon touch, when nobody can agree on what to rent, what film finally unites everyone? Star Wars.
I’ve mentioned Dan Conner doing a lot of impressions in these episodes. While John Goodman is a national treasure who can make any material work, Whedon’s take on his character stands out: Dan is goofier and more removed from the action, and notably less agitated than when written by other writers. (Tom Arnold in particular seems to have a rather aggressive take on Dan. Read into that what you will.) Taking a look at Whedon’s other works, fathers, particularly strong ones, are notably absent. Even when Whedon does have Dan raise his voice, protesting Roseanne’s insistence that Darlene read her poem in Dead Poet’s Society, he still feels deferential and defanged. In these episodes, Dan Conner transforms into the Whedon proto-male aka the “Xander:” An affable, quipping observer defined more by the women around him then by any strong internal life.
It might seem like I’m picking apart Whedon’s episodes, but that’s only because his voice becomes obvious when he falls out of step with the show. Roseanne was actually the perfect first project for him. Whedon’s work perfectly balances the spectacle of ladies stabbing vampires or green giants punching vikings with earnest character relationships between, and he pulls the same trick here. Roseanne grabs viewers with its star’s crass takedowns and family infighting, but sticks because you can tell this family loves each other and will rally together against any outside threat. When, at the end of Chicken Hearts, Whedon has the entire family rally against Roseanne’s snotty 17-year-old fast food boss, it’s just as gratifying as watching Hulk punch an evil space whale. The man may have his weaknesses as a writer, but he knows how to pay off an emotional arc. In fact, The Little Sister and House of Grown-ups end with two of Whedon’s favorite things – a well-choreographed fight scene (skip to 2:11):
And an elaborate, totally on-key musical number (skip to 6:02):
Ben Joseph writes comedy and cartoons for television and the Internet.