Why Roseanne Can’t Be Reduced to a Single Episode

Which Roseanne are you watching on a given night? Photo: Adam Rose/ABC

There have been many sweeping pronouncements about the new revival of Roseanne in the last two weeks. It is either the first real pro-Trumpian show ever made, or it normalizes him, or it’s finally a series that will bring conservative women out of the closet, or it is a morally bankrupt show designed to line the pockets of a monster, or it is secretly the most anti-Trump screed yet produced on television. Maybe the least surprising thing about all of those pronouncements is that they’re being made on the basis of three meager episodes of television — and many of them on much less, with arguments hanging on one half-hour of the show, or even one joke.

I almost can’t believe I’m going to say this, because I firmly believe that it’s a good and useful thing to consider a single TV episode in a vacuum. That should be especially true for a sitcom, where episodes are largely stand-alone, and each of them has a cell-like tendency to be representative of the entire DNA of a series. And in many of those responses, especially of the third episode, have been biting, valuable acts of criticism. But in the case of Roseanne, the rush to say that the show is doing or arguing any one particular thing, and the willingness to hang those assertions on a single line in a single episode, is also flattening how we see the show.

This is not meant as a defense of Roseanne, but a suggestion that maybe the show’s perceived failures have a lot to do with our incomplete understanding of how a sitcom works.

There is this idea that drama series are “serialized,” and comedies, specifically sitcoms, are not. Sitcoms are famously built out of stories contained within an episode; they follow a cycle of introduction, problem, resolution, and denouement so regular and cyclical that you could set your half-hour watch by it. When describing writing episodes of Community, Dan Harmon called this the circle; in an Atlantic piece about learning how to write a sitcom, Noah Charney explains, “one of the distinguishing characteristics of sitcoms, as opposed to other forms of television, is that the main protagonist(s) barely change from one episode to the next, let alone from season to season … therefore whatever happens in the episode, the situation must largely end where it began.”

There are exceptions to this truism, and there are at least a dozen seeming sitcoms that have fully blown it out of the water (the most beloved example being Arrested Development). But there’s a truth to it, too. Especially when a show looks and sounds like an old-school, check the boxes and fill in the blanks style sitcom, we do not arrive with any expectation that seeing the show from the vantage of multiple episodes at once would give you a different picture than looking at a single episode. Nor do we come at it with charges of narrative complexity. We think of narrative complexity as a thorny plot thing, ideally featuring a surprise twist or a byzantine detail that bursts into sudden meaningfulness many episodes later. It’s entirely different from the sitcom plot, which wraps up with the end of an episode, and which has characters that stay the same season in and season out. Thus, The Good Place is complex; Roseanne is not.

I think that’s mostly true, and I love the TV episode as a stand-alone form. But the sense that a sitcom can be reduced to a single episode leaves us ill-equipped to talk about Roseanne. The easiest way to see this is in the endless attempts to align new Roseanne with old Roseanne. Are they the same show? Is the new Roseanne Conner the same as the woman from the original series? Are they at least ideologically consistent? How much does that even matter? Has new Roseanne Conner betrayed her original self? It’s particularly pointed in one-to-one considerations of an old episode and a new, as in Laura Bradley’s comparison between last week’s Roseanne (who forcibly held her granddaughter’s head in the sink, knee to her back) and an episode from the original Roseanne, in which Conner spanks her son, thinks about her own family history of abuse, and then apologizes to him later. How can these be the same character? Apparently sitcoms can change over time.

The dissonance between separate episodes of Roseanne is most visible in the enormous fissures and shifts from the original series and what we’ve seen of Roseanne in 2018. But that break is also easy to dismiss. Call nu-Roseanne an entirely separate fictional object, resembling but bearing no connection to the original series. Imagine an enormous void gaping between the two; judge the new series only by what it contains and jettison everything that happened in seasons one through nine. The plots begin and end inside an episode, and Roseanne is a bullying, MAGA-hat-wearing grandmother, and it’s a show about white working-class resentment. The problem of continuity and serial storytelling disappears, right?

Except that, even in the small group of episodes we’ve seen of the revival season, the differences from one Roseanne to the next seem enormous, and it becomes even larger when you add in an additional late-season episode that many critics have already seen. There’s one way of looking at this season that sees it as building toward that later episode, the one in which things take a very serious, very dark turn. And for the other way of seeing the show, it doesn’t matter what happens later because each episode is a completed, whole story.

In truth, both versions are right (sitcoms, like light, are both particle and wave). Sitcom complexity does not work in a clean, linear way, like a long-serialized drama story — complexity and development in sitcoms is a process of accretion. A story happens, it ends, and in that vision of the story we have a certain idea of who these characters are. It happens again and again and again, and each time, a finished episode gets placed on a slowly growing stack of separate images of who Roseanne is. In one image she looks vulnerable. In another she’s a bully. There’s another where she’s an advocate. Each of these images of her is correct, but if they’re surrounded by other episodes where she is entirely different, then those images are also incomplete. Roseanne may be building toward this other, darker story for its title character, but it is also inclusive of a Roseanne Conner who calls her granddaughter a bitch.

In the best sitcoms, that fragmentary method of building character and story is a slow, piece-by-piece layering that eventually adds up to a nuanced wide-shot view of who these people are and what the show is about. It’s impressionistic, with each episode as a single point of color in what slowly amounts to a broader picture. Think of Cheers, or Parks & Rec, or The Golden Girls, or 30 Rock — there are a few episodes that are inevitable aberrations, strange miscolored outliers in the total picture, but the long-view perspective is of characters and a story and a tone that adds up to something more than the sum of its parts.

The problem (okay, a problem) with the revival of Roseanne is that even in our small sample set, we have a handful of images of who Roseanne is and what Roseanne is that already feel contradictory. It’s easy enough to read that pilot episode as whatever you’d like, but it’s very hard to reconcile the grandma of episode two, who soothes and protects her grandson, with the grandma of episode three, who berates and belittles her granddaughter. And for critics with access to one additional episode, the picture looks even stranger and less coherent. Our impulse is to force them all into a sensible, legible order — to somehow shuffle the various Roseannes, past and present, into some kind of decipherable vision of the show. There may not be one. The drawback (or success) of the new Roseanne might be politics, and it might be big laugh lines, and it might be nostalgia culture, and it might be that it’s trying to speak to America now. But it may also be that, as with America now, the new Roseanne is too fractured to speak to much of anything at all.

Roseanne Can’t Be Reduced to a Single Episode