Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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Misspeak, Memory

September 5th, 2017 | Posted by Philip J Reed in television

Have you ever had a memory that was later proven to be so far from reality that you begin to question the way your mind works?

I’m sure it’s happened to me other times, but the most recent example comes courtesy of Roseanne. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first let’s talk about the show as a whole.

The entire series is currently available for streaming through Amazon Prime, but sadly those are syndication cuts. It’s worth pointing out, though, that the complete series boxset is available for under $30 new, and I’ve heard those are the original broadcast edits.

Anyway, I’m working my way back through the series on Prime. I remember really liking the show when I was young. It debuted when I was seven, and revisiting the episodes for the first time in my adult life, I can definitely confirm that my family started watching from the very beginning. I even remembered a lot of lines and moments from the pilot. Maybe my mother or father was already a fan of Roseanne’s standup or something. For whatever reason, we were able to catch a truly great show from the start. I’m grateful for that.

Years ago, before I started reviewing ALF on this site and shaved eleven years off my life, someone suggested I review Roseanne. Watching the show again (I’m about two seasons deep), I’m glad I didn’t. It’s very good television. The characterization is sharp, with characters arriving fully formed and every actor perfectly cast. The stories are well chosen and well told. Comedy and drama are balanced perfectly, with the show nearly always leaning toward the former, but keeping the latter at a steady hum that reveals genuine sadness whenever you look past the jokes.

Which, really, would have left me with very little to say as a critic. I’m sure there are at least a few dud episodes scattered throughout the run (and from what I hear it concludes with a complete dud season), but, on the whole, my reviews would have struggled to find interesting ways to repeat “here’s why this works so well” over and over again. By contrast, I never struggled to repeatedly make fun of Max Wright’s crack-fueled hobo sex festivals at all!

It’s almost puzzling to me that I liked Roseanne when I was so young. Why did I not think it was boring? At that age I liked cartoons, and puppets, and things that screamed for my attention. Why was I interested in a show that did episodes about who would cook dinner? Or getting ready for a rummage sale? Or bickering over money?

Well, frankly…I think the credit goes to Darlene. Sara Gilbert’s character was…different. I’m sure I’d seen plenty of adult characters in the same vein, but never a child. Another child. One who was so clearly detached from the family and the town around her. One who struggled to make friends, or to find value in the things that others seemed to take pleasure in. One that thought so differently about the world she occupied that she couldn’t connect with others…not genuinely…and had to default to being an isolate.

That resonated with me. It resonates with me now. In many ways, it’s also why I felt drawn to Lisa Simpson as a character. Between Lisa and Darlene, I understood to some degree that I wasn’t alone. These characters were fictional, but they were reflecting real experiences for me. Behind them, there were writers. Writers who understood the things I felt. Writers who had words for what I couldn’t say. Writers who provided a quiet promise that you’ll grow up one day…and when you do, you can find the place that you fit.

Through Darlene and Lisa I was able to learn about art. About expression. About depression. About channeling my emotions. These were shows — and characters — that helped me not just to grow, but to become a healthier person who understood himself just a little bit better. A little was enough.

I’m not trying to say I wouldn’t have learned about those things eventually…but rather that I hadn’t before. And the friends I could eventually count on to guide me through difficult times…weren’t in my life yet. Television, films, movies, music, books…all of these things gave me a chance to understand myself that much earlier. And if I continue to take them all a bit too seriously now, it’s only because I know how seriously they helped me back then.

And so I look back on Roseanne and The Simpsons as two shows that were far smarter than anybody at the time was giving them credit for being. They spoke truths. I may not have understood most of them, but I recognized them as truths at least. The only real different between them was that I’d revisited The Simpsons many times throughout my life, and found a bit more in those incredible first eight seasons each time.

Roseanne, though, was just a memory. A positive one, for sure. When someone suggested I review Roseanne, it was listed among a bunch of other shows that were clearly (or very likely) crap. And I remember thinking, “Wait…wasn’t Roseanne good?” I’d forgotten so much about the show, but retained what my brain must have thought was the most important thing: it was quality television.

There were a few episodes that I remembered quite well, though. There was the one where they smoke pot in the bathroom. The one where Roseanne and her sister Jackie visit their childhood home and reflect on the abuse they suffered. The one where Darlene reads her “to whom it may concern” poem.

And my favorite one…the one I remembered so well, so vividly, so strongly above anything else: the one where the door-to-door salesman dies in their kitchen.

At least…I thought I remembered it.

See, I remembered Roseanne being good. Sharp, insightful, daring. Well written. Flawlessly acted. Sadly relatable. Watching it again, I can say that I was right; I stand by all of those impressions. Probably even more strongly now. But the one episode I would have pointed to in order to illustrate my claim was the salesman one…and my memory of the episode couldn’t have been further away from what it actually was.

Here’s what I thought I remembered: an old man shows up at Roseanne’s door to sell her something. He starts to feel sick and asks for a glass of water, so she invites him inside. He passes away suddenly in her kitchen. They cover him with a sheet and wait for the coroner, with the family dealing — each in their own way — with death, now that it’s confronted them in their home. During all of this, people stop by the house to see the laundry set Roseanne is selling, which complicates things a bit further. There’s a physical comedy setpiece when the dead man’s hand slips off of the table and slaps Dan in the butt.

That’s a lot, right? And…well, all of it’s accurate. I really did remember it well. The episode stuck with me as a child, and I know it’s come up in conversation with friends before. I’d tell them about it…about how much it felt like nothing else I had ever seen in a sitcom. Those shows handled death — sometimes frivolously, sometimes seriously — but rarely did they seem intelligent in their handling. This episode of Roseanne, however, did. It felt like it said something larger…or at least explored a larger space.

In school I gravitated toward English and creative writing courses. In college I majored in English Literature. And ever since I was a child, I spent most of my leisure time reading and writing. This probably caused me to remember one thing about the episode more than any other: the way the individual characters confronted death, and how they processed it. That said a lot about who they were. It was true to what we already knew about them, and it revealed even more. It was good writing. And as I was becoming a writer, it was right for me to internalize what I’d learned from the episode.

Morbid Darlene responds with curiosity, sneaking into the kitchen to investigate the body after she’s told to keep away. Dan is creeped out by it and refuses to touch it, even when a police officer asks for help. Oldest daughter Becky insists that they give him a name, so that he isn’t just some anonymous, forgotten nobody. Little DJ doesn’t understand what’s happening, and makes his family a set of toe tags as a gift. Roseanne…well, I didn’t much remember how she reacted, but now I can report that she’s essentially a blank slate; she’s our audience surrogate in this situation, observing and absorbing rather than projecting.

Again, I remembered all of this with varying degrees of clarity.

The reaction I remembered most vividly, though, was that of Jackie. Rewatching the show, I see now just how incredible Laurie Metcalf is in that role overall. Jackie is a great character. Troubled, helpless, aimless, filling the void inside of her with booze and men. She keeps it together externally, but there’s always the sense of something much sadder within, and sometimes the mask even slips, allowing us to see it directly.

It’s really great stuff, and it’s no wonder Metcalf won three Emmys for the role. She’s fantastic.

It’s also her reaction to the salesman’s death that I remembered most.

She sees it as a blessing for him. If she feels any emotion, it’s jealousy.

An old man died in the home of a family he didn’t know…and Jackie would trade places with him in a heartbeat.

What a tremendously sad moment of characterization.

She even opens up to her sister about it. She makes clear in a calm, measured way that death is preferable to anything she has in life.

“He’s probably doing better than any of us,” she says. “That’s the cosmic joke, Roseanne.”

That phrase has stuck with me ever since. “The cosmic joke.” I’ve thought about it a lot. The cosmic joke that none of us are ever in a position to laugh at. The one at our perpetual expense. From other sitcoms, I might remember specific gags. From this one, I remembered a muttered, bitter sadness.

Jackie goes on:

“He’s the happiest man on the planet. His troubles are over. He’ll never again have to stand in a line. He’ll never again have to listen to the muzak version of ‘Muskrat Love.’ He’ll never again have to eat a hamburger and bite into one of those little hard things.”

She trails off. This litany of mundane inconveniences sounding…well, real. Not like the work of writers, but rather like the realistic despair of a depressive mind. Most writers would — understandably — fill a speech like this with larger, more impactful examples. “He won’t have to watch his loved ones die. He won’t have to suffer and waste away. He won’t ever again watch the latest horrors on the news and wonder how the world could get so bad.”

Those are things a writer might come up with. Instead, Jackie is human. She focuses on the small things that add up enough to weight you down. She reveals her life as so empty that even the bad things are hollow. She discussed personal and universal tragedy on the same level, because she’s trying desperately to use one to understand the other. You know…like humans do.

Maybe it’s just because she mentioned hamburgers, but I’m reminded of another formative, insightful moment in The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy after the planet Earth is destroyed. Lone survivor Arthur Dent doesn’t (can’t) quite understand the magnitude of such a loss. He can’t process the destruction of his home planet — of his entire species and its history — and, so, he doesn’t. It’s something that happened, but not something he can feel. Until it occurs to him that there’s no more McDonald’s…and then he breaks down.

Some things are just too large for us. Too big to be understood. But we can all boil them down to the small, bathetic little components of our lives, which is where we find room to identify.

And we move on from there. We learn. We grow. Not from grand lessons, but from small flickers of understanding that grow steadily into flame. We don’t decide to change. We are changed by things too small to see.

Pretty great episode, right?

Well, I rewatched it, and it turns out that I misremembered the entire thing. I had the details right…but not the episode’s actual approach.

It’s not played for drama. In fact, it’s the most deliberately silly episode Roseanne had yet done in its run. It’s full of corny jokes and big guffaws from the audience. It’s played as a comic event in the reality of the show, rather than a tragic one. The closest thing to actual sadness we find comes from Becky — whose insistence on naming the man is sincere — and, tellingly, the episode shuffles her away from nearly all of the action, so that it can concentrate on the laughs without cheapening her difficult feelings. They exist…they just exist off camera.

Even Jackie’s speech, which I typed above, feels to me like it should exist in a relatively dramatic episode, but the audience laughs through the entire thing. Every one of her sentences is funnier than the last. What I remembered as being an impressively profound moment for a primetime sitcom was…actually just another moment from a primetime sitcom. It was a series of jokes delivered by Jackie, building toward the bigger punchline from Roseanne: “How do you feel about electric shock therapy?”

And that’s…all it is.

I know that’s all it is, upon rewatching it, because I can gauge it against other episodes that prove Roseanne knows how to get the audience to take it seriously. Such as when Roseanne worries about Jackie’s safety when the latter decides to become a cop. Or when Darlene visits her cool aunt at home, to find her in a lonely, drunken stupor. Or when Dan ruins a night out by letting himself get drawn into a confrontation in a bar.

Roseanne does serious moments. And the moment I remembered as its most serious — the episode I remembered as its most serious — wasn’t serious at all. I remembered it as being Roseanne‘s version of “Death of a Salesman.” It was actually its version of “The Kipper and the Corpse.”

See, my site’s tagline isn’t really an exaggeration. I really have been reading too deeply into these things as long as I’ve been alive. And while I do think there’s value in viewing an episode like this through a more somber lens, if only to see which of its ideas holds true beyond their value as laughlines, the fact is that I remember this episode — “Death and Stuff,” season one, episode 21 — as essentially being of an entirely different genre.

It was interesting to me to watch it again, and see that I remembered just about every one of the trees, and yet somehow forgot the forest.

Have you had an experience like this? Has there ever been an episode or film or song or anything else that you remember being meaningful in some way, that you later discover was completely a projection from your own mind, and had little or nothing to do with what was actually presented?

I’d be curious to hear about more experiences like this.

And no, don’t anybody bring up the Berenstain / Berenstein Bears thing. Because that’s just fucking stupid.

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2 Responses

  • RaikoLives says:

    I’m not sure I have anything of value to add (no surprises there!) but all the way through your description of the episode I had “Kipper and the Corpse” in mind. So glad you mentioned it, or I’d have had to!

    It’s an interesting choice to make the Death Episode be the funny one, and I would imagine that it made more sense for an episode of “Roseanne, that new show about poor people” than it does for “Roseanne, that thoughtful piece of television that ran for a bunch of good seasons and one weird season”. Much like The Simpsons it was subverting the ideas that had been so common in sitcoms for decades – I imagine the Cosby Show would have handled it as a “Serious Topic” so both Roseanne and The Simpsons had to do the opposite.

    Plus, speaking of Fawlty Towers, they’re able to treat “dead guest” as seriously as any other random occurance in Basil’s stress filled, overly serious/dramatic life (both incredibly seriously and entirely hilariously). Getting the dead body out of the hotel is as serious as the Hotel Inspector potentially being there, the Gourmet Night going off the rails, and Sybill’s friends coming to visit. They’re made hilarious to us, the audience, but to Basil they are The Most Important Thing Ever. You watch the show and think “Yeah, that’s funny” but seeing Basil and Manwell bickering while carrying a corpse around a hotel is only funny because of how the show handles it, and it’s amazing how these shows are able to maintain a level of quality and vision that enables them to do that kind of thing well. (I hope that makes sense)

    Perhaps Roseanne was trying to convey the idea that the deaths of other people, while sad, is less important to the day-to-day running of their lives than the people coming to buy things from them, since that’s going to pay their rent/bills etc. Like a lot of people, our own struggles leave us with little room to take on other people, as sad a statement as that is. There’s obviously the “we make light of death so we aren’t consumed by it” but at the same time we make light of it or else we won’t be able to buy food for our family. And that kind of dehumanising is something that, as far as I recall, Roseanne managed to remove itself from. The family are good people. They do the best they can to help others. But a nameless stranger’s death is beyond even their ability to help, since there’s literally NOTHING they can do, so the focus has to be on life, their lives. I dunno.

    This wasn’t the discussion you wanted, I know. Sorry.

    • Philip J Reed says:

      I think you’re on to something with that reading. The salesman’s story ends on a tragic note for him and his family (and friends, if applicable) but it’s an overall comic one for the Conners, as all they wanted was a lazy Sunday and someone to buy their appliances. And I don’t think it makes them bad people to view this through the filter of inconvenience…it makes them, like Jackie, human.

      Maybe part of the reason the episode works in spite of what could be considered bad taste is the fact that Becky’s response does balance things out. There’s a real and identifiable heart behind her desire to name him, which reminds us that the show has a conscience. It may be doing silly things around and relating to a dead body, but it KNOWS what it’s doing. Which, obviously, is an important distinction.

      I also think you’re right about treating the death irreverently being part of Roseanne’s identifying DNA. Nearly any other sitcom would have told jokes, but would have also made sure the death felt “serious.” Probably not successfully, but, hey, they’d try. By making this a silly episode, Roseanne positions itself as something new, something different, something daring. Obviously there are still precedents for this (“The Kipper and the Corpse” came to mind for both you and me), but it was uncommon at the time, and probably one of the reasons the show so quickly grabbed attention.

      For what it’s worth, there’s another episode this season that mixes comedy and drama around death, in which Roseanne’s friend Crystal comes to terms with the loss of her late husband. It’s really good, and the balance between drama and comedy is very different in that one.



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