Domestic Goddess Dethroned
How Roseanne lost it.
Roseanne's final episode will air Wednesday night, but the Hollywood press machine, which operates on the principle that no one who earns $21 million a year can be all bad, is cheerfully toasting its star's bright future. The theme: We haven't heard the last from her. Roseanne, it is said, will become a serious movie actress, a best-selling author, a standard-bearer of feminist populism. Her current role--the Wicked Witch in a theatrical production of The Wizard of Oz--will make her a Broadway star.
Well, here's an alternative prediction: We have heard the last from Roseanne. And if we haven't, we'll soon wish that we had.
TV critics, at least the political-minded ones, opine gravely that Roseanne's cancellation proves that a complacent America has lost its appetite for "real-life," "blue-collar" characters, that all TV viewers want now are 3rd RockFrom the Sun aliens and Seinfeld yuppies. This is wrong. Roseanne's cancellation proves that America has lost its appetite for a "real-life," "blue-collar" character played by a spoiled Hollywood brat. By making it, Roseanne destroyed the very thing that defined her: not making it.
Once upon a time, Roseanne mattered. She understood what it meant to be lumpenproletariat, and made it her life's project to explain this outsiderness to America. She did it brilliantly. Between its 1988 launch and 1993, Roseanne ranked among the three highest-rated shows on television. It transcended demographics. The working-class folks whose lives Roseanne claimed to depict tuned in. So did wealthier viewers, to whom the show represented blue-collar chic. Roseanne was not only television's most popular sitcom; it was also its best (except, perhaps, for The Simpsons). As Roseanne Conner, Roseanne turned the pain of poverty into comedy, exposed the absurdities of family life, and punctured the egos of bosses and politicians. Like All in the Family--and no show since--Roseanne gave life and warmth to the ugly, the fat, the poor. It was social criticism of the best sort, a tonic to the Family Ties/The Cosby Show pablum of the Reagan-Bush years. Roseanne Conner became a genuine populist icon, an anti-June Cleaver for a downsized era.
Roseanne Barr became an icon, too. In 1989, she made more magazine covers than anyone in history. Several years later, TheNew Yorker invited her to guest edit its women's issue. But her celebrity depended on a fiction: that the TV character was in fact the actress. For a while, she was. Like her TV namesake, Roseanne was trailer trash. She was a former waitress and prostitute who had lived in squalid poverty with a ne'er-do-well husband and three kids. She had street credibility. Roseanne assured her fans that Hollywood could not change her. She and her second husband, Tom Arnold, himself a former meatpacker, built themselves a mansion in Iowa to escape the L.A. phonies. Arnold proudly described the pair as: "America's worst nightmare--white trash with money." You could take the girl out of the trailer, but you couldn't take the trailer out of the girl.
But of course everything changed, though Roseanne herself did not seem to recognize it. She went Hollywood in the worst possible way. The Domestic Goddess became just another prima donna. She and Arnold divorced by tabloid. She tyrannized her co-workers, throwing fits, firing writers at will, terrorizing her underlings (Roseanne is notorious as the worst workplace in television). She publicly accused her parents of abusing her and her sister (they denied it). She followed Madonna's lead by dropping her last name. She married her security guard (perhaps Hollywood's hoariest cliché). She underwent repeated plastic surgeries in order to reduce her breasts, smooth her wrinkles, slim her face (alarmingly, she looks younger in the ninth season of Roseanne than she did in the first). She stopped telling interviewers about anal sex and started talking about her deep spiritualism and her study of mystical Judaism. In short, she became a parody of celebrity, indulging in every whim of the Hollywood overclass.
Fame did more than make Roseanne grotesque; it also untethered her from the Domestic Goddess, the one idea that made the show great, "the only good idea she's ever had," as one acquaintance puts it. She could no longer portray a convincing Roseanne Conner, largely because she no longer had any connection to Roseanne Conner's world. In its last few seasons, the show lost its grounding in reality. Plastic surgery made Roseanne Conner look less like a haggard mom than like, well, a TV star who's had a lot of plastic surgery. Roseanne used to tackle issues like homosexuality or race relations with grace (e.g., Roseanne's lesbian kiss with Mariel Hemingway). But recently the show has succumbed to ludicrous ratings-pandering gimmicks (e.g., Roseanne's mom's emergence from the closet).
During this final season, Roseanne attempted the most desperate plot device of them all: She had her TV family win $108 million in the lottery, replicating her own rags-to-riches story. What few shreds of real-life credibility remained after that plot twist were destroyed by cameos from C-grade celebrities (Tammy Faye Messner? Marlo Thomas? Moon Unit Zappa?!) and lame parodies of Xena: Warrior Princess, Rambo ("Roseambo," the episode was titled), and I Dream of Jeannie. TV husband John Goodman, who'd grown sick of the show and Roseanne, was all but written out of the plot. The audience melted away. Once a top-10 regular, Roseanne fell to 14th place in 1995 and 32nd in 1996. It may finish as low as 40th this season.
What may be saddest about Roseanne's decline is that the show won't leave the legacy Roseanne intended for it. It didn't usher in a golden age of real-life sitcoms. It didn't open the airwaves to blue-collar characters. Its single accomplishment--if it can be called such--is that it legitimized the stand-up comedian as sitcom star: from Roseanne to Seinfeld to Ellen.
Not that Roseanne needs your sympathy. She's earned $40 million in the last two years, making her the second-highest-paid woman in show business, after Oprah. Syndication revenues will guarantee her millions for years. She is about to launch her own TV talk show. Don't be surprised when it flops. She's spent the last nine years talking on television. She seems to have nothing left to say.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.
Illustration by Philip Burke.