This morning I found myself watching old Roseanne episodes and remembered why everyone who knew us thought the show was an accurate depiction of my family back in the day. And I could not have been more like Darlene if I had tried.
Of course, the truth was that I had a crush on Darlene, and my mom later admitted she knew that but kept hoping that maybe I was just happy to see someone actually represent me on TV after so many years of us watching perfect families that we didn't relate to every weekday night.
So this morning while watching a few reruns, I was struck by a memory and posted it to my (usually quiet) facebook page.
I'm watching old Roseanne reruns for some reason this morning, and I had a funny memory that I'd forgotten about. When B and I first met, like the second day we were together, we we had been talking for hours about random shit and I thought it was funny that she reminded me of Darlene because I had such a crush on her when I was young. Later that day, we ended up talking about Roseanne and she told me I reminded her of Darlene. She had a childhood crush on her, too.
Dorks like us have to stick together, I think. When you find your Darlene you have to hold on to her! And the crazy family comes with her....
One of my good friends, who is also a lesbian, chimed in about how she, too, had a crush on Darlene, to which I responded "LOL - I think that was the tell-tale sign of our generation. Every budding lesbian had a crush on Darlene!"
Which made me start to think about the impact Roseanne had on popular culture, and how most people my age will still watch the reruns because, even after all these years, it still passes the test of time. It's not only relateable, it often evokes memories of our own families while we watch them. The silly fights between siblings, the problems each couple has that only boil over occasionally, in dramatic and spectacular fashion, and the endless drudgery of working and working, trying to keep your family in the middle class while jobs move elsewhere and become more scarce.
Tons of ink has been spilled regarding Roseanne, and there are rarely shades of gray when dissecting the series. While many op-eds about the series predate the internet, I remember my mother discussing the show with my aunts as they gossiped at the kitchen table.
They mostly felt reassured by the series and could not stand the critics who denounced the show. They uniformly believed that Roseanne was the first accurate representation of the modern American family on mainstream TV, and the comparisons to my family never ceased. The blue-collar, working dad, the quick-witted and sarcastic mother, the prissy oldest daughter, the tomboy, and the weird little brother. All of whom were never spared from being the butt of anyone's jokes.
But anyway, back to the tomboy, Darlene.
The AV Club (The Onion's sister publication and a great time-killer for lovers of pop culture), did an article titled10 episodes that show the heart and soul behind Roseanne’s cynical exterior, which included “Darlene Fades To Black:
“Darlene Fades To Black” (season four, episode four): This episode marks the beginning of younger sister Darlene’s transformation from smartass tomboy kid to the smartass misanthrope she’d remain throughout the rest of the show’s run. Roseanne was often at its best when it explored the relationship between Dan and Roseanne and their two daughters as individuals, rather than as a unit (see also: the excellent “Fathers And Daughters”), and “Darlene Fades To Black” does an admirable job portraying the widening gap between Dan and Darlene, his former sports buddy who now spends all her time moping on the couch. Sara Gilbert was a great young actress from the get-go, with an unusually canny grasp of comic timing, but her growth is apparent in this episode, where she manages to be aloof, vulnerable, and darkly hilarious all at the same time.For kids my age, this episode also represented the idea that Roseanne was changing right along with us and still existed in the same world that we did. It was another reassuring turn of events: for girls who grew up loving Darlene and her role in the Conner family, Darlene's teenage years moved us past the smart-ass tomboy and into a role we all seemed to be slipping into ourselves. The morbid and depressed teenager who feels alienated from her family and turns to art and cynicism as a method of coping.
That was the remarkable thing about the writing behind the show: the characters were never one-size-fits-all, one dimensional characters. They had strongly defined personalities that grew with them instead of holding them back.
Consider season two, episode six of the series, Brain-Dead Poets Society, which the Roseanne wiki page summarizes thusly:
Darlene writes a poem in class that wins teacher recognition and is asked to read it at an assembly in front of the parents and student body. Roseanne is so pleased that Darlene can write and is excited to go to the assembly.Remember, this is early in the series when Darlene is an aloof, sports-loving tomboy who loves spending time watching games with her dad and making fun of her "girly" older sister. (In more than one episode, Dan Conner, the patriarch played by John Goodman, refers affectionately to Darlene as his son.)
Darlene chooses not to go to the assembly, opting to spend the evening at home with Dan watching the game. Roseanne puts her foot down and they go to the assembly where Darlene strikes an emotional chord with all.
The audience had come to expect only quick, sarcastic one-liners from Darlene, but we learn in this episode that much of her tough exterior is a facade, and like all other girls her age, she is gripped my insecurities and doubts about herself.
While Roseanne undeniably shifted the dynamics of modern television, sit-coms were still a family affair at the time, with families all settling in to their spots in the living room to watch their favorite nightly programming together. So most episodes of Roseanne that I watched, I watched with my family and we all laughed together. It should not be surprising, then, that this episode is the most memorable to me. While I was a few years younger than the fictional Darlene, my life still tracked alongside hers, and I was noticing small changes in myself that I couldn't quite understand. "Too short to be quarterback, too plain to be queen...."
To whom it concerns, Darlene's work will be late
It fell on her pancakes and stuck to her plate.
To whom it concerns, my mom made me write this
And I'm just a kid, so how could I fight this?
To whom it concerns, I lost my assignment
Maybe I'll get lucky, solitary confinement.
To whom it concerns, Darlene's great with a ball
But guys don't watch tomboys when they're cruising the hall.
To whom it concerns, I just turned thirteen
Too short to be quarterback, too plain to be queen.
To whom it concerns, I'm not made of steel
When I get blindsided, my pain is quite real.
I don't mean to squawk, but it really burns.
I just thought I'd mention it, to whom it concerns.
(Fun freebie: best line from that episode:)
Darlene: I don't want to be expressive! I couldn't care less about poetry! I just want to graduate high school so I can get on with my life, so I can get a job and get out of this hellhole town!
Roseanne: But if you could be expressive, what would you say?
Darlene's character evolution on the show was brilliantly real by the standards of the time, and when watching reruns decades later it's easy to see why she struck such a chord with girls my age. When the show started she was an aloof, happy tomboy that thought her sister was "gross" when she acted all girly, and then she slowly became an adult. The quick-witted, aloof tomboy never totally disappeared. Viewers saw that Darlene peak out from the older and more cynical Darlene in nearly every episode, reminding us in many ways that she was still just a child.
But what was it that ultimately made so many of us so dedicated to Darlene? I'm not sure, but I suspect that something major happened when someone we related to became mainstream and, more importantly, widely adored. Darlene represented us in a way we had never been represented before, and many of us saw her as our own personal validation. This was a tomboy like us, that was as funny as we were and as deep as we were, and everyone seemed to like her.
Even when she grew up.