Saturday, 25 February 2012

Roseanne and emotions

There's a lot that separates MTM-style comedies (like Mary Tyler Moore and Cheers) from Norman Lear-style comedies (like All in the Family and Roseanne), but one of the most interesting to me isn't their style of humour or how often they address social issues. It's how badly the shows allow their characters to feel. In MTM-style sitcoms, there are serious moments, for sure, but they're often rooted in positivity, as when one character helps another out of a jam to cement how great friends they are. For Lear-style shows, there's a tendency for dramatic moments to come out of a darker place, as in the Roseanne episode I just watched, "Guilt By Disassociation." Roseanne loses a job at the last minute and it leads to a harrowing scene of her fighting with Dan at her own surprise party. She breaks down completely by the end, and though it's obvious to the audience that she'll work through her problems, for a moment it seems as though she might not. Since I started this project with two shows from the MTM school of sitcoms, these scenes aren't something I'm used to seeing, and it's often quite shocking whenever they turn up. Norman Lear, and the shows more influenced by his approach to sitcoms, allowed his characters to get to very dark places, and let them work through them on their own. There's an undercurrent of love to both types of sitcom, but Lear makes the characters have to fight to find it. And it often makes relationships a little more realistic. I've said before that I love the way Roseanne and Dan interact, joking around like a real couple would, but it's the way they handle these dark moments that really cements how well their relationship is portrayed. It's absolutely my favourite thing about the show so far, but I'm happy to say that right now everything else is right there behind it.

Roseanne season 2

Roseanne's season 2 premiere, "Inherit the Wind," feels almost like a different show from the first season. The writing is sharp, the cast is game for anything, and the story is small and realistic. It turns a fart into a plot, then makes it work far better than it ever should. It feels like every aspect of the show has improved, and almost all my problems with the first season have disappeared. I'll have to see if this quality can be sustained from now on, but from the way the show has addressed all of its issues, I have high hopes. And my god was it funny. This one episode might have made me laugh more than the whole first season. Now I'm starting to see what all the fuss is about.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Roseanne and straw antagonists

The back half of season 1 has seen some improvements for Roseanne, but it’s still more hit or miss than I’d like it to be. My main problem with it at this point is dealing in a kind of sitcom trope that I’ll call straw antagonists. A straw antagonist is a frequent element in sitcoms, though maybe a little less so today. Basically, it consists of a character whose only purpose is to annoy the audience and then get defeated (or told off) by one of the show’s protagonists. It’s an easy way to create conflict in a typically low-stakes genre, and it also serves to increase the audience’s sympathy for the protagonists. At its worst, however, it can be seen as transparent wish-fulfillment for writers and viewers, and can throw off the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

Think of the scene in Roseanne’s pilot where Roseanne is dealing with Darlene’s history teacher, who is trying to convince her that Darlene’s barking in class is a result of problems at home. Obviously the audience knows that the Conners have no such problems, so the teacher is painted as the villain in this scene, trying to undermine Roseanne’s parenting abilities. The problem here, however, is that the teacher is perfectly in the right to be making such a judgment call, and Roseanne’s “real talk” way of dismissing it just makes her seem like a difficult parent to deal with. The whole scene reeks of shallow wish-fulfillment of teaching these intellectual types a lesson, and sticking it in the pilot episode left a nasty taste in my mouth for the start of the series. And in a show where the audience goes crazy with applause whenever a character does something sassy, this sort of thing gets tiresome quickly.

Straw antagonists are frequently used in lower-stakes environments as well. In “Mall Story,” late in season 1, Dan has to deal with an irritating shoe salesman, and it’s a big victorious moment when he finally snaps and chastises him for his poor service. But in Dan’s insistence on good service to the point where the salesman has to give him all of his attention while he tries on shoes, he’s becoming just as irritating a customer as the salesman. We just give him the benefit of the doubt because he’s a main character and we’re supposed to sympathize with him. Even worse, the salesman’s only characteristic was that he was a difficult person, making his only purpose in the scene getting his comeuppance from Dan.

This sort of thing happens in bad and good shows alike. One of my least favourite episodes of Mary Tyler Moore came late into its run, in season 7’s “The Critic.” Its entire plot is only in service of its critic guest star, whose only characteristic is his unrealistic pompousness. All of the main characters are united in their hatred of him, until they band together to take him down a peg. It almost reads as if the episode’s writer was dealing with a grudge against a critic, turning this episode into therapy. It’s completely out of the ordinary for a show that’s usually as positive as MTM, especially when it so infrequently stooped to this kind of level for laughs. One noteworthy example of a show using straw antagonists to its advantage is Seinfeld, which is one of the few shows to make this character type work. It builds whole plots around it, like “The Movie,” which jumps from one artificially difficult clerk to another, and yet works perfectly. But it too succumbs to its wish-fulfillment aspects occasionally, the most famous example being Jerry’s telemarketer call in “The Pitch.” That’s wish-fulfillment at its most transparent, a sort of “boy, don’t you wish you had the guts to talk to a telemarketer this way?” scene in service of a cheap laugh and easy sympathy for Jerry.

As I said before, Roseanne is the first sitcom I’ve watched for this project that hasn’t gotten me on its side immediately. It’s slowly been shedding elements I haven’t enjoyed as the first season has gone on, but quite a few are still there, including this one. I’m really hoping the show made the right decisions in regard to its less enjoyable elements, because I really do want to love it. I have high hopes for season 2.

Monday, 13 February 2012


Hi there! I'm Paul. I'm a big sitcom fan, but I haven't seen many of the classics. Last summer I decided to work through some of the most important sitcoms. I wrote a bit about my experience watching Mary Tyler Moore, Cheers, and Roseanne on my personal blog already, but I decided that in the interest of making this project more exciting, I should give it its own blog. Any posts before this one are copied exactly from my personal blog, so they sometimes lack a bit of context. I'm now almost done season 1 of Roseanne, and so far it's a show I'm not enjoying as much as MTM and Cheers, but I'm confident I'll come around to it soon.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Roseanne and jokes

Tiny Roseanne update: though the show hasn't yet figured out how to make standard sitcom setup-punchline jokes seem natural, I'm really enjoying how it's getting laughs from scenes where Dan and Roseanne are joking around with each other like a real couple would. They pull impressions, sing songs, and make each other laugh, and there are no stilted punchlines in sight. Hopefully more of the show will be devoted to that sort of thing as it goes along!

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Roseanne and "one big laugh"

So far in my big sitcom project, I've figured that if a show can give me one big laugh, one that feels earned and true to its characters, it's worth sticking with for a while. Mary Tyler Moore and Cheers both did it in their pilots, but Roseanne took until the end of its fifth episode to really get to me. I've got a few problems with the show at this stage (mostly regarding Roseanne's acting abilities and the hooting-and-hollering audience), but I think I'll be happy to stick with it.