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The Secret Ingredient—and Best Hope—of ‘Roseanne’

The groundbreaking ABC sitcom is returning to TV almost 30 years after its premiere. Thankfully, that means Darlene is back too.

ABC/Ringer illustration

When we first meet Darlene Conner, early-teen misanthrope and near-future sitcom superstar, she is triggering an emergency parent-teacher conference by continually barking in history class. Unfortunately for Darlene’s history teacher, Darlene’s mother both is, and is played by, Roseanne. This Roseanne. That Roseanne. The Roseanne. (Also, the Roseanne whose namesake show is back on television this month.) “I feel this barking is an aggressive manifestation of a deeper internal problem,” the history teacher says. Roseanne just perches impetuously on a tiny classroom desk, chewing gum and blinking, her silent contempt stoking a boisterous swell of studio-audience laughter. Only when that laughter fully dies does she offer her response: “Huh?”

They bicker. This is the most significant event that occurs in the pilot to Roseanne, which aired on ABC on October 18, 1988. The teacher suggests Darlene and her mother aren’t getting enough quality time. Roseanne retorts that she’s a working mother of three, and thus doesn’t have any free time at all, and this meeting has only wasted the time she doesn’t have.

“Your daughter barks!” the teacher snaps.

“Our whole family barks!” Roseanne snaps back.

More boisterous applause. Scene over. Back at home, Darlene, baby-faced and awfully contemptuous herself, her black hair pulled into a ponytail beneath a Chicago Cubs cap,

pleads her case and maligns her teacher while kicking up her feet on the kitchen table. “Mom, she is so boring. If I don’t bark, I’ll fall asleep.” She’s part adorable kid in a cereal commercial and part serial killer; she is Saturday morning cartoons coming down. Darlene’s older sister, the blonde and more conventionally petulant Becky, bursts into the kitchen, and soon the two girls are snapping at each other: ”Shut up!” “Don’t tell me to shut up!” Roseanne just looks on with even more contempt before delivering the show’s thesis statement: “This is why some animals eat their young.”

That line gets the most boisterous applause of all, of course. As the ’80s grudgingly turned into the ’90s, network TV’s biggest culture war was raging between The Cosby Show (which at the time still radiated wholesome, winsome family values) and The Simpsons (which will forever revel in crass goofball malevolence). Roseanne split the difference, warm but searing, sweet but viciously tart, unreal in its unsparing commitment to realness. It was fiercely devoted to the idea of family and scornful of the very notion of “family values.” With beloved, blood-related enemies like this, who needs Friends? In 2011, Roseanne herself described her show as “television’s first feminist and working-class-family sitcom (also its last).” Hey, listen, you argue with her.

It started as a pure star vehicle for then-30-something Roseanne Barr, a literal manifestation of her braying, irresistibly sour standup act. (“I hate that word, housewife,” she told a 1985 Tonight Show show audience that greeted her first joke with near-silence and her last several ones with rapturous delight. “I prefer the term domestic goddess.”) Roseanne introduced us to the Conners, blue-collar strivers and ugly-beautiful losers adrift in the small town of Lanford, Illinois: Alongside her husband, the delightfully bearlike Dan Conner (John Goodman), the fictional Roseanne struggles mightily to raise Becky (Lecy Goranson, and then Sarah Chalke; there were two Beckys—it was a thing), Darlene (Sara Gilbert), and D.J. (Michael Fishman), a bumbling little boy who mostly keeps his head down, lest one of his sisters chuck a shoe at it.

As for Darlene, in the first season, she’s a cute kid saying the darndest things, not yet an uncouth woman but certainly bantering like one.

Roseanne: “That is not funny. You’re grounded till menopause.”

Darlene: “Yours or mine?”

Roseanne: “Your father’s.”

In the early going, quite naturally, Roseanne herself dominates the show, holding court whether it’s her own kitchen or in the midst of an endless succession of demeaning, short-lived jobs. In the pilot, for example, she’s stuck in a drudging plastics-factory gig with this guy for a hapless boss.

Per Barr’s amazingly caustic 2011 essay for New York Magazine, the show was a war zone behind the scenes, from epic feuds with producers to gleeful firing sprees to frequent intrusions from her beyond-tumultuous personal life. (All three of Roseanne’s real-life ex-husbands appeared on the show, most prominently her not-yet-ex Tom Arnold, whom she divorced in 1994 after saying that he had assaulted her.) The show ran for nine seasons, peaking early (in Season 2, it even topped the mighty Cosby Show) but holding onto its mojo, both critically and commercially, until an almost psychedelic late-period decline. (The ninth and final season, which ended in 1997, is legendarily bizarre and polarizing: loopier than Lost, more abrupt than The Sopranos, less satisfying than Seinfeld.)

Laurie Metcalf, playing the lovably hopeless Aunt Jackie, got most of the prestige-type attention, earning three Best Supporting Actress Emmys and anchoring some of the show’s most challenging plotlines. The show’s high-turnover writing staff, which at one time or another included everyone from Joss Whedon to Amy Sherman-Palladino to Chuck Lorre, proved integral to television’s future. (Those scribes also endured plenty of unscripted drama themselves: There was, for example, the “refer to all the writers by numbers instead of their names” affair.)

Through it all, the show was also far ahead of its time in tackling everything from domestic violence to homosexuality to a signature focus on economic anxiety long before “economic anxiety” became political code. And when it returns this month—a new eight-episode season of Roseanne premieres on ABC on March 27—Barr’s confrontational, pro-Trump politics will take up most of the oxygen and fuel most of the hot takes. But revisiting the original series now (it’s streaming in full on Amazon Prime), it’s Darlene who leaps out at you as the best, richest, and most complicated character. The show’s heart grows as she does.

You can draw a straight line from Darlene to Friends’ quip-heavy Chandler, to Seinfeld’s anarchic Elaine, to Mad Men’s Peggy Olsen in her more strident moments, to 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon in her more triumphant moments. She is Daria incarnate; in her casual, flannel-wrapped derision, she is the most ’90s human ever born. Not counting this month’s reboot, there are 222 episodes of Roseanne, and several lifetimes’ worth of caustic drama, on-camera and off, to process. Darlene is your anchor, your spirit guide, your unwilling heroine, your audience surrogate, your rock that smashes through your own front window. She is the person on the show you grow to truly fear, not to mention truly love. And on a show like this, the most important lesson is that there’s no difference between fear and love at all.

“The thing they mastered on Roseanne, in the non-24-voices-in-her-head days, is the fact that they would take the tiniest stories—like Darlene got her period, that was an entire show,” Sherman-Palladino once explained. “So from Roseanne, I got my sense of what is real, what is not real, how far to stray from something to make it dramatic, but still keep it so that people are sitting in their living room [saying], ‘Oh, I’ve said that to my mother.’ ‘I’ve had that fight with somebody.’ And that’s what hooks people in week after week.”

Roseanne’s first genuinely striking Darlene moment comes nine episodes in. Dan’s birthday party in a rowdy bar ends abruptly with an emasculating moment that makes him feel his age; he’s still stewing about it the next day in the family’s laundry room when he suddenly, viciously smashes a sheet of drywall with a hammer. Unbeknownst to him, Darlene is looking on, mute and at least slightly terrified, holding the pencil her father asked her to sharpen for him.

Dan notices his daughter standing there, grimaces, grabs his coat and hat, and walks out, saying only, “I gotta get some air.” That’s it. In the years to come, Dan and Roseanne will frequently scream at each other with street-brawl intensity; both will also contend with their own abusive and/or neglectful parents. But one thing they agree on is it’s their job to make life “50 percent better” for their children. Which means way more money and far less violence, emotional and otherwise. The quick, isolated bursts of genuine fury on Roseanne will still make you catch your breath, though, and doubly so for the way the show suggests that one winning strategy is to laugh them off. One day Darlene will have a long-term boyfriend, and one day an enraged Dan will shove that boyfriend into a door frame during an argument. And then, over that episode’s end credits, there’ll be a blooper where, during another take of that scene, Dan shoves the poor guy so hard the guy bends the frame and can’t get the door open. That’s an awfully hard thing to laugh at, but this show covets Hard Laughter most of all.

All of which to say that on a show like this, you feel the studio audience most acutely when that audience goes dead silent. The idea of a sitcom airing a Very Special Episode had already passed into cliché by the early ’90s, and Roseanne sidestepped the issue by embedding at least the threat of seriousness into everything it did. A striking and upsetting moment can strike at any time, unannounced and unceremonious. From the onset, Darlene dishes out verbal abuse just as readily as she takes it. But her flashes of vulnerability are all the more effective for how rare they are, and how unpredictably they’re distributed. The show never quite descends into total darkness, but it feels no particular need to ever comfort her, or you.

By the start of Season 2, Darlene has clearly been pegged as Roseanne’s breakout star, throwing out zingers like thunderbolts and delivering a high percentage of the show’s most iconic lines. (“Becky … cut … the cheese.”) Her older sister inspires plenty of expert melodrama (which peaks when Becky eventually elopes with her black-sheep boyfriend, Mark), but Darlene’s slow-rolling emotional beats are weirder, darker, and more engrossing. In a fan-favorite Season 2 episode titled “Brain-Dead Poets Society,” she’s roped into a school assembly, forced to read a poem she wrote: “To whom it concerns / I just turned 13 / Too short to be quarterback / Too plain to be queen.” Roseanne and Aunt Jackie look on, incredulous and fumbling for Kleenex.

If you’re going into this totally cold and just want one good representative episode, try Season 3’s “Like a Virgin,” wherein Roseanne and Dan have a very serious talk with Becky about sex, before realizing that their other daughter might need it, too. In the early years, Darlene is a sports-obsessed tomboy, bonding with her dad by watching Jordan-era Bulls games on the couch. But that era is clearly ending. “Face it, honey,” Roseanne tells her distraught husband. “Your son is becoming a woman.” Meanwhile, confiding in her big sister upstairs, Darlene describes making out as “better than volleyball, but not quite as good as hockey.”

The show is fully in the zone by 1990. Darlene and Becky have graduated from tiny quip machines into fully formed humans with interior lives and a shared intimacy that gives all those no, you shut up battles greater depth. John Goodman, as Dan, is a peerless source of physical comedy, sauntering through his humble kingdom like a half-drunk elephant, only getting funnier as he gets angrier. And a few years in, we know all these people just well enough to be genuinely shocked by them: The thrill of “Like a Virgin” is that just like Dan himself, we can’t believe our little Darlene would actually do that.

Turns out she’s full of surprises. The dam bursts early in Season 4 with “Darlene Fades to Black,” her character’s single most consequential episode, in which she transforms over 22 minutes into a sullen, withdrawn, withering, goth-lite über-teen, passing a point of no return even as, in the many seasons to come, she lurches morosely toward adulthood. She quits the basketball team, all but glues herself face-down to the couch, and climactically announces to her mother, “I don’t want you to help me. I just want you to leave me alone.”

What makes this show unique is that from then on, Roseanne more or less leaves her daughter alone. If Roseanne has any big-picture pronouncements to make about parenting, it’s that so much of it is out of your hands, and any attempt at helicoptering or micromanaging only makes matters worse. A typical subsequent Darlene plot is that she announces she’s got a new friend, and her parents are thrilled until they discover that this friend is their age and owns a bookstore where Darlene is spending her free time both reading and writing science fiction. After much acrimonious mother-daughter banter, the semi-heartwarming breakthrough comes when Darlene pins one of her short stories to the fridge, authorizing her parents to read it, willing to reveal at least one small part of herself.

Soon, a submissive boyfriend, David (Johnny Galecki), materializes, and Darlene’s continued priceless value to the show comes in mimicking “troubled sitcom teenager” behavior just long enough to subvert and lampoon that stereotype entirely. At first, David is constantly trying to pressure Darlene into sex, but she spends most of Season 5 resisting with a casual hostility that only reasserts her dominance. And when she attends an arena-rock concert and a sketchy stoner dude offers her pot in the parking lot, her near-meta response—“Oh, man, I feel like I’m in the middle of a really bad after-school special”—triggers a huge wave of boisterous studio-audience applause. Multi-camera laugh-track sitcoms are a rarity in 2018: The format is more likely to inspire a vicious Mr. Robot parody than a sincere and committed modern innovator like Netflix’s One Day at a Time. But Roseanne still doesn’t feel dated in large part because it knows just how much fun to poke at itself, just how many fourth walls to break, just how much skepticism it can get away with without lapsing into cynicism. What viewers in the early ’90s and the late 2010s have in common is that they know exactly what show they’re watching, and more importantly, what show they’re not watching.

In 1991, the revelation that Doogie Howser, M.D., would lose his virginity in prime time triggered waves of think pieces and consternation. Two years later, deep in Roseanne’s fifth season, Darlene’s own deflowering is far less ceremonious and far less important than the other thing that happens in that episode: She gets into art school in Chicago, but her boyfriend doesn’t. What follows is the peak of her personal arc, and likely the show’s overall peak as well, in that it’ll likely make you tear up without getting all pompous and maudlin and Very Special Episode about it. The season finale pits mother against 17-year-old daughter: Roseanne at first refuses to let Darlene go, but quickly pivots to indignance at the very thought of Darlene not going: “I thought you wanted something better than this.”

“Mom, why can’t I just live at home like a normal kid?” Darlene whines.

“Because as I have told you for your entire life, Darlene, you are not normal,” Roseanne snaps back. “OK? You dress funny. You’re weird. You’re too smart for your own damn good. Let’s face it, Darlene, you’re special. And I think you can be something great.” Her version of empowerment, naturally, is much pricklier: “You’re gonna be the first Conner to suck in college.” But the note she ends on is killer, and heartwarming in that caustic way only Roseanne can be heartwarming: “I love you, Darlene,” says Darlene’s mother. “And I want you to get the hell out of here.”

There are still four full seasons left to go at this point, unfortunately. Darlene goes to art school, disappears for multiple episodes at a time, rides out several breakup-and-reconciliation cycles with David, and in Season 8, proposes marriage and announces that she’s pregnant in the same mega-awkward conversation. David is, as always, simply along for the ride. When Darlene breaks the news to her family, her dad is furious, her Aunt Jackie is too stunned to speak, and her mother settles on cautious, resigned support just because she’s smart enough to realize no other parenting approach is worth trying.

This all makes for particularly striking television in retrospect, now that we know that Sara Gilbert grew up, came out, married Linda Perry from 4 Non Blondes, and joined The View, where she once announced her real-life pregnancy on the air. Her thrilled coworkers immediately begin joyfully swinging her around like a rag doll, which seems like an ill-advised way to treat a pregnant woman, but maybe I just don’t watch enough of The View.

Darlene and David get married near the end of Roseanne’s eighth season; Dan has a heart attack after the wedding, which sets up a genuinely bonkers Season 9 in which various fourth walls awkwardly collapse. One of the only meaningful and lasting events, in fact, is that Darlene gives birth to a premature baby and boldly removes her fragile newborn daughter from the ICU as a means of giving her a fighting chance. Even in the midst of total narrative chaos, she’s still the show’s rock, the constant, the person you can still safely believe. The most ’90s human ever born still makes perfect sense as a human 20 years later: She has grown up in the most perfectly relatable and imperfect way. The goal is to make a cutout sitcom character seem like an actual, living person. It happens less often than you think.

Rewatch Roseanne through the prism of Darlene and the show transforms from a quaint time capsule to a stirring origin story. With any luck, she’ll likewise elevate this new reboot, transforming it from a simple nostalgia grab into something stranger and moodier and more affecting. It’ll be a thrill to see Darlene back in the Conner house again, but also somewhat dismaying: It’s proof that she didn’t quite “get the hell out of here” after all. Didn’t we all want better for her, too? Is it possible to love a fictional TV character so much that you’re rooting for her to escape that show’s stultifying universe altogether? Is love the way to describe that emotion? And how would Darlene react if you could explain all that to her? Whatever she said, it would be dismissive, derisive, hilarious, and totally humiliating. It would also, undoubtedly, be the best possible version of the truth.