Roseanne: Most Controversial Episodes
For nine seasons, Roseanne blazed a new trail for family sitcoms as it related to the average American family like never before. Most sitcoms stuck to the topics and subject matter that got easy-laughs, and while Roseanne is an iconic comedy series, some parts of it had fans stop dead in their tracks as it hit a little too close to home with topics that were no laughing matters. Roseanne Barr had no problem taking on sensitive or taboo issues of the time and putting them at the forefront of her show and handled them with such authenticity and wit that it struck the hearts of viewers. With the Roseanne revival underway, and more hard-hitting current issues being discussed, take a look back at Roseanne’s 12 most controversial episodes:
12. Twenty Years to Life/Dress to Impress (S10, E1 & 2)
Twenty-five years after fans said goodbye to Roseanne with the season nine finale on May 20, 1997, the show made its big return with a special one-hour premiere on March 27, 2018. While a lot had changed in the world, the Conners were just as we left them, just a little older, but still stirring up controversy. Before the revival could even premiere, many were taking a stance because they believed the show would be “too political” now. While the tumultuous state of politics was definitely addressed, it wasn’t a focal point, but audiences still took issue with it. Additionally, the revival’s premiere introduced the show’s first ever gender-nonconforming character with Darlene’s son Mark, which caused a stir for the series’ more conservative viewers.
11. A Bitter Pill to Swallow (S4, E1)
Teen sex was a big topic that TV shows, particularly family sitcoms avoided, but Roseanne was prided on its ability to depict a normal family life, and the reality is, teens have sex, so the issue came to the forefront in the season four episode “A Bitter Pill to Swallow.” In the episode, Becky asks her mother and her Aunt Jackie to help her get birth control, and Roseanne has to decide whether to help and protect her daughter or stand by her disapproval even after she learned that Becky had already been intimate with her boyfriend, Mark. The openness of Roseanne and Becky’s conversation about safe sex and the risks of teen pregnancy were almost unheard of at the time the episode aired. While some may have been shocked or offended, it was merely just another example of Roseanne sticking to its roots and changing the landscape of family sitcoms.
10. Trick or Treat (S3, E7)
Way before “mansplaining” was even a word, Roseanne was tackling sexism head-on in the season three episode “Trick or Treat” which aired on October 30, 1990. In the episode, Roseanne dresses up as a lumberjack and passes so well for a man that she infiltrates the guys’ gathering at the local bar. Back in the ’90s sexism was a much more “hush-hush” topic and some Roseanne viewers didn’t like a magnifying glass being pointed at the obvious yet silenced issue of sexism in such an easy-going way. With humor and genuine wit, “Trick or Treat” exposed some of the ironies and crude ideas that was presented with masculinity at the time.
9. Darlene Fades to Black (S4, E4)
With the revival of Roseanne causing so many to look back on the original series, it is more obvious than ever how progressive the series really was when dealing with certain issues. With mental health and depression issues being discussed now more than ever and stigmas being broken, especially when it comes to children and teens, season four’s “Darlene Fades to Black,” which aired back in 1991, is more relevant than ever, but at the time was a very uncomfortable episode. As Darlene becomes sullen and withdrawn it becomes obvious that there is something going on that is much deeper than “typical teenage behavior.” While the episode at least touched on the subject matter of depression it was season six’s “Lies My Father Told Me” that jumped right into the heart of mental health issues, even if it was something not widely discussed in the ’80s and ’90s when the show aired.
8. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (S6, E18)
Back in the early ’90s homosexuality was still a largely taboo subject on TV and gay characters on television shows were almost unheard of, but unsurprisingly, Roseanne Barr wasn’t going to let that stop her. Inspired by her gay sister and gay brother, Barr wanted gay characters to be on the show and in the season six episode “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Roseanne and Jackie go to a gay club with their friends Nancy and Sharon. Roseanne ends up kissing Sharon which forces her to address her own homophobia. The same-sex kiss was so shocking that ABC initially didn’t want to air it and feared a backlash from ad sponsors. After Barr threatened to move her show to another network, ABC relented and aired the episode but did so with a parental advisory warning label because of the content.
7. Let’s Call It Quits (S1, E23)
Sometimes, Roseanne took on several issues in one episode and such was the case with season one’s “Let’s Call It Quits.” In the episode, Roseanne is humiliated by her sexist boss who tells her as long as she keeps her mouth shut he will lower the impossible quotas. After he takes things too far, Roseanne stages a walk-out of the employees for their rights, emulating something so many Roseanne viewers who were also living paycheck to paycheck wanted to do. Unfortunately, Roseanne’s triumphant walk-out was marred by the reality that Lanford, Illinois had few jobs as it is, basically cementing the fact sometimes people have to deal with poor and discriminatory workplaces due to lack of options and lack of money.
6. December Bride (S8, E11)
By the time season eight had rolled around, Roseanne‘s success on TV meant that Barr could really put anything she wanted in the episodes, but she hit some pushback again from ABC when it came to another episode focused on gay characters. “December Bride” sees the wedding of Scott and Leon, and if gay characters weren’t monumental enough for a family sitcom then a gay wedding sure was. ABC was so worried about the episode that instead of putting a parental advisory warning label on it as they did for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” in season six, they moved the entire timeslot! ABC pushed the airing of “December Bride” back one hour citing “the adult humor in this episode was more appropriate for the later time period.”
5. Crime and Punishment/War and Peace (S5, E13/14)
Although Roseanne had no problem taking on big issues in single episodes, a two-parter usually meant it was going to be particularly heavy and that was certainly the case for season five’s “Crime and Punishment” and “War and Peace.” As much as talking about the reality of teen sex was groundbreaking, Roseanne went a step further with the very real way these two episodes dealt with the issue of domestic violence. After trying to hide that her boyfriend, Fisher, was beating her, Jackie’s secret is uncovered by Darlene and after finding out, Dan takes matters into his own hands as he then beats up Fisher and is arrested. Instead of sugar-coating it or it being Fisher who is arrested, the episodes showed how many do react to domestic violence, with Jackie not even sure she wants to leave him, and Dan retaliating, and then having to explain to his son why violence isn’t the answer even though his response was to beat up Fisher. Once again, the series shocked viewers with not only the content but how authentically it was dealt with.
4. Maybe Baby (S7, E11)
Abortion is and always will be a tough subject to explore and many have very strong feelings concerning the topic, so of course, it had to be dealt with on Roseanne. In season seven’s “Maybe Baby” the whole half-hour was spent with Roseanne and Dan having very uncomfortable and difficult conversations about possibly having an abortion when faced with the fears that their baby might have medical issues. While the controversial subject may have pushed some buttons, it was approached in such a nuanced way that the episode was applauded for the way it not only explored the discussion of abortion but incorporated Dan’s feelings and how much say he had in the decision.
3. Into That Good Night (S9, E23/24)
After eight amazing seasons in which Roseanne went down in American television history, and through some of the most unbelievable storylines seen on a sitcom, what ended up being almost the most controversial of all was the last season and specifically the last episode. While fans hated how the storyline of the Conner’s winning the lottery detracted from everything the show had built for them being the most relatable blue-collar family on TV, it only got worse in the finale when it was revealed the whole season was simply a dream written down by Roseanne after she couldn’t cope with the loss of her husband whose heart attack had actually been fatal in season eight. The outrage the finale caused was almost unbelievable considering it is just a fictional show, but it only went to show how strongly viewers connected with the series and the Conner family.
2. White Men Can’t Kiss (S7, E9)
One of the best qualities of Roseanne was not only the way it tackled very sensitive issues but did so in a way that didn’t hold the Conner’s higher than regular people. Often when presented with these issues, the members of the family start to question their own feelings that they didn’t know they had, and that was heavily dealt with it in season seven’s “White Men Can’t Kiss.” The episode focused on bigotry and racism after Roseanne discovered DJ wanted to skip the school play only because he had to kiss a black girl. The episode sparked massive outrage as it held a mirror up to the “progressiveness” of society when Roseanne and Dan realized their own beliefs and actions had influenced DJ and how he felt about kissing the girl, Gina.
1. The Driver’s Seat (S6, E11)
Season six’s “The Driver’s Seat” is still sensitive for some Roseanne fans because of how truly jarring and controversial it was. Viewers could deal with a lot of groundbreaking subject matter over the seasons, but “The Driver’s Seat” was especially controversial. In the episode, Roseanne gets incredibly angry and spanks DJ after he steals her car, and her violent reaction causes her to reflect on the abuse she and Jackie suffered at the hands of their own father. Unfortunately, the harsh truth is that many parents of the era grew up being spanked or hit as discipline from their parents, and by the ’90s, attitudes were changing about spanking as a discipline causing Roseanne to once again tackle a hot-button issue head-on while also exploring the deep-seated problems childhood traumas can cause. It also gave commentary on the prevalence of “history repeating itself” when it comes to how people raise their children in relation to their own childhoods.