Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

A Look Back At Joss Whedon's 'Roseanne' Episodes

Before Joss Whedon convinced an absurdly large number of normal world citizens to see a movie about Norse gods, frozen past-men, and Robert Downey Jr.’s goatee, he was the nerd-worshipped creator of cult hits like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and (the author begrudgingly included) Dollhouse. Even before that, however, Whedon was a sitcom writer. At the tender of 24, he was a story editor and staff writer for Roseanne, securing the writing credit on five episodes in the second season: The Little Sister, House of Grown-ups, Brain-Dead Poets Society, Chicken Hearts, and Fathers and Daughters.

Staff writing on a television show typically isn’t a place for individual flair; writer’s contributions are simply the raw ingredients that are blended into a showrunner’s final vision. However, since Whedon’s wry, hyper-articulate voice is so distinct it’s practically trademarked, I was curious: Would his contributions be evident even in these early scripts? Correlation isn’t causality, but judging his episodes against the rest of the series, it’s pretty easy to see the Whedon chunks in the Roseanne stew. (I’m sorry. End of food metaphors for this piece.)

Whedon’s a staunch feminist famous for writing strong women (strong both in an emotional way and in the way that they punch monsters), and it shows in these episodes. His writing for Roseanne is great: She’s harsh but loving, and her meaner moments are written clearly as defense mechanisms against her everyday life. (Famously, when Roseanne asked Whedon how he women so well, he replied, “If you met mom, you wouldn’t ask.”) But it’s Roseanne’s daughters, Becky and Darlene, where Whedon really shines. They’re fully realized adolescents with distinct personalities, never too precocious or oblivious. He handles potentially maudlin moments like Becky connecting with her father at the end of Fathers and Daughters or Darlene reciting a poem about her insecurities at the end of Brain-Dead Poets Society with earnestness and heart.

However, Whedon also loves himself a good soapbox, and his episodes also feature moments that toe the line between empowering and preachy. In The Little Sister, Roseanne and her daughter Becky have a frank, open discussion of the effects of pornography on teenage girl’s self-esteem that, while touching and progressive, is only marginally funny and not at all related to the main plot. (Highlight: Becky asks why men look at those magazines, Roseanne replies, “It’s because they think they’re looking back.”) Then, in Dead Poets Society, Roseanne takes up the cause of female poets, not only revealing that she herself was once a poet, but casually name-dropping of Edie Brickell, Chrissy Hynde, or Rickie Lee Jones. Not that a middle-aged working class mother can’t be into new wave or alt rock, but I don’t believe her interest in poetry ever comes up again, and that list of names seems suspiciously pulled from Whedon’s iTunes playlist. (Or, I don’t know, whatever they had in 1988.)

Writing class effectively is a recurring weakness of Whedon’s. A third generation TV writer, he often does that very TV writer-ly thing where every character, no matter their age, education, or planet or origin, quips with the wry self-awareness of a pop-culture savvy teenager. Roseanne is no exception: The Conner’s pop culture IQ jumps a distinct ten points when Whedon writes them. In addition to Roseanne’s name-dropping, John Goodman breaks the fourth wall with a Julia Child impression, and Becky refers a boy in her class as “Mandingo.”(A term that Urban Dictionary lists as either a 1975 movie about slavery or “an African male who knows that he has a huge penis that can hit all night and keep a female comin back fo more.” Nice work, 1989 network censors.) Whedon really plants his pop culture flag, however, in House of Grown-ups with the arrival of a new, high-tech VCR. (Like the discussion about pornography, it’s a tangential detail that Whedon seems to enjoy more than the actual plot.) We get a fun run of Darlene wanting to rent “Lethal Weapon 2, Jaws 3, and Nightmare on Elm Street 4,” John Goodman busts out an impressions of Dirty Harry, and Roseanne proclaims her love for Dr. Zhivago. And, for the ultimate Whedon touch, when nobody can agree on what to rent, what film finally unites everyone? Star Wars.

I’ve mentioned Dan Conner doing a lot of impressions in these episodes. While John Goodman is a national treasure who can make any material work, Whedon’s take on his character stands out: Dan is goofier and more removed from the action, and notably less agitated than when written by other writers. (Tom Arnold in particular seems to have a rather aggressive take on Dan. Read into that what you will.) Taking a look at Whedon’s other works, fathers, particularly strong ones, are notably absent. Even when Whedon does have Dan raise his voice, protesting Roseanne’s insistence that Darlene read her poem in Dead Poet’s Society, he still feels deferential and defanged. In these episodes, Dan Conner transforms into the Whedon proto-male aka the “Xander:” An affable, quipping observer defined more by the women around him then by any strong internal life.

It might seem like I’m picking apart Whedon’s episodes, but that’s only because his voice becomes obvious when he falls out of step with the show. Roseanne was actually the perfect first project for him. Whedon’s work perfectly balances the spectacle of ladies stabbing vampires or green giants punching vikings with earnest character relationships between, and he pulls the same trick here. Roseanne grabs viewers with its star’s crass takedowns and family infighting, but sticks because you can tell this family loves each other and will rally together against any outside threat. When, at the end of Chicken Hearts, Whedon has the entire family rally against Roseanne’s snotty 17-year-old fast food boss, it’s just as gratifying as watching Hulk punch an evil space whale. The man may have his weaknesses as a writer, but he knows how to pay off an emotional arc. In fact, The Little Sister and House of Grown-ups end with two of Whedon’s favorite things – a well-choreographed fight scene (skip to 2:11):

And an elaborate, totally on-key musical number (skip to 6:02):

Ben Joseph writes comedy and cartoons for television and the Internet.

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  • Reggie

    Who proofread this?

    • Me

      No one.

  • http://twitter.com/SusieMadrak Susie Madrak

    Interesting that the author assumes working-class people couldn't possibly read enough to be tuned into pop culture references. Condescend much?

    • Ben Joseph

      My criticism was less that a working class family wouldn't know things, and more that, at some points, all the characters starts to feel like the same sarcastic twenty-something trading clever pop-cutlure quips with himself. Apologies if that wasn't articulated clearly. 

      • Ben Joseph

        Or, more accurately, "pop culture" and "twentysomething." 

      • http://twitter.com/OneOfManyIans Ian

        You kinda stumbled in the article but that cleared it up rather well.

        Joss has that problem, especially early on. He said he still does and made an effort to avoid it for the Avengers. It's a weakness in most early work of writers with a unique voice. Joss, Kevin Smith, Tarantino early work all had it. Wonder if there is a term for it?

  • JohnHughes

    Enjoyable stuff, but Roseanne's poetry aspirations actually tie in nicely with the thread of her dreams of becoming a writer that were revisited throughout the show's run.

  • http://twitter.com/allikatz alli katz

    I think that the movie stuff is pretty spot on, culturally speaking. And in later episodes, Rosanne talked a lot about wanting to be a writer — Dan even made her an office in the basement so she could work in peace and quiet. 

    • Ben Joseph

      It's not the references themselves, but how much more dependent the show becomes on them for comedy in Whedon's episodes.

      Coming to Roseanne as a Whedon fan and not the other way around, the recurrence of Roseanne's writing ambitions was an oversight on my part. 

  • Yo

    Doesn't Dan write music for one of Roseanne's poems and try to enter it to win a radio contest? I don't think that's the episode you are talking about and I think it happens pretty early in the series. Roseanne being a poet/writer certainly isn't random or out of the blue… 

    • http://twitter.com/McWhadden Betsy Barrett

       Yes, he does. Much later in the series she also has some angst over Darlene being successful and getting the scholarship for her writing while Roseanne never did anything with her own. So, it was a thread that was never dropped.

  • mike_thoms

    Uh…what's wrong with Dollhouse? It was some of his finest work and a vastly underrated TV show

    • Krissyjump

       Agreed! I absolutely LOVED Dollhouse. Granted, the first five episodes were rocky though they weren't bad (aside from the fifth, True Believer, I never did like that one much) but after that the show goes on an incredible run. From Man on the Street on, the show stepped up it's game in so many ways. Man on the Street was a great episode, as was Echoes, Needs, Spy in the House of Love, Briar Rose, Omega and Epitaph One were fantastic episodes, just brilliant and some of the best TV I'd seen in a while. Even Haunted was an above average episodes with some great writing.

      Then season 2, from start to end was just incredible. The only episodes I felt weren't up to par with the rest were Instinct and Meet Jane Doe, but even then they were still a cut above what else was on Television at the time. Season 2 also features one of the best performances I'd ever seen, by Enver Gjokaj, who is ridiculously talented.

      • GeekygirlUK

        Agreed on Enver. He should be in everything ever. Just fantastic.

      • Old_Dragoon

        There were a bunch of us who didn't make it through the first five shows. Why didn't he put the good stuff first? I love me some Joss, but not Dollhouse. It basically bit the big one.

  • blueophelia

    You say 'new wave and alt rock' as if that wasn't what ruled the Top 40 at the time. Neither Edie Brickell nor Chrissie Hynde were obscure pop culture references in the early '90s. Rickie Lee Jones is a bit far back for some of us, but possibly not for Barr's generation.

    Roseanne's writing, both in the form of high school poetry and her dreams of being a writer, are part of the show from the very start. As soon as Barr was able to gain some creative control, the character's feminism also became a big part of the show as well. Yes, it's very possible for a middle-aged working-class mother to have literary aspirations and feminist leanings.

    The biggest problem: Whedon wasn't THE writer and editor, he was one of a large number of writers and editors, he lasted only a season, and by his own account, his influence wasn't all that great. He's said in interviews that he left Roseanne because he felt like he was being paid to do nothing–everything he gave them was 'rewritten to death' and he was 'shut out of the process'. In other words, while there are a few true Whedon moments, like Darlene's poem, most of what you cite probably had little to nothing to do with Whedon and a lot to do with the producers.

    Don't take this as a slight, but when you describe the character of Roseanne as a middle-aged working-class mother for whom literary, pop culture and feminist references can't possibly be in-character so they must have come from the pen of Whedon, it suggests that you're coming at the show with preconceived notions, and trying to view it as a Joss Vehicle rather than a thing he once had some minor part of.

    • WeevilWobble

       Yes, not only was Roseanne being a writer in her youth referenced on and off through out the series but, infamously, it is the set up for the big twist series finale. There is also the famous episode where Dan give her a writer's room. So, the poetry aspect very much fits.

      As Roseanne took over the character became modeled on the actor.  And Roseanne, the person, is a complicated difficult woman. But she was a working class woman who was an active feminist, who was very culturally aware and quite far from stupid.  Those touches are more about Roseanne than Joss. The excessive pop culture moments I can see being Joss Whedon. Funny things that didn't get edited out. But Roseanne was very much on top of every aspect of her own character.

  • Nutegangrich

    Sorry , but I can't overlook how horribly this piece on writing is edited for writing mistakes, like others here.  In the first few paragraphs, there are missing words ("at the tender of 24" and "when Roseanne asked Whedon how he women so well"), and then stuff like "toe the line" (uh, it's "tow the line").  Maybe there's more, but I just can't keep reading.  How does someone who is speaking on writing, make so many errors, and then no one checks it?  I'd like to continue reading, but this article sort of loses a good deal of credibilty with these mistakes.

    • Nutegangrich

      OK, I'm a douche.  I guess it is "toe the line", so who am I to talk.  I'll back off now, but please do proofread in the future… even I checked my own error and corrected it here, so should you.

  • andontyouforgetit

    screw you Dollhouse was an Amazing show