Recurring Episodes is a regular feature taking an in-depth look each week at a single episode of television, placing it in the context of the larger TV landscape to show what works, what doesn’t, what’s important, and what’s entertaining about the shows of the new Golden Age of Television, and the series that served as influence on those shows. Learn more about Recurring Episodes here.
Welcome to the second installment of Recurring Episodes. This week, the show under the microscope is “Lovers’ Lane,” the first truly classic episode of the ABC sitcom Roseanne.
The Show: Roseanne, starring comedienne Roseanne Barr as Roseanne Conner, the matriarch of a working-class Midwest family in the fictional Central Illinois town of Lanford, debuted in October of 1988 and ran for nine seasons, ending in May of 1997. The show hearkened back to the grittier sitcom fare brought to life by Norman Lear in the 1970s, but differed in two respects: it was really the first sitcom to have at its center a working-class family in the suburbs of the Midwest (rather than the urban environments depicted by Lear in shows like All in the Family), and also broke ground by having at its center a strong, female lead.
Barr (later Arnold, then even later, simply Roseanne) was at the center of the show, and a capably funny sitcom lead, but she was helped immensely by some of the actors around her, who helped to carry the load of the show both comedically and dramatically. John Goodman as her husband Dan and Laurie Metcalf as her neurotic, perennially single sister Jackie equalled Barr for laughs, and Sara Gilbert as middle-daughter Darlene was also strong. Initially, when the show was at its best, it focused on the common struggles of families on the lower-end of the economic spectrum realistically and often hilariously, and on common family topics taken on by sitcom-after-sitcom with a stronger, darker wit.
Why Roseanne? Until it began its decline and Seinfeld came into its own, Roseanne was simply the best situation comedy on the air, consistently funny and occasionally groundbreaking in its content. It was also, through about five seasons, the most popular sitcom on the air, proving its universal appeal beyond its critical strengths. Though it eventually, to use an over-used phrase, jumped the shark (sometime around the point that original oldest daughter Becky Lecy Goranson was replaced by future Scrubs star Sarah Chalke), it remained remarkably consistent throughout the first five seasons of its run, turning typical sitcom plots into something worth watching, and laughing at, again, through frank language that set the stage for the sitcoms of today, both on networks and on cable. While some might remember Roseanne as a show that tackled some of the taboo topics that other mainstream sitcoms were not touching at the time, ranging from race and social class to masturbation, it should truly be remembered as a show featuring a cast of characters one would happily spend a half-an-hour with each week. Some episodes had big plots dealing with big issues, but the show’s greatest strength was setting up a simple premise and letting the cast do their thing. “Lovers’ Lane,” in that vein, is one of the show’s most iconic episodes.
The Episode: “Lovers’ Lane” does a good job of setting up the episode’s premise in the first few minutes. Roseanne and her sister Jackie are on break at work, and, along with their meek, southern-accented friend Crystal (Natalie West) debate what to do with their Friday night. Jackie and Crystal want to go dancing, but Roseanne wants to go bowling instead, and since the show is called Roseanne, it doesn’t take her long to get what she wants, roping Jackie in by inviting their boss, Booker (a young George Clooney, yes, that George Clooney, in full-on cad mode), since Jackie and Booker have been flirting back and forth for the entirety of the season to that point. Once Jackie’s in, Crystal, ever the pushover, must agree to, and there we have it: The Conners and friends are going bowling!
Once the set-up’s been, well, set up, there’s the matter of the episode’s two parallel plots to kick into gear, and those are taken care of quickly as well, in the next scene as the Conners get ready to go to the bowling alley, and upon arriving at the alley in the scene after that. First, Roseanne and Dan learn that oldest daughter Becky is all dressed up to see Chip, a boy in her grade who works at the snack counter in the bowling alley. This scene hides the fact that it’s there to set the plot in motion by great comic work from Roseanne and John Goodman as parents teasing a daughter about potentially embarrassing her, putting on yokel accents, picking their noses, and generally having a great time messing with Becky’s head.
The next scene has Jackie and Booker arriving at the bowling alley, and sets up the other romantic plot, with Clooney’s Booker proposing a “friendly” wager on the game. If he wins, she has to sleep with him.
Once these admittedly minimal plot set-ups are in place, the episode really kicks into gear, with the main cast members playing to their strengths. Natalie West as Crystal is annoyingly uptight about bowling etiquette. Roseanne loudly drinks and bothers Dan, Jackie and the children with a beer in hand the whole time. Laurie Metcalf as Jackie despairs as Booker takes the lead in their bet-upon bowling, and shows an instant chemistry with George Clooney in their back-and-forth. John Goodman plays up the goofy enthusiasm bowling tends to bring out in some people, narrating each throw like a golf announcer, and even giving himself an instant replay after picking up a difficult spare in one of the show’s best bits of comic business. It shows how comfortable the writers and actors were with their jokes and characters that they’d waste more than a minute of a taut, twenty-two minute sitcom run-time on a lengthy bit of physical comedy from Goodman, but it is one of the biggest laughs in the episode and a great example of why the show was such a success—the Conners, Dan especially, were believable characters one would want to spend a Friday night in a bowling alley with. They’re just like our families, but funnier.
Skip ahead to the 3:00 mark for Dan’s bowling display
Becky and Darlene get some good sisterly cracks in at one another, and Becky finally makes her move to talk to Chip, just as Roseanne comes up to buy some snacks. Though Lecy Goranson is not the most natural child actress, at least at this point (she’d improve in later seasons), her mortified potential embarrassment at her mom butting in as she’s trying to flirt gets a big laugh. Roseanne plays the scene perfectly, the way any adolescent might hope a parent would. Everything turns up roses.
Though the regular cast shines, it’s Clooney who gets maybe the best moment in the entire show, after winning the bet. Instead of making Jackie go through with it, he simply says, “Not on a bet. Not tonight, and not on a bet,” then walks out, to the applause of the studio audience. “You welcher!” Jackie yells after him, another big laugh.
There’s something wonderfully perfect about the ambitions of this particular episode; basically, there aren’t any. It’s a fun cast of characters interacting, delivering punchlines, and adding a tiny spark of romantic subplot. In a day and age where sitcoms try too hard for quirk, for the humor of awkwardness, watching an old Roseanne episode like this is a breath of very fresh air. The characters get their laughs, but it feels very real. What could be better than that?
Odds & Ends: No mention was made of youngest child DJ Conner (Michael Fishman) in the write-up because he did not have much to do in this episode, and the truth of the matter is that the show was always strongest when it focused on Dan, Roseanne, Jackie, and the older kids than on DJ. In the earliest years he was fine, because he was just there to be a cute little kid, but when he had to carry more comic weight later on, the show could suffer from it.
George Clooney only appeared in the first season of Roseanne. The Jackie-Booker romance was a part of a few more episodes, but the plot was basically abandoned later on. He would appear in a later Halloween episode in a one-shot cameo return, soon before his breakthrough on ER.
A few more Roseanne episodes would take place at Lanford Lanes, with each being a very strong entry in its season.
Next Thursday, May 5 – Freaks and Geeks, Season One, Episode One: “Pilot”