TV Eye

Rosanne in 1989's She-Devil, one of her few forays into film.

That breeze ruffling the back of your neck is not the last bit of spring that lingered until Memorial Day but the collective breath of relief from TV-watching audiences: The annual May sweeps are over. Nowhere was that more evident than in the most recent Nielsen ratings, which demonstrated that the NBA Finals dominated and summer doldrums began with a battery of re-runs.

For some of May's season finales, it was a series finale. That would include ABC's Roseanne, whose closer left more than a few die-hard viewers cold and unsatisfied. If you followed the finale for the 1995-96 season, Dan Conner (John Goodman) suffered a heart attack. In this finale, after a sequence of strange little scenes spoofing old TV shows, the entire 1996-97 season was revealed to be a dream sequence. Dan, you see, really did die last year, and aspiring writer Roseanne invented an alternate world for herself and her family. At the end, the star stepped out of the action, and Roseanne began a rambling monologue about the spiritual power of being a woman. The point of it completely eluded me.

The show itself had lost me long ago. Like CBS's Murphy Brown, this once-vibrant series had overstayed its welcome. It wasn't the name changes of the star, it wasn't her questionable propensity to go public with every aspect of her life, and it certainly wasn't for lack of general talent that the show's bright light faded.

John Goodman and Roseanne (first Barr then Arnold then solo) once made a great TV couple. Dan Conner was Ralph Kramden without the misogyny, a husband with dreams and aspirations but a well-rooted sense of the limitations of his life. Roseanne Conner was unlike any TV mom before her. As she and Dan faced economic and personal upheaval, the adolescence and maturation of their children, and other stumbling blocks in life, it wasn't an underlying commitment to some great ideal that kept them together, it was their sense of responsibility to their children and to each other that made them characters worthy of respect.

This seems to be a much loftier aspiration for a series than the dumbed-down fare generally offered up by the networks or the Touched by an Angel-type shows that are so often touted when the subject of family viewing and setting good examples for children comes up. It's true that Roseanne lost me as a viewer around the time she started waitressing, not long after the Becky-switch of actresses playing her oldest daughter occured. (Was I the only Sixties viewer psychicly scarred by the lack of explanation in the Darrin Stephens-switch on Bewitched?)

Even if Roseanne lost its impetus long ago, it still maintained its moments, and without being a regular viewer, I still tuned in over the years just to check in with the family that now felt like neighbors you were glad you moved away from but missed because they were so entertainingly disruptive. John Goodman will do well in his film career to find a role with as much heart as Dan Conner. Of the actors playing their kids, Sara Gilbert (Darlene) emerged as the one to watch (though don't look to Poison Ivy for indicators). Even the co-stars on the show were notable: the marvelous Laurie Metcalf as Roseanne's sister Jackie; Sandra Bernhard's overbearing performance as Roseanne's friend Nancy; a pre-ER George Clooney as Jackie's lecherous boss; Sixties blues-rock belter Bonnie (Bramlett) Sheridan's stepping into a waitress uniform one season; Tom Arnold's brief turn as a friend of Dan's during his equally brief marriage to the star; Estelle Parsons as Roseanne's acerbic mother; and Martin Mull as the gay boss of the restaurant where Roseanne worked. This was a show that once had magic.

Some of that magic lives in re-runs. We forget about that sometimes because reruns seem so secondary -- viewing afterthoughts. But sometimes the true test of a TV show's durability lies in its re-runs. It's hard to offer a defense for the popularity of a flatulent series like Saved by The Bell but the charm and brilliance of The Mary Tyler Moore Show seems eternal. (Will Saved By The Bell create the same kind of fashion nostalgia for the Nineties on Nick at Night in 20 years that Rhoda now does on the network for the Seventies?)

Last week, I wrote about the pleasure of watching TV with friends, and the kind of bonding it creates during a show's lifespan. I will forever associate L.A. Law with my best friend E.A. Not only did we watch it religiously, we once rented a VCR for our room at the Hyatt during one SXSW to watch it on tape because while we were too busy seeing Dash Rip Rock to watch it live, we had to see it before the night was over. It was the episode in which Rosalind Shays (Diana Mulder) plunged to her death. E.A. and I had a huge fight over the phone during the last episode of the series but its impact was already in place: E.A. was in law school and is now a practicing attorney.

Televison shows become our good friends, too. If we're obsessive enough, we'll tape all the episodes and watch some over and over again. They become our own little schedules of re-runs, there at a moment's notice. If you're sappy like me, the Christmas episode of My So-Called Life still rates 3 hankies after repeated viewings. When the WJM gang sings "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" on the last episode of Mary Tyler Moore, I sing too. In fact, that's where I learned the words. (Murphy Brown could take a cue from MTM on graceful exits.) Newhart was another brilliantly conceived finale, wickedly skewering the whole dream sequence cliché with the best, most original flourish yet. Roseanne deserved something better, something more thoughtful.

Fan Mail from Debbie Smith sends me running to for a peek at this delightful, detailed, and lovingly mean website dedicated to Beverly Hills 90210. Sample quote from the final synopsis: "I don't think I have ever in my 20 years of watching soap operas seen anything as ridiculous as Valerie, standing on the bluffs outside the hotel, with a cellular phone in her hand, leaving a suicide voicemail message for her mother!" Amen! And see you at the Peach Pit next season, Debbie!

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