Roseanne returns to ABC this month with a 9-episode revival season that reintroduces Roseanne and Dan Conner as Donald Trump supporters while diving into the lives of the couple’s various grown children and young grandchildren. But before the show can get down to new business, it first must address the elephant in the room: the season 9 twist that killed off Dan while also turning most of the show's history on its ear. In order for anything to add up, the revival must retcon season 9 and its utterly perplexing, Roseanne Barr-scripted last episode.
Debuting in 1988, Roseanne broke new sitcom ground with its unusually authentic, non-glamorized depiction of working-class life. Centered on Roseanne and Dan Conner and their children, Becky, Darlene and D.J., plus Roseanne’s sister Jackie and various other friends and relatives, the show went into sometimes uncomfortable detail about the everyday reality of blue-collar Midwesterners struggling with mundane concerns. Over the years, the series tackled controversial topics, but still maintained its grounded approach. However, in later years as Roseanne Barr herself gained more creative control, the show began to wander from its course. Then in 1997, the flagging show finally said farewell with one of the most baffling finales in history.
Going into the finale, Roseanne season 9 had already unleashed a lot of whoppers, including the once-poor Conners winning the lottery, a largely-absent Dan, recovered from the heart attack he suffered at the end of season 8, having an affair before returning to reconcile with Roseanne, and Roseanne’s mom Bev coming out of the closet as a lesbian. The 2-part finale titled “Into that Good Night” initially looked like an attempt to clean up all the madness by going out on a purer, more heartwarming note. Adorable developments included Darlene and husband David bringing their premature baby Harris home for the first time; Becky and husband Mark revealing they too were expecting; and Roseanne’s gay pal Leon and his husband unveiling their own plans to adopt a child. And with that, everything seemed set up for a fittingly upbeat send-off.
Then, Part 2 happened. As confused audiences looked on, Roseanne revealed in a monologue that what we witnessed for 9 seasons was not the characters' true reality, but was all an increasingly crazy fiction dreamed up by aspiring novelist Roseanne herself. Roseanne told us that in reality Darlene married bad-boy Mark, while Becky married good-boy David, instead of vice versa. Recently out-of-the-closet Bev was actually straight, but Jackie was a lesbian. Also, the whole season 9 arc of the Conners winning the lottery and going on wacky adventures was totally made up.
But in the biggest twist of all, we learned Dan was actually deceased, having expired from the heart attack he suffered at Darlene’s wedding in the cliffhanger finale of season 8. Everything that happened with Dan in season 9 – his affair and reconciliation with Roseanne – sprang from the pen as Roseanne dealt with her grief over Dan’s death. The episode ended with Roseanne going upstairs to sit on the iconic Conner couch one last time, and uttering one final signature cackle as everything faded to black. Had social media existed at the time, it no doubt would have exploded with folks accusing Roseanne of trolling. Since the episode aired, Roseanne Barr has defended the Bizarro World twist, claiming it made sense because all along the show was really about being a writer (even though the show seemed like it was about being a working-class family from Illinois).
As soon as the new Roseanne revival was announced, the big question was whether the deceased Dan would somehow return as well. ABC moved quickly to assure audiences that, yes, Dan would be back. But how to explain the return of Dan? The only clue we received was a jokey moment from the trailer that debuted during the Super Bowl. In the clip, we see Roseanne and Dan in bed, the latter wearing a sleep apnea mask (because that’s a thing that has become a thing since 1997). Roseanne yells Dan’s name and he snaps awake. “I thought you were dead,” Roseanne says, having apparently just dreamed his death. To which Dan replies, “Why does everyone always think I’m dead?”
Indeed, Roseanne dreaming Dan’s death – and all the other craziness of season 9 – is a quick and dirty (and ironic) way of retconning season 9. Famously, this same approach came into play on the classic ‘80s primetime soap Dallas when writers needed to explain the return of Patrick Duffy’s Bobby Ewing after a one-year absence. In one of TV history’s craziest twists, season 9 ended with Bobby’s “widow” Pamela entering the bathroom and finding her supposedly dead husband happily taking a shower. As we learned in the season 10 premiere, Bobby’s death and everything else that happened during Duffy’s absence only took place in Pamela’s incredibly elaborate dream.
Roseanne’s jokey version of the Dallas twist is of course not the first time the show has glossed over a tricky situation using humor. In season 6, Becky actress Lecy Goranson left the series to attend college and Sarah Chalke stepped in to replace her. But later, Goranson returned to the show as Becky and Chalke exited. The series would address the two Beckys conundrum via meta-jokes, including having the two actresses morph into each other during the season 8 opening credits sequence. The Becky meta-jokes continue in the revival with Chalke returning to play a different character named Andrea.
Unless Roseanne Barr plans on trolling fans with yet another finale twist where everything turns out to be a figment of someone’s imagination, season 10 should put right all the mistakes of season 9. Those mistakes were born of Barr seemingly not understanding the appeal of her own show, and using her creative control to make points that ultimately seemed crackpot. Of course, as Roseanne’s tweets of recent years have shown, her crackpot tendencies remain. Who knows how Barr’s personal quirkiness will manifest itself on the new Roseanne. Hopefully, showrunners Bruce Helford and Whitney Cummings have kept Barr’s more out-there ideas at bay.