When you consider television’s current spate of revivals it doesn’t require too big a leap to think the return of Roseanne was more or less a forgone conclusion. What most people didn’t anticipate, however, was the response the show would generate, both in terms of the outrageously impressive ratings it received and in the controversy surrounding not only some of the jokes in the series, but also Roseanne Barr’s personal politics. For better or worse, both remained talking points throughout the new season. Even the slightest dip in the ratings became news, while the show maintained a contentious water cooler status with a black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat joke that was criticized for being “reductive”, as well as an episode in which the Connors confront their Muslim neighbors.
The result, unsurprisingly, left audiences divided but still tuning in. And so, as the season pushed toward its finale, the question became one of: Who would the series aim to please? As it turns out, the writers decided to circle back to the storyline that began with the premiere back in March, and in doing so end the season with an episode that seemingly aims to please longtime fans of the series most of all.
‘Knee Deep’ isn’t really any worse or better than any of the previous episodes in the revival in terms of comedy, but it does travel down a familiar narrative path, one that contributed to Roseanne becoming the hit that it was back in 1988. The show’s depiction of a middle-class family’s economic struggles helped set it apart from a lot of what was on TV at the time. In returning to the Conners' ongoing financial scramble, the show feels more like the Roseanne of old. And as an added bonus, the series managed to wrangle some genuine laughs to go along with all those nostalgic feelings.
Roseanne’s knee pain has been an ongoing arc this season, so it makes sense that the show would want to wrap things up by making that the focus of the finale. Surprisingly, though, ‘Knee Deep’ doesn’t just focus on what ails its title character, but it actively seeks to remedy the situation by giving the Connors an unexpected windfall they can use to pay for Roseanne's surgery. Unlike the previous series finale, in which the Connors won the lottery but lost Dan (don’t worry, it was all a dream), this particular windfall comes courtesy of some miserable weather, a lot of flooding, and the declaration of a state of emergency hands the show a rare blue-sky ending by way of too much rain.
The episode focuses primarily on the tough decision Dan has to make with regard to landing a drywall job, but doing so in a way that could potentially put him in hot water with the union, and that nearly destroys his friendship with Chuck (James Pickens Jr.). The situation affords John Goodman a chance to shine (even more than he’s done all season) with a monologue delivered while wading in a flooded basement. As a lot of Roseanne has done in the past, it teeters on becoming a “very special episode” but manages to avoid such a classification by virtue of the sincerity in Goodman's performance.
As it has all season long, Roseanne leans on Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, and Sarah Gilbert to deliver its most affecting moments, and all three come through in different ways in ‘Knee Deep’. Though the episode hinges on a dramatic shift when it seems as though things can’t possibly get worse for the Conners, it’s by no means gloomy. That much is made clear with Jackie's reaction to a doll her and Roseanne's mother apparently loved more than them, and even more so with Darlene’s effort to get more tips by flirting with customers at her job. The situation gives Darlene a chance to bond with Becky (Alicia Grandson), and eventually turns into a funny segment in which Gilbert is so good at conveying thinly veiled contempt for drunken customers that you hope her return to writing doesn't immediately take her away from slinging drinks at a casino.
The episode ends on a welcome high note for a family that’s all too used to taking the “L”. But the Conners’ win is a win for the audience, too, as it gives the revival a chance to be both representative of the present, while also feeling more like the show it once was. Striking that balance might be more of what's in store with the upcoming season, as co-showrunner Whitney Cummings departs to work on other projects, and producers have already said the show plans to focus less on politics. For now, that win works as a satisfying conclusion for the season. But this is Roseanne we’re talking about, so it’s safe to assume the family’s winning ways won’t last long. It’ll be interesting to see if that hold true for the audience as well when the series returns.
Roseanne is expected to return in 2019 on ABC.