50. "Home-Ec," Roseanne (1991)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
James Poniewozik recently theorized that Sally Draper is the "secret protagonist" of Mad Men, noting that series creator Matthew Weiner "has used Sally to present a dark but believable view of growing up, as the gradual revelation of the world’s mystery, horror and shame." It's a compelling argument, and Mad Men isn't the only recent series to use adolescent female characters this way.
Fifty years ago, pop culture was full of stories about teenage boys learning what it means to be an adult (see The Andy Griffith Show, Leave It to Beaver, The Rifleman, and countless westerns and war movies). Now we're at least as likely to see things from a young woman's point of view, even on TV series that are mostly populated by older adults. On Six Feet Under, Claire gradually became the character who drove the show (and, yes, the hearse) as the others repeated self-destructive behaviors. And Mad Men is not the only series to pair a clueless, comic-relief boy (anyone want to stick up for Bobby?) with a confident and perceptive girl like Sally.
Roseanne preceded all of these, so it was still unusual that most of its best episodes focused on a cynical-but-creative teenage girl (Darlene, played by Sara Gilbert). When the show premiered, two of the more popular sitcoms were Family Ties and Married...with Children, both of whom featured boys who were noticably smarter than their sisters. I don't whether it's because writers and producers just felt they had run out of "boys" stories, or because girls are more interesting in the way they fit currently popular themes (sexual awakening and forging a home/work identity, as opposed to learning how to be stoic and go off to war), but Roseanne is now closer to a rule than an exception.
Roseanne: What's the matter, Darlene? Are you embarrassed of your mother?
Darlene: Don't get offended, Mom! I'm just as embarrassed of Dad.
"Home-Ec" gives us a key moment in the real-world education of Darlene Connor, but it's not in Very Special Episode territory. There's no crisis involving sex or drugs. Instead, the story's biggest revelation is that Roseanne has been tricking her kids by putting cheaper cereal in "name brand" boxes. ("I've been eating generic Frankenberries?" asks a mortified Darlene.) OK, it's not as traumatic as getting a glimpse of your dad (or Roger Sterling), getting a blow job, but it's still a glimpse into the compromises and deceptions of the adult world.
The main plot of "Home-Ec" is Roseanne using "Career Day" at Darlene's school to teach her class how to feed a family on a budget. She takes the girls on a field trip to the supermarket, with Darlene cringing along.
Roseanne: Now we need corn flakes, they are the most important part of this meal.
Student: Why's that?
Roseanne: Well how else do you think we're going to turn 2 pounds of ground round into 11 pounds of mouth watering meatloaf?
Despite its status as a sitcom classic, Roseanne combined two of the more annoying sitcom trends of the 1980s. One was the casting of stand-up comics with little acting experience as sitcom stars; the other was that many of the (overdue) comedies with female leads had a soapbox quality, with their leads spending a lot of time Saying What Needs to Be Said instead of really interacting with other characters. (See Murphy Brown, Designing Women, the more "relevant" Golden Girls episodes.) At its peak, Roseanne overcame those potential drawbacks simply because Roseanne Connor was believable as someone who would give these little speeches to the few people in her life she could influence. When she dispenses quips to one of her kids (most often Darlene), the dynamic is very close to Andy Griffith (who essentially started as stand-up comic) sharing wisdom with TV son Opie. My guess, though, is that Darlene got the more eye-opening lessons.
Roseanne: (about the guy checking out in front of them) Let's see what he's buying: vodka, Malomars and a TV Guide. My guess is, he's single and he's staying that way.
•Younger brother D.J. gets a subplot in this episode about a bully at school, but the story's funniest moment involves Roseanne's petit sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) trying to overpower the hulking John Goodman. D.J. may be best known for his collection of dismembered dolls, discovered in "Good-bye, Mr. Right."
•Leonardo DiCaprio briefly appears, but does not speak, in "Home-Ec" as one of Darlene's classmates.