Roseanne shouldn’t have worked. When it debuted in 1988, the family-sitcom landscape was dominated by the middle-to-upper class—your Cosbys, your Seavers, your Micelli-Bowers…Furthermore, it centered on a brash, opinionated woman with a grating voice and a body type that was unusual for television, then and now.
But the show was a hit out of the gate…Roseanne’s success further emboldened Barr and her writers (whose ranks included Joss Whedon and Amy Sherman-Palladino, among other notables), who used the Conner family to tell the sorts of stories that weren’t often being told on sitcoms, at least not in the ’80s. In addition to storylines informed by Barr’s feminist stance and facilitated by a cast with two teenage girls—featuring issues like birth control, menstruation, PMS, and teenage sex—the show was and remains one of very few successful sitcoms to engage, routinely and enthusiastically, with the struggles of the working class. Because of its propensity, particularly later in the series, for memorable, issue-driven episodes, Roseanne is often remembered most for its aggressive promotion of its star’s pet concerns (which were never particularly consistent), but informing all of that were the twin pillars of Roseanne, the two major concerns that dictated everything the Conners did: family and money.
Based in the fictional factory town of Lanford, Illinois, Roseanne concerns a nuclear family rotating around the titular force of nature at its center. While Barr is undeniably the loudly beating heart of the show—so much so that producers’ efforts to remove her when she became problematic proved futile—the rest of the Conner clan are its other vital organs: John Goodman as dad Dan, Laurie Metcalf as ever-present sister Jackie, Lecy Goranson (and later her replacement, Sarah Chalke) as older sister Becky, Sara Gilbert as middle child Darlene, and Michael Fishman as youngest son DJ. (Okay, DJ isn’t exactly vital; let’s call him the show’s spleen.) The manner in which the Conners snipe at and mess with each other has earned Roseanne a reputation for mean-spiritedness, but the family members’ loyalty to and twisted affection for one another are evident throughout the series, particularly in the early seasons. The Conners are very much the sort of people who laugh to keep from crying, and their dark, cynical worldview is both a symptom of and a salve for the indignities they face as a blue-collar, moderately educated family just trying to get by.
But while other series that earn the “blue-collar” designation typically settle for placing their breadwinners in menial jobs that are nonetheless stable and profitable enough to keep the family-sitcom wheels greased, Roseanne put both Dan and Roseanne through a grind of unrewarding and erratic employment that frequently left them on the cusp of poverty. Things smoothed out for the family, occupation-wise, around the series’ midpoint, as Roseanne opened a restaurant and Dan earned a stable job working for the city, but thanks to the foundation laid in those early seasons, the show never abandoned the idea that its central family could lose it all at any time.