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‘Roseanne’: Johnny Galecki’s Return Is a Perfect Metaphor for a Show Wrestling with its Own Messiness

This week's episode turned to family in a way that felt closer to the show's history.

ROSEANNE - "Darlene v. David" - David unexpectedly shows up for Harris' birthday after being absent for years, forcing Darlene to re-examine their relationship and the rest of the family. Meanwhile, Roseanne and Jackie's mother, Bev, temporarily moves into the Conner home after an incident at the nursing home prevents her from returning, on the fifth episode of the revival of "Roseanne," TUESDAY, APRIL 17 (8:00-8:30 p.m. EDT), on The ABC Television Network. (ABC/Greg Gayne)SARA GILBERT, ROSEANNE BARR

Sara Gilbert and Roseanne Barr, “Roseanne”

ABC

[Editor’s note: The following article contains spoilers for “Roseanne” Season 10 Episode 5, “Darlene v. David.”]

One of the challenges of a new ABC season of “Roseanne” was to make it feel like something other than a simple parade of familiar faces. To make this seem like a fulfilling storytelling exercise and not a pure nostalgia grab, it wasn’t enough just to bring the whole gang back: There needed to be a reason. Though the first handful of episodes has found things beyond “Roseanne” canon to discuss — with mixed results — this reboot did well to frame its experiences around the main members of the family. Keeping that interconnected web of Conners and Healys at the heart of the show was the only way to revive the series.

Still, this new “Roseanne” would still have been possible without the return of Johnny Galecki’s David Healy. With the actor’s commitments elsewhere and a Darlene storyline that explained her new chapter as a single mom, the series could have gone on without reintroducing a changed David. Part of bringing back “Roseanne” after two decades is showing that it’s impossible to expect families not to change.

But in coming back to the Conner house in this week’s episode, “Darlene v. David,” David gave “Roseanne” something of a microcosm of the response to the show overall. Like the Season 10 cold open with Dan waking up in bed, seeing David back at the bedroom window was a nice throwback to the couple’s younger days. After the shock of returning, Darlene (Sara Gilbert) starts to reckon with the decisions he’s made, much like many “Roseanne” fans have been doing with the title actress’ outspoken off-screen activity.

So what to make of the pair’s quick decision to hop back into bed together and try to make up for time gone by? As rushed and drastic as it is, that character moment speaks to the shared history that these two characters have — you can fill in the gaps of why each of them would want to see a future together, even if contract obligations and schedule availability is going to keep that from happening within the “Roseanne” production universe.

Galecki’s return was still a little rocky. Darlene and David’s conversation right before landing right back in each other’s arms is a little stilted, the mark of a character that’s now firmly outside the show’s energy after going from “starring” to “guest.” The episode is built around the idea that atoning for mistakes and willful neglect in the past doesn’t come with a single action. Much like “Roseanne” has had to work back into many fans’ good graces, so David will have to do with Darlene.

ROSEANNE - "Darlene v. David" - David unexpectedly shows up for Harris' birthday after being absent for years, forcing Darlene to re-examine their relationship and the rest of the family. Meanwhile, Roseanne and Jackie's mother, Bev, temporarily moves into the Conner home after an incident at the nursing home prevents her from returning, on the fifth episode of the revival of "Roseanne," TUESDAY, APRIL 17 (8:00-8:30 p.m. EDT), on The ABC Television Network. (ABC/Greg Gayne)AMES MCNAMARA, EMMA KENNEY, JAYDEN REY, ROSEANNE BARR, SARA GILBERT, JOHN GOODMAN

“Roseanne”

ABC

Of course, David wasn’t the only character to make a long-awaited return in this episode: Estelle Parsons, everyone! Having Bev come back in the midst of a parenting-heavy episode made for a solid fit. As granddaughter Darlene faced some difficult decisions, to have the Bev whirlwind come through seems like a healthier way to show that there is more than one way to parent than Roseanne’s water-sink torture session from a few weeks ago.

In the process, it showed Laurie Metcalf easing back into the Jackie character ever so slightly. Compared with the outsized “Nasty Woman” t-shirt Jackie sported in the first episode of Season 10, the reaction to Bev’s nursing home escapades felt like a less jokey response to someone in the family revealing something uncomfortable. Ideological divisions aside, it’s still nice to see Roseanne and Jackie having a shared experience that doesn’t play into easy polarizing.

This episode’s not asking audiences to forget everything that’s happened in the previous four weeks, but this does offer a respite from Roseanne’s murky political reworking, “They’re just like us” and all. For this version of the show that’s whiffed on connecting the Conners of the past to an updated world, “Darlene v. David” shows how the best move for “Roseanne” might be to think of itself as more self-contained. There are still plenty of ways the show can fill in the gaps of what’s happened in the intervening decades without tying those experiences explicitly to today’s headlines. “Roseanne” isn’t incapable of speaking to 2018, but at this point, focusing on its own timeline might be time better spent.

Because as much as Galecki’s return was part of the “Roseanne” checklist, Darlene is the true star of this episode. The choice to take him back, however briefly or ill-advised, was initiated by her. The terms of his leaving and to what extent he’s allowed back into the lives of his children is still dictated by her actions. Changing family dynamics and the issues that come with a distant parent trying to make amends is truly something that reaches across political lines. That’s not just a heartland issue or a big-city concern. It’s a storyline burdened by memories long past, but it’s a way that this show can be relevant without manufacturing its own controversy.

To cap off the episode, the Dan/David showdown is this reboot in microcosm. It’s a chance for both actors to echo their past incarnations of these characters, with a tiny bit of the old magic that’s gone as quickly as it appears. John Goodman’s tiny smile at the end feels a little rushed, but it’s almost as if both character and actor have realized that this is what people were looking for all along, not shouting about snowflakes or meta-jokes about multiple Beckys. If the “Roseanne” family made the show a classic, maybe it’s stumbled on a path lined with cake-eating contests, back to where it always should have gone in the first place.

“Roseanne” airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. E.T. on ABC.

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