This is a “Nerd Voices” contributor pieces from Rachael Brennan. Follow her on Twitter!
In the world of social commentary centered around poverty and income inequality, nobody has been quite so vocal as actress and comedienne Roseanne Barr. Her show Roseanne was a nine-season tribute to the plight of the working class, showing what it is like to work on an assembly line, wait tables, lose your business, and face a host of other problems that come along with being a part of the working poor in America.
While the original show was remarkable in its honesty and frankness regarding class in the United States, there was one easily overlooked story arc that might be the most depressingly accurate depiction of life as a blue-collar worker ever recorded. In season 2, episode 21 (“Fender Bender”) Roseanne is in a car accident. She sees a doctor, but makes it clear in the episode that she has no health insurance and can’t afford a decent lawyer to have any additional medical bills paid. She never follows up with any additional medical care, essentially condemning herself to live with the damage for the rest of her life.
While the accident is never mentioned again in the course of the show, the evidence that Roseanne suffered a serious injury that left her in chronic pain becomes obvious only a few episodes later.
At the beginning of season three, Roseanne leaves her job at the salon and becomes the worst waitress Rodbells has ever seen, blowing off her schedule, stealing food from plates and condiments from the store room, and mouthing off to her supervisor at every opportunity. This was strange, given that in previous jobs Roseanne had done very well. She might have had an attitude, but at Wellman Plastics she worked there for eleven years, always made her quotas and was well liked by her coworkers and supervisor.
After leaving that job she busted her ass to sell magazine subscriptions over the phone, was so good at her job at Chicken Divine that they declared her one of their best employees, and was given an immediate raise and promotion at the hair salon where she worked hard at her job even though she felt degraded by the work. The waitress job seems to be the first place where she could not be bothered to even attempt to do her job.
As she moved into other positions later in the show, she continued to be horrible at what she did, including businesses where she had partial ownership, like Dan’s bike shop and her diner, which should have inspired her to have a much stronger work ethic.
According to WebMD, some of the signs of chronic pain from an injury include fatigue that causes impatience and loss of motivation, mood changes, such as hopelessness, fear, irritability, and anxiety as well as disability, making it difficult or impossible to do your work or take care of daily needs. These symptoms are all clearly present in Roseanne’s experiences and personality changes as the show goes on, and not just in the working world.
The difference was also obvious in her parenting style. Before the accident she was a really good mom, reading to her son and providing mental and emotional support for her children. She supports Becky in her moral stand to refuse to dissect a frog in biology class, she guides Darlene through the difficulties of her first period, and handles Becky’s foray into teenage drinking and Darlene’s budding talent as a writer with aplomb. After the accident, her parenting style changed dramatically, beginning with telling her kids that they cheat on their taxes, ignoring DJ’s decapitated doll head collection, etc. For example, in Season 3, episode 2 (“Friends and Relatives”) DJ begins spying on his sisters in the bathroom and purloins a picture of Nancy’s breast augmentation but is told nothing more than to stop it.
In the next episode “Like a Virgin” Roseanne tries to talk about birth control and sex with her daughters, but despite her own pregnancy scare just a few episodes prior she still has extreme difficulty having a frank and honest discussion with them, even though we’ve seen her have similar discussions with them in the past, like when Darlene had her first period. She handles the situation with Becky and Mark terribly, doesn’t even attempt to address Darlene’s depression, and stops consulting with Dan about basic parenting decisions.
While she wasn’t exactly a gourmet chef prior to the accident, she basically stops cooking after the crash. In the first 2 seasons, she at least attempts to make proper meals, everything from roast beef to swordfish. From the third season onward the efforts she makes at cooking are limited at best, microwaving TV dinners and boiling premade food in plastic bags like a college kid trying to cook in their dorm room with a coffee maker. Eventually she just starts handing the kids pizza flyers and bringing home bags of food from the diner to feed her family.
Her relationship with Dan becomes less balanced as well, with her becoming more judgmental and demanding while Dan becomes more and more focused on escaping into the mindlessness of the television. They clearly still love one another, but their relationship becomes less and less equitable over time, leaving her with all the power and responsibility and Dan with no control over his life at home.
In the end, Roseanne looks back over her life wondering what could have been different, wondering how big things like the loss of a spouse or coming into millions of dollars would change the road she’d traveled. Given the time and inclination to really dig deep into her past I believe she would have found that the car accident was the moment her path was forever altered, leaving her to live a life that was profoundly different than what she had worked so hard to create for herself and her family.