Baseball is fondly referred to as the national pastime, but the truth is few things entertain people more than TV. On average, adults spend four to five hours per day in front of a television, the bulk of which watching live programming. It’s no wonder the number original scripted series has increased each year since the recession. While most shows don’t get past the pilot, the ones that do often depict an accurate representation of American culture at the time.
The same could be said 30 years ago when Roseanne debuted. Many chalked it up as a story about the average American family trying to deal with life’s everyday problems; marriage, children, and money. But it also gave viewers an understanding of the economic struggles of poor and middle-class families in the late 1980s and early 90s.
When the show aired in 1988, the economy had reached an inflection point marked by slow growth, a decline in inflation, and a shift in employment to skilled labor. Meanwhile, substantial tax cuts from the Reagan administration led to a greater concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent. By the end of the decade, most households needed both parents to work to get by.
Even then, it wasn’t guaranteed that everyone could find employment. The fallout of the S&L crisis pushed unemployment rates up from 5.4 % in January 1990 to 6.8% in March of the next year. Joblessness continued to rise until it hit 7.8% in June 1992 and by then the economy had shed a total of 1.6 million jobs.
The economic conditions at the time reflected many of the storylines portrayed in the show. In the first episode, the oldest daughter Becky starts rifling through the pantry for a food drive at school, and Roseanne says, “Tell them to drive some of that food over here.” Before Roseanne, the concept of poverty escaped decent sitcom families and even now, most shows neglect to focus on it. But this is what Roseanne embodied. She and Dan worked minimum wage jobs in the service industry while trying to manage three unruly children. In many ways, the show succeeded because it related to the everyday person and challenged this notion that poverty was self-induced.
By the end of season two, the show had surpassed “The Cosby Show” as the most watched program in the United States. Roseanne flourished from a new age audience that wanted less rich people living in large houses and more relatable content. It wasn’t until the last season when the story diverted from the original premise that viewership started to decline. At the same time, economic conditions were rapidly improving. The stock market had hit a new all-time high while productivity growth more than doubled in the second half of 1990. With a rise in the standard of living, people could no longer relate to the working class message Roseanne elicited in the early seasons.
In late 2017, production started for a 10th season set to air in the spring of next year. It’s curious whether the same working class message that translated well 25 years ago will have the same impact today. The current era of aspirational shows and reality TV suggests the return of Roseanne might be a nostalgia act rather than a landmark social commentary.