Laurie Metcalf and Estelle Parsons
Photo: Greg Gayne (ABC)

Talk about déjà vu.

A Roseanne episode with guest spots from Sandra Bernhard, Christopher Lloyd, and Natalie West (who played Crystal) and loads more Estelle Parsons as Beverly should have been a lot more fun than “No Country For Old Women” is. Parsons has always crackled as the Harris family matriarch, but while she hasn’t lost any of her moxie as Bev, all she gets from Bruce Helford and Dave Caplan’s scripts (Helford wrote “Darlene Vs. David” while Caplan handled this week’s episode) is a storyline straight out of The Golden Girls—the lusty nonagenarian gets kicked out of her assisted-living facility for getting along a little too well with her fellow residents. Jackie’s relationship with Bev has always been contentious, to say the least, so Roseanne’s left holding the (old) bag.

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Though she’s a few decades older than most of the people who make up the “sandwich generation,” Roseanne is now looking after her elderly mom, middle-aged daughter, and teenage grandkids. She grouses a bit, as is her wont, but seems otherwise resigned to it—at first. But after living with Bev’s incessant nitpicking again, Roseanne forces Jackie to do her share. And as is her wont, Jackie immediately botches things.

One dalliance with Doc Brown—er, Lou—and a thwarted suicide attempt later, mother and daughters reconcile. Roll credits. Really, that’s all “No Country For Old Women” has to offer, aside from yet another B-story about Dan coming to terms with his grandson Mark’s gender-nonconforming ways. This time, Dan tries to stifle Mark’s creativity in birdhouse-making, not in dressing for school, although if there’s a graduation in the future, we can probably expect some uninspired jokes about Mark’s “gown.”

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Though Roseanne has shown some respect in developing Mark’s character, it also seems intent on using him to signal its progressive bona fides. All of Mark’s storylines center on him doing something to make Dan shake his head or scratch his chin, stopping just short of muttering “the boy ain’t right.” As we saw in “Dress To Impress,” Dan’s just concerned with his grandson’s safety whenever he doesn’t have one of the Conners at his side. But even though Mark’s never the butt of the joke, he’s little more than his spangled, brightly-colored wardrobe. In “Darlene Vs. David,” it’s implied that Mark hardly knows his dad. And yet, do we see them interact with each other? Nope. Harris is obviously torn about seeing her estranged father, but we never learn how Mark feels about it.

Mark’s limited role is part of a larger problem with the Roseanne revival: surprisingly shallow characterization. Characters new and old are underserved by the writing this season. Harris has taken her mom’s place as the sarcastic, sullen teen, but she doesn’t really have Darlene’s bark or bite. Episode five gave Darlene more to do than just roll her eyes at her senior-citizen parents who think smartphones are dumb, but in “No Country For Old Women,” she’s back to arguing with her father about giving her son the space to be himself. And god, the scene in which Darlene sounds off about how people “these days” can have creative jobs makes her seem unaware of her own past as an artist.

Photo: Greg Gayne (ABC)

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Established characters are forgetting things about themselves, or, as we see with Jackie, are bereft of common sense. Though she gets a sweet moment with Bev toward the end of the episode, as they realize they actually want to be in each other’s lives, Jackie’s most persistent mode is bug-eyed confusion. And, as she points out, she’s now 60 years old—I’m starting to think she needs Bev at least as much as Bev needs her.

Elder care is supposed to be one of the issues being addressed in the revival, but, as with the family’s ostensibly conflicting political views (only Jackie seems to have taken issue with Roseanne voting for Trump), the matter is handled in the most superficial manner. There’s no real commentary beyond bemoaning the state of some county facility, which just seems disingenuous in light of how the GOP’s plans for healthcare would screw over the elderly. The show acknowledges there’s a problem, but refuses to explore the causes. At 90 years old, Bev shouldn’t be dealing with housing insecurity, even if that’s something that loomed over the Conner family in the series’ original run. They don’t seem that much more secure now, despite Roseanne having helped elect the “jobs candidate.”

Look, I certainly don’t expect sitcom writers to do something that Congress hasn’t been able to accomplish and solve the healthcare crisis, but they should at some point serve up meaningful discourse—you know, the kind they touted ahead of the revival’s premiere, and in the weeks since? Instead, all “No Country For Old Women” offers is some recycled drama between Jackie and Bev, and the latest round of Darlene snarling at her dad to let her kid express himself. Season two of Better Things, one of several comedies with irascible but relatable families to spring up since Roseanne first ended, also featured a storyline about coming to terms with a parent’s failing health. The economic concerns on that show obviously aren’t the same as on Roseanne, but the emotional stakes are—and the FX dramedy makes much more compelling TV out of them. Better Things has a more pronounced dramatic bent, which gives it the space to really delve into something like how to deal with your parent needing help taking care of themselves. But I have to take Roseanne’s writers at their word, as well as assess them by it. And they have yet to consistently provide anything more than retreads and flat characters.

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Stray observations

  • “No Country For Old Women” was directed by Gail Mancuso and, as noted above, written by Dave Caplan, both original Roseanne alums.
  • I’m quoting Marty McFly up top, but it’s Doc Brown/Christopher Lloyd who romances Bev as Lou. I am so telling Clara.
  • Seriously, Estelle Parsons seems to have stopped aging when the show originally wrapped.
  • Not too many good zingers here, but this made me chuckle: “When I hear ‘life coach,’ I think it should be someone who has a life.”
  • This week’s relevance remark: “Elon Musk.”
  • Yes, I’m still torn about Better Things.

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