By Ken Tucker
Updated October 02, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT
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After a few viewings of her new daytime talk show, you begin to realize what Roseanne is trying to do: everything. The Roseanne Show shifts gears like a funny-car racing driver; she wants to be Carol Burnett taking questions from the audience one minute, but then she turns dead serious the next, dispensing advice to live-in-the-studio unwed mothers (as she did on her premiere) with the same earnestness that made us love her when she used to soul-search Sara Gilbert’s sullen Darlene on Roseanne. Except that this time out, there are no punchlines, so the advice can seem trite and not a little cavalier.

No matter; that’s the thing about talk shows — there’s always another day. And so, 24 hours later, there she is presiding over the Big Butt Fashion Show, encouraging women to take pride in their bodies (fine distinctions between possessing a ”shelf” or a ”low rider” were made). Then next thing you know, she’s totally gassed because Jerry Springer’s on her show. Of course Roseanne would love Springer; she grooves on anyone who brings the lowly, the dispossessed, the alienated or just plain alien, onto television.

And damned if Roseanne didn’t come up with a more interesting take on Springer’s appeal than any TV critic I’ve read: ”You’re like, ‘America talks to a Jew,”’ she said. ”Most of the people you have on your show have never met a Jew, and you do that Talmudic, judgmental thing, telling them what they’re doin’ is wrong, and people like that.” Hey, makes as much sense as any other theory about Jerry’s popularity, and it’s got religion, too!

The biggest problem with the show is that Roseanne is trying to serve as host while also acting as if she’s part of the audience, digging it all; the result is that there’s often no room for the rest of us. She’s a one-person version of MTV’s FANatic. Sometimes this pays off: Her interview with John Fogerty was simply amazing, for instance. She tried to draw him out on his influences, and Fogerty, inarticulate and modest to a fault, mumbled vaguely until the host said she’d always heard some Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in his swamp rock. Fogerty’s eyes lit up, and he described in vivid detail the ’50s rocker’s stage act and its impact on him. It was a great moment no one else could have pulled off — you think Howie Mandel knows from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins?

Similarly, her interview with How Stella Got Her Groove Back author Terry McMillan elicited as much information about a writer’s formation as Charlie Rose could have, with the added bonus of a girl chat about how ”cool” it is to have a boyfriend who’s decades younger than you, ”’cause I know women in the audience want to hear about that,” said Roseanne to confirming whoops. McMillan didn’t blush; instead she brought out her shy, grinning boy toy for everyone to admire. It was gogglingly sexist in the exact opposite way than television usually is.

For those of us who still harbor affection for her from when her sitcom was in its feisty prime, Roseanne remains endlessly fascinating. No matter how grotesquely bizarre that final 1996-97 season of Roseanne was, the series can still be cherished as a burst of raucous honesty rare in TV history. In the pre-South Park era, Roseanne Conner’s crudeness lay more in class resentment. That is, it was self-aware (as opposed to Archie Bunker’s clueless sort) and brayingly self-assertive rather than mere gross-out humor.

The question is, how many of us admirers are left? Scheduled in some markets against soap operas or the talk shows of Mandel and Rosie O’Donnell, Roseanne’s chat-fest faces stiffer, more varied competition than she had in prime time. O’Donnell’s instincts are telling her that for her new season, soft is the way to go; she’s expanded her Craft Corner segment, in which she’s baked with Cindy Crawford and decorated flowerpots with Wynonna. If O’Donnell proves correct — and she’s nothing if not shrewd — Roseanne’s hard edge in persisting in talking about politics, economics, race, and religion, even if it’s folded around guest stars like Springer, Whoopi Goldberg, and Dennis Rodman, may leave viewers cold.

But right now Roseanne is really feeling her oats, so it’s fun to watch her even when she’s making terrible lapses in judgment such as letting Sandra Bernhard bellow ”I Am Woman” for what seemed like 15 minutes. You know all the gals on The View, another Roseanne Show competitor? Roseanne is all their personalities — from clucking hen Barbara Walters to chucklehead Debbie Matenopoulos — smooshed together, with a little room for Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, too. B

The Roseanne Show

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