Truth and Fiction in Roseanne

I love Roseanne. My mom hates it and wouldn’t let me watch in her house. So while I saw a few episodes here and there when it aired (hey, nobody’s perfect), I didn’t get to really watch the series until I was about 24. My apartment at the time was pretty weird. No overhead light in the bedroom and I kept forgetting to buy a lamp, so that room was pretty much storage and I slept on my futon right in front of the TV. I’d wake up at about 4am (I’ve never been very good at sleeping through the night) and flip through channels for something to either wake me up or put me back to sleep. One morning I found Roseanne reruns and started watching them every morning. I think I probably saw the whole series about 3 times that year. (Well, it feels that way. I just did the math because it didn’t seem possible and I’m a nerd, turns out I probably saw it twice all the way through.)

It’s such a great show. Obviously loving family going through a lot of problems including a lot of fighting with each other, not something you see on a lot of sitcoms. Like, serious “are they gonna get a divorce?” scary fighting that was at times hard for me to watch. Teenagers who go through realistic phases of awful where you just want to smack them for several episodes at a time instead of shaping up and apologizing within half an hour. People making bad, life-ruining decisions where everything doesn’t turn out okay.

Wait, why do I like this show again?

But really, it’s good. Sad and frustrating and scary, but also encouraging. They go through a lot, and things don’t always get better, but they stick together and get through it. They make it work. Doesn’t hurt that most of the characters themselves are both realistic and enjoyable. And the ones that aren’t kind of serve a purpose too. I hate Becky and the way she starts off with so much potential and then the show just tears her down bit by bit until she doesn’t even seem like the same character (and I don’t mean because they switched actresses). Soooooo many bad decisions. But that’s realistic too, and I kind of appreciate that they didn’t just magic away all her problems. It hurts to watch sometimes, but it’s real and it’s worth exploring.

Speaking of “real.” Another thing that makes this show exceptional is this bizarre twist at the very end. “Spoiler” warning, sort of, but the show ended almost 20 years ago so catch up!

This show went on for 9 seasons. It got a little weird towards the end and I definitely prefer the earlier seasons as a general rule. But in the last few minutes of the last episode, everything changes. We find out we haven’t been watching the “real” Conner family, we’ve been watching the book Roseanne (the “real” fictional character, as opposed to either actress Roseanne Barr or the character we’ve been watching for the past 9 seasons) wrote after the “real” Dan died. She changed the things she didn’t like, so several things that have been consistent parts of the show are suddenly revealed to be flipped in the “real world.” The sisters (who married brothers in either version) actually each married the opposite brother. Aunt Jackie was known for dating lots and lots of guys but is actually a lesbian, while their mom who had come out as a lesbian in the show really isn’t. In the series Dan had an affair, in the “real world” he died. All kinds of weirdness.

I can’t even explain my feeling of betrayal when I finally got to this episode and had everything flipped on its head. What do you mean I haven’t been watching the real story all this time? Does it make me really twisted that I still prefer the “fake” version because Darlene seems more successful in it and I like her more, even though in the “real” version everyone seems pretty happy and Becky’s life doesn’t get ruined? Is it really weird that I cried for about half an hour when I found out Dan died and I still cry when I think of it? So many feelings.

And yes, of course it’s weird. Both versions are fiction, I know this. But they had a realness to them that goes deeper than fact or fiction. Those relationships felt real, the situations they faced represent real problems we all experience, and the way they dealt with them provided this myth that we’re all going to be okay even if nothing ever gets better or easier. A myth that was a lot easier to believe and hold onto than the usual sitcom myth of “everything will fix itself by the end of the episode!”

It became a part of me and the way I dealt with trouble in my own life. And being confronted with this Bizarro-world version of the myth shook me in much the same way that I was shaken by conflicting information that made me doubt my religion. It’s probably not a coincidence that they happened around the same time, really. It was my first year at seminary, the time right before I stopped being so sure of truth and had to face about another two years of loss and confusion before I was able to scrape together a new understanding of how to view the world and what “truth” means to me. The time before I’d developed an appreciation for stories and ideas over facts and dogma.

Even when we know our treasured myths aren’t factually true, suddenly being confronted with their falseness can be jarring. It’s even more difficult when the myths have been treated as fact, when we’ve accepted them as absolute universal truth and believed any new information could easily be fitted into them…and then it doesn’t. Often the first response is to resist the new information, ignore it or dismiss it as a lie. Eventually you may be unable to do that and instead reject your previously held myths, feeling anger that you were told lies and believed them for so long. Been there.

From a perspective that there is one objective truth and that myths are lies, those seem to be our only options. What I’ve come to think instead is that myths are images and stories that speak to us on a deeper level than facts, that allow us to interact with reality in an emotional and creative way rather than simply a logical one. When you approach this sort of thing from the perspective of interacting creatively and intimately, narrowing things down to what is objectively true doesn’t matter so much. What matters is what allows you to better process your experiences and turn them into something good.

For awhile after I first saw the final episode of Roseanne, I was preoccupied with determining which version is the “real” story of these characters. Sure, in the canon technically that new weird version is “reality” and the other is Roseanne’s imagination. But from the viewer’s perspective, why should we care about the fictional characters one level up? It makes sense we would be more attached to and concerned with the canon-inside-the-canon, the versions of the characters we know. But one thing I really like about that glimpse into that other world is that it examines another possibility. They’re both fiction, so obviously it’s not about which one is “right.” But if it always bothered you that Becky’s life went the way it did, for example, you can see how things might have gone another way. You can examine how choices that seem small at the time build up and create a radically different result.

That last episode lets us know that the canon is always open. There are many, many possibilities, and the ones that seem “right” to you will likely be about what they say to you and how they match your own experience. I largely prefer the version of Roseanne we see in most of the series because I relate so well to those characters and have seen them grow up. But the choice isn’t one or the other, when you think about it. The last episode provides a great start for fanfiction and headcanons. You can mix and match, create new scenarios and possibilities, make different choices. Make it match your own perspective and help you think through your own values.

That’s one of the great things about stories – they’re always open to interpretation and re-creation. In fact, judging by conversations about stories I’ve had with friends over the years, it’s not even possible to read/hear/watch a story without being involved in its creation. We all come to it with different experiences and perspectives, so we each interpret the story differently. There have been times when my read on a character seems to be the exact opposite of another person’s. And that’s okay.

When we read, we take part in the creation process with the author. Our experiences provide some context for the story and our minds engage with it in a way that can’t help but change it. When we discuss the story with others, we have the potential to create something different altogether. We get a more complete perspective. The same thing happens in religion. We can’t help but bring who we are to the process. Even with a set canon, my understanding of a religious teaching or image is not going to match someone else’s, not entirely. When we take part in religious practice, we get work with God to create meaning. When we gather in religious community and share our thoughts and experiences, we get a more complete understanding and can build a common meaning that unites and speaks to us as a group.

We’re storytellers. And story-hearers. This is naturally how we interpret and share what we experience, so it makes sense that a big part of religion is sharing stories. There’s an article I read awhile back and now can’t find (if anyone has it and wants to pass on the link, I’d appreciate it) about how when we hear a story the reactions in our brain match the storyteller’s. We’re not just hearing it as a bunch of things that happened, we experience it with them and it becomes something that happened to us.

We need stories, not facts, to engage with religious experiences on an intimate level. They become part of our story, a part of who we are that inspires us and informs our everyday decisions. I don’t think people should be so hung up on their stories being “true” in a historical/factual sense, because that’s not why they exist. I don’t remember a lot of what I learned in high school, but I remember the stories I heard and read when I was a child. They’re part of me, they inform my values and help provide a context for moral decisions. They show me who I want to be and what kind of story I want to tell with my life.

What stories have affected you strongly? Ever had a story you held close flipped on its head like this? How do you deal with things that challenge your perspective?

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