Ask Matt: Laughing at ‘Roseanne,’ Appreciating ‘Scandal,’ Debating the Binge-Watch, ‘Middle’ and More
Welcome to the Q&A with TV critic (also known to some TV fans as their “TV therapist”) Matt Roush, who’ll address whatever you love, loathe, are confused or frustrated or thrilled by in today’s vast TV landscape. One caution: This is a spoiler-free zone, so we won’t be addressing upcoming storylines here unless it’s already common knowledge. Please send your questions and comments to [email protected] (or use the form at the end of the column) and follow me on Twitter. Look for Ask Matt columns on most Tuesdays and Fridays.
Who’s Laughing Now?
Question: I was looking forward to watching Roseanne again, but switched it off as soon as I realized they had a gawd-awful laugh track or live audience—same to me. Hope they fix this. — Juidie
Matt Roush: Please don’t take offense when I tell you that I laughed out loud at this complaint. Not that it isn’t legitimate to note that many people object to the laugh track—or, to be more accurate, the enhanced/sweetened sounds of a live studio audience. But we seem to be in a moment of cultural amnesia. I got many of the same complaints about the revival of Will & Grace, with some viewers cringing at the audience laughter. Did they not have the same issue when these shows originally aired? Roseanne and W&G were always performed in front of a live audience. Nothing has changed, except maybe some viewers’ tastes over time. And if you’ve seen the ratings for Roseanne’s return, the idea that this is something that needs to be “fixed” is, well, not going to happen.
While I’d acknowledge that producers could sometimes dial it back a bit, it’s worth noting that almost since the dawn of TV comedy, and certainly since I Love Lucy became a phenomenon, this is how many (though never all) shows have done it, and with few exceptions, these tend to be the most popular comedies on TV, up to today. The Big Bang Theory, Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family are among countless examples of hit comedies performed in this style. Now if you’re talking about laying an actual laugh track over a filmed comedy, that has thankfully gone out of fashion. (Though some of the oldies-and-goodies that used that technique still hold up.)
MIA From the Conner Family
Question: What happened to Jackie’s son Andy on Roseanne? Jackie is constantly being lampooned for being all alone, never having anyone, etc. What about her only child?? Fans of Roseanne from the first series remember well what a doting mom Jackie was. Are we supposed to believe he never existed? Jackie is being written now as a total idiot. It is a disservice to the character and to Laurie Metcalf. — Unsigned
Matt Roush: According to our reporter who covers the show, that character has been erased from the family tree, so don’t expect to hear any references to Jackie being a mom. This is a fairly significant retrofit, and I imagine that won’t sit well with some fans. I also agree up to a point that Jackie is being written as possibly too pathetic, though Laurie Metcalf gives it her all as she always has done. Example: Jackie is someone who should be able to appreciate a “Faberge egg” and pronounce it correctly. She may be flawed, but she’s not stupid. (This week, there’s a much better and more typical Jackie moment, when she greets her mother Bev, wearing black, at the door and cracks, “Nice outfit. I see you’re trying it without the sickle.”) Portraying Jackie as the needy aunt is one thing, and it’s always been smart to have a character for someone to run to when Roseanne herself is too much, but making her such an over-the-top neurotic with so little dignity is, as you noted, beneath this Emmy- and Tony-winning (and Oscar-nominated) star.
Giving Scandal Its Due
Question: You have said this about other shows and now I ask about Scandal: Why haven’t the Emmys duly recognized the superb, over-the-top, riveting acting of the supporting cast of this show, which is ending. All were spectacular-I just call attention to Jeff Perry, Guillermo Diaz and Bellamy Young. I do not understand an awards show that ignored such greatness to keep their list so insider. — Ellen
Matt Roush: Not sure what you mean by “insider,” because to be fair, the Emmys have a lot more ground to cover than ever, and in this era of Peak TV, with hundreds of scripted shows a year and seemingly as many platforms, traditional broadcast network TV really has to fight to get noticed any more, especially in drama. That’s the starting point of this discussion. You may not be aware that Scandal actually won twice in the Guest Actor category (for Dan Bucatinsky and for Joe Morton, who’s now a series regular), and Kerry Washington was nominated twice for her lead role. But for this show in particular, the phrase “over-the-top” that even this question employed is likely what kept so many of these talented performers from getting recognition. Scandal at its peak was great fun, but it was hard to take seriously when it so frequently became unhinged.
To Binge Or Not to Binge
Question: I personally do not like binge-watching shows. Even the shows I watch on streaming services I tend to string out over several weeks. I always assumed that it was due to my age, that my rhythms for watching shows were too firmly grounded in the network based weekly schedule. But then I got to thinking about shows like The Sopranos and Lost. Would either of those shows have been the cultural phenomena they were on a streaming service? Part of the allure of those shows was the build-up in the user community as each new episode approached. Lost in particular would have been nowhere near the event it was without the Internet speculation between shows. And who would have given a damn about the Sopranos finale if it were just the last episode of a show dump on a streaming service? So I wonder if the death of the network model is being greatly exaggerated. There is still a place for shows that need time to build interest and anticipation between episodes. There are some shows where I’d rather be seduced over time than just hook up. Your thoughts? — Rick
Matt Roush: A fascinating question and subject, and one I occasionally dwell on when I have the time (which is rare, thanks to full-season dumps of streaming shows nearly every week anymore). I often feel that many shows don’t benefit from the binge model, that the repetition and predictably delayed payoffs of so many episodic series are only magnified when watching multiple episodes in a row—and on Netflix, those episodes can be long, and they feel it. On the other hand, when I devour an especially enjoyable series, like Ozark or a “limited series” like the Western Godless or an engaging comedy like Atypical or One Day at a Time, it’s a gas burning through them like they were a beach read. I like Hulu’s model, exemplified most recently by The Looming Tower, where a season premieres with several episodes, then the remaining episodes are issued weekly. (I’d even be on board if they put out two or three episodes a week for mini-binges.) The reality, though, is that thanks to Netflix and Amazon, we’re more conditioned than ever to want more now without having to wait any time between episodes. (The wait between seasons, however, can be punishing.)
To your bigger point, even in a Netflix world, the weekly episodic format isn’t likely to vanish altogether. And there’s value in that for the reasons laid out above. Theoretically speaking, you may be right about Sopranos and Lost not having had as much cultural impact if they’d delivered entire seasons at once. We’ll never know. I’ll just say I’m glad I watched them the way they were intended to be watched the first time around.
No Middle Ground in the Sue-Sean Romance
On The Middle, the will-they-or-won’t-they dance with Sue and Sean this year has been great fun to watch. However, the show has been really good at showing Sue in relationships with her previous boyfriends and how those experiences challenge her and cause her to grow. As much as I’ve enjoyed what they’ve done this year, I was hoping that it won’t drag out until the very end, because I want to see a little bit of what Sue and Sean look like together as a couple. I figured that if she had given him the snow globe in the recent episode, the final arc would allow us to see them together, but with the last-minute reveal of his trip to Ghana, it is starting to feel like Sue and Sean will take until the finale to get together. I know you don’t do spoilers, and I don’t want any, but in an otherwise sensational final season, I think it would be a missed opportunity if the last we see of Sue and Sean is when they get together, without having any time at all to explore what a romantic relationship for the two of them actually means. I want to trust the writers here, since they haven’t steered us wrong yet, but with so few episodes left now, I’m starting to get nervous. What do you think? — Jake
Matt Roush: I would trust the writers to give us a satisfying payoff to this story, one way or the other. And while I get the wish to be able to see this couple as a couple, it wouldn’t be as funny as the current reality of their never being on the same page at the right time, even though we and they and everyone else knows Sue and Sean are soulmates. There’s a reason the “…and they lived happily ever after” cliché exists. It’s a great way to end a story, leaving so much to the imagination.
A Rockin’ Final Question
Question: I recently started streaming through Roku and rediscovered 3rd Rock from the Sun. I’m loving it again!! It’s the only show in a long time that will get me laughing out loud! The whole cast is amazing: John Lithgow, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Kristen Johnston and French Stewart, and of course the fabulous Jane Curtin. Do you think there would be any interest in a reboot of that show? — Joanne
Matt Roush: As I’ve said before, the interest level in reboots is off the charts, so why not? (And for all I know, this title is on some exec’s wish list as we speak.) If they could reassemble this cast of all-stars for an actual revival, it would be amazing. I’d be a little less excited for a reboot with new actors and/or characters—there’s only one High Commander, and no one will top John Lithgow! But it was a great premise and a terrific show. I’ve certainly heard worse ideas.
That’s all for now. We’ll pick up the conversation again soon. Thanks as always for reading, and remember that I can’t do this without your participation, so please keep sending questions and comments about TV to [email protected] or shoot me a line on Twitter (@TVGMMattRoush), and you can also submit questions via the handy form below.