Written by: Norma Safford Vela (teleplay), Roseanne Barr (character), Matt Williams (creator)
Directed by: John Pasquin
Starring: Roseanne Barr, John Goodman, and Michael Fishman
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"This is a sick household!"
By the late-80s, a Halloween episode wasn’t exactly a novelty. The holiday had slowly gained more prominence on TV over the course of the decade with various specials, promotions, and even the occasional episode on a recurring series. However, it was still just offbeat enough that ABC wasn’t quite ready to let Roseanne Barr celebrate it during the first season of her new show. Wary of how such an episode might play out to Bible Belt audiences, the network shelved the idea until the second season, when “Boo!” would fundamentally change the holiday’s representation on broadcast TV, starting a tradition that would continue each season.
While those later episodes each have their charms, it’s hard to argue that “Boo!” isn’t the purest expression of middle-America, suburban Halloween—or at least I have to assume so. As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up pretty far removed from the likes of Lanford, Illinois; ironically enough, my Lanford in South Carolina was a hole-in-the wall community in the shadow of a dying mill town. Its greatest claim to fame is that it was once a bustling railway stop nearly a century ago. My Halloween probably did not look like your Halloween, much less the one Roseanne brought to airwaves in 1989, which was full of suburban revelry I rarely came close to actually seeing.
And yet, I came to idolize this vision of Halloween; in fact, I have spent most of my life craving and even chasing it to some degree: the pranks, the killer costumes, the chintzy decorations, and, of course, the legendary “Tunnel of Terror.” To this day, my family does an annual Halloween bash that culminates with a hayride into the haunted woods, and I like to think it’s more than a little inspired by this landmark episode.
But enough about me. Let’s talk about the absolute, wholesome purity that is “Boo!.” It’s almost ironic to think that Roseanne was once considered unconventional and edgy for its time because an episode like this is a reminder of how genuinely sweet this show was when it was at its best. And make no mistake: “Boo!” is an absolute all-timer that finds the cast hitting its stride as the Conners, a functionally dysfunctional bunch that’s getting ready for the big day’s festivities. Or at least some of them are; both Becky and Darlene think they’re too cool for Halloween, much to the dismay of the rest of the household. It’s nothing an impromptu tale about the mad woman who once haunted Lanford’s trick-or-treaters can’t cure though, especially when it concludes with the spooky implication that she recently escaped from the mental institution. Soon enough, Darlene’s getting in on the action by spilling fake blood into Becky’s cereal, which is a much more proper (and so very Conner) way to behave. Every year, I’m left wishing I could have been taken in by this family. (I have lived in seething jealousy of Johnny Galecki’s David for like 25 years is what I’m saying.)
I could spend most of this review just recounting, well, every little thing that makes “Boo!” so endearing. But what leaps off the screen the most these days is just how natural it feels. Like most artistic ventures that drag on a little bit past its expiration date, Roseanne eventually became a little bit too arch and broad; what was so great about its early seasons is how genuine it all felt. The Conners have a lived-in chemistry, and you actually feel like you’re watching the umpteenth Halloween they’ve spent together. Roseanne and Dan’s ongoing prank war seems like it’s the latest skirmish in a long-standing conflict, while the Conner household looks like it’s accumulated decorations for a solid decade. The kids’ costumes are so elaborate that you sense a little bit of showmanship is involved: suffice it to say that every other kid in Lanford would lose in any kind of contest—especially poor Lonnie, who shows up as a lame pirate instead of Jason Voorhees. Of course, never one to disappoint for Halloween, Roseanne delivers a take-off of Crystal Lake’s most famous citizen later in the episode when Dan sneaks in one last scare. We’ll forgive the generic hockey mask and chainsaw in this case, if only because that’s exactly the sort of get-up a suburban dad would have opted for at this point.
At the risk of me (again) just breathlessly recounting all of the cool stuff in this episode, let’s talk about the highlight of the episode. Just imagine this: you’re strolling down Delaware street on a brisk Halloween night and spy a house all decked out for the holiday. You knock on the door, only to be greeted by an entire production: “welcome to the tunnel of terror!,” young D.J Conner bellows, his baritone voice a complete and utter mismatch for his young face. “Sounds from the Haunted Mansion” blare from a tape deck (with detachable speakers!), filling the house with the only acceptable soundtrack for Halloween. Roseanne herself—now a wicked witch—doubles as tour guide and carnival barker, eagerly showing off the home’s assorted frights: Dan with an axe in his face (“I’ve got a splitting headache,” he bellows with a dad-joke cackle), Jackie’s head on a silver platter, and something lurking in the green brew bubbling in Becky’s stew pot. Add one of the Dan’s potential clients for a big job into the mix, and you have a perfect recipe for Halloween night hijinks.
When I was growing up, I was basically incensed that my family didn’t do this. I just assumed everyone who didn’t live in the middle of nowhere turned their home into a haunted house every October 31st. I know better now, but I still can’t help but consider this to be the platonic ideal of small-town Halloween. I love how the show’s blue collar ethos even extended to this holiday: the Conners frequently struggled financially, but always managed to cobble together something for Halloween, perhaps maybe even a little bit too much my most people’s standards. But we don’t care for those standards around here; no, we’re still here, 30 years later paying tribute to the idyllic suburban Halloween with “Boo!”. Yes, Roseanne would go on to be a pioneer for much more important social issues throughout the 90s (which only makes Barr’s present-day politics all the more baffling and disappointing); many will rightfully point to that as its ultimate legacy, not to mention its stark portrayal of middle-class America. I’m sure more than a few people could even point to this show as a turning point for how they saw themselves represented on-screen.
And while I certainly can’t claim to be from those marginalized cultures, I will always appreciate how Roseanne made me feel a little less crazy for being so into Halloween. This show made it ok—hell, it made it cool—to embrace a holiday that was often shunned by many here in the very Bible Belt ABC was worried about offending. More than once growing up, I had to hear uptight folks condemn this holiday as “the devil’s day,” and see churches use it as an excuse to put on evangelical hell house productions that shamed people for daring to have fun on a night explicitly designed for it. Joke’s on them, though: if anything, all of that only made me love the holiday even more, and the annual reassurance from Roseanne (and other 90s TV shows that followed suit) only further convinced me that it was okay. Besides, if wanting to dress up in demented costumes to scare the hell out of people is wrong, who even wants to be right? While you mull that over, I’ll be lurking over in the Tunnel of Terror with the other fanatics who start thinking about Halloween in July. Please, join us.
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