This one had a few stops and starts, because I like to be very thorough about putting together these lists, but I don't remember much of "Roseanne's" early seasons. I was constantly watching "Roseanne" as a teenager, but the show had a nine year run, and I simply wasn't old enough or wasn't exposed often enough to its first few years for those episodes to stick. Going through the summaries from seasons one and two, little was familiar. George Clooney was a semi-regular? However, brainstorming separately, I easily came up with six episodes I would put on my top ten. So even if I can't claim that this is a particularly well-informed or comprehensive list, it comes from a longtime fan. As usual, the picks below are unranked and ordered by airdate. I will also cheat and count two-parters as single entries.
Lots of spoilers ahead.
"Inherit the Wind" - "Roseanne" was a groundbreaking show for a lot of reasons. It was about a blue collar family, tackled all kinds of sensitive subject matter, and its stars looked and behaved like ordinary people. Sometimes this manifested in subtle ways. On the surface, "Inherit the Wind" has a familiar family sitcom plot. Becky is embarrassed at school and needs some consoling. However, it's how Becky is embarrassed, Darlene's gleeful recounting of the incident, and Roseanne struggling to help that made it stand out. No other family show at the time would have devoted a whole episode to *ahem* cutting the cheese, but clearly more of them should have.
"Trick or Treat" - The Halloween episodes were always a blast, but I always appreciated this fairly low key one most for its playful subversiveness. DJ's insistence on dressing up as a witch confounds Dan, while Roseanne opts for a male lumberjack outfit, complete with a full beard. This let the writers poke some fun at gender expectations and stereotypes, a prelude to the LGBT material they would tackle in later seasons. What really sells it is that Roseanne does pass fairly well for a burly, squeaky-voiced man the way that most television actresses couldn't. Her shenanigans at the bar may not have been very spooky, but they were a real eye-opener when I was a kid
"Terms of Estrangement" - The Conners face dark days as the motorcycle shop and the Robdell's luncheonette both go belly-up. The Connor parents aren't too caught up in their woes to notice that Becky's in crisis, but the bombshell that drops at the end of Part 1 is possibly the show's best shocker. There is no better example of the Conners' almost unique blue collar status in the TV landscape than this run of episodes, where the family is buffeted by economic troubles and Becky does the unthinkable. Except, of course, it's really not so unthinkable in the real world. The show does an admirable job of showing Becky taking her leap, and her parents summoning up the strength to let her go.
"Crime and Punishment" and "War and Peace" - Not technically a two-parter, but I have no idea why you'd want to watch one without the other. Now, we all know that domestic violence is serious business. And, for most of the hour, the show absolutely treats it that way, as we discover that Jackie's been beaten up by Fisher. However, it's very hard to keep a straight face when Dan comes home with bruised knuckles and bucket of chicken after beating Fisher up. And even harder when Dan gets arrested. And when Darlene goes to bail him out of jail, it's downright impossible. Juggling the difficult emotions of a topic like this with "Roseanne's" typical brashness must have been a tall order, but they make it look so easy. Speaking of which...
"Wait Till Your Father Gets Home" - Roseanne's abusive father dies, and she and Jackie try to deal with the emotional fallout while making arrangements, wrangling relatives, and settling affairs. Jackie's phone call to announce the death to a hard-of-hearing aunt is one of my favorite moments in the entire series. The whole episode is a wonderful mixture of pathos and wry gallows humor, particularly as the Conners have to deal with all the little bureaucratic details of death that nobody really talks about. Amy Sherman-Palladino wrote this episode, when she was still Amy Sherman, one of many notable comedy writers along with Chuck Lorre and Joss Whedon who cut their teeth on "Roseanne."
"A Stash Form the Past" - The "Roseanne" spin on the common "very special episode" plot where drugs are discovered in a sitcom household. In this case, the bag of weed turns out not be the property of one of the kids, but Dan and Roseanne's own long-forgotten stash from decades ago. They briefly relive the glory days, with Jackie along for the ride, resulting in the priceless scene of the three of them hiding in the bathroom, while stoned out their gourds. It's the adults who have to learn the life lesson this time, and it's not really about drugs. After sitting through way too many of those alarmist "very special episodes," as a kid, this one was a refreshingly sane departure from the norm.
"Be My Baby" - I always loved Jackie, especially as she got goofier in the later years, but pregnant Jackie was something else. I adore this whole arc culminating in Jackie breastfeeding at the altar, but the beginning of it was such a joy to watch. Jackie telling Roseanne about her pregnancy, Roseanne telling Bev, and then Jackie telling Bev ("I'm naming it Gidget"), and the whole blow-up afterwards were gut-busting. It's so perfectly illustrative of the love-hate relationships among the three of them while turning the usual expectations about pregnancy announcements on their heads. Plus, we have Dan and Roseanne's bedroom conversations on trying to conceive, happily demystifying the whole process.
"Homeward Bound" - Just when you thought that "Roseanne" had run out of difficult subjects to talk about, DJ starts spending too much private time in the bathroom and everybody has an opinion on how to deal with it. I love the dialogue in this one, full of zings about masturbation without ever being too lewd for prime time. DJ often gets lost in the shuffle, but when he has the spotlight he makes it count. Here he hits all the right notes, completely not getting Darlene's jibes and freaking out when Roseanne overshares. As with most of these episodes about the kids' growing pains, the problem isn't really solved and nobody's right, but acknowledging the problem at all was a battle won.
"Spiringtime for David" - After Disney bought ABC, all the network's popular sitcoms were obliged to do Disney episodes, so the Conners spent a two-parter living it up at Disney World. The next week, David got a job at a Disneyland knockoff called Edelweiss Gardens, and it was no holds barred. David's Nazi bunny cult indoctrination is hysterical enough, but when Roseanne gets involved we're treated to some of her funniest, most blistering, and oddly patriotic tirades. "Roseanne" would later be heavily criticized for going too far with its fantasy episodes, but I couldn't resist this one. I especially love the ending tag where Roseanne is deprogramming David from his corporate dronehood.
"Into That Good Night" - Season nine went off the rails, as everyone knows, but the final episode was a fitting end for the series as a whole. It gave everyone their happy ending, and then injected a sobering dose of reality with a final twist. Retconning not only the final season but several of the seasons before that infuriated some fans, but it felt appropriate to me. "Roseanne" was always a semi-idealized version of its own star's life, and this was just another way of acknowledging that. It also pointed out that as good as "Roseanne" was about reflecting the reality of a blue-collar family, it was still a network sitcom beholden to certain audience expectations. The last episode poses the question, would you rather have watched the silly, fantasy-heavy version of the last season, or the dark, depressing real-world version of it?