The Conner family has new neighbors. God help us, they’re Muslim.
Learning that the revival of Roseanne aired an episode Tuesday night in which Roseanne Barr’s character learns to love her Muslim neighbors and tells off anyone too ignorant to do the same might be enough to make the entire Roseanne news cycle implode, taking all of us with it.
For the group of conscientious objectors to the culture war the new Roseanne has started—a perceived irresponsibility in giving Barr, because of her fringe and arguably harmful political views, a network TV platform—that outcome might sound enticing.
But that’s the thing about this Roseanne revival. For all the attention it’s received, some of it earned and much of it misinformed, it’s doing something on broadcast television right now that few series have been able to accomplish in the two decades since the show’s original run concluded.
It’s stoking the zeitgeist with a fiery poker—goading, pandering to, and challenging audiences in somewhat equal parts. It’s doing it on a mass scale and to breathless attention. The scale might be comparatively smaller than the numbers network hits achieved in the ’90s, but they are blockbuster in this current network viewership drought. As for the attention it’s receiving? No current TV show is the subject of so much debate, to the point that it’s hard to hear what anyone’s point is above the shouting anymore.
All eyes were on the show’s premiere, and all armchair critics’ hands were tossed up in disgust because of Barr’s Trump-supporting politics, which have included the peddling of dangerous alt-right conspiracy theories and ideologies. Of the myriad reasons that matter, Barr also now stands in perceived contrast to the liberalism that the show’s fans loved about the original series.
Yet aside from being one of the few, if not the only, series to feature a Trump supporter as its protagonist, the series is hardly pro-Trump.
The premiere depicted the debate between Trump supporters and detractors that many families refuse to have. But it also made life under the Trump administration for the working class, even those who voted for him, appear dismal. The Conners struggled with joblessness, health-care woes, and a slew of stressors that a MAGA agenda was supposed to ease, but has instead for them exacerbated.
So it became clear that it wasn’t the show’s content that people took issue with, but rather the person at the center. The episodes following the controversial premiere have been almost entirely stripped of politics, though not the social issues we’ve known Roseanne to tackle. Barr, however, hasn’t ceased her inflammatory and often enraging tweeting and conspiracy theorizing. Which brings us to Tuesday night’s episode, “Go Cubs!”
Turning Roseanne Barr into an avatar for tolerance and compassion in the immigration debate, and particularly in terms of racist hatred for Muslims, is about as high-level a troll as television can get away with these days. It’s almost laughable on the surface. And yet—this revival has been nothing if not a constant slew of “and yets”—the series tackled the subject admirably.
We’d file it all under the incorrect assumption that has plagued the revival: that the series is giving Barr and her views a megaphone. In fact it’s Sara Gilbert (the actress who plays Darlene) who shepherded the series back to ABC, and liberal comedian Whitney Cummings who serves as co-showrunner. Norm MacDonald and Wanda Sykes are among its writers. Original executive producer Bruce Helford is back. In other words, this was never Barr’s political outlet, something that has been reflected in the leftist political leaning of the episodes thus far.
And yet—there it is again—according to one of the show’s executive producers, it was actually Barr’s idea to produce an episode in which her character confronts her prejudices against Muslims. “She wanted to get a comeuppance for her own bias,” co-executive producer Bruce Caplan said in a teaser. “That was her idea.” On her landmine Twitter account Tuesday afternoon, she teased “tonight’s show is about the impact of legal and illegal immigration on our family.”
That notion invites a slew of reactions.
There’s the egregiousness of a public figure who has used her platform to promote an agenda directly harmful to the immigrants she is referencing, producing an episode in which a fictional stand-in is absolved of her offensive opinions in a heartwarming episode.
Then there’s the content of the episode in the first place, and the message it eventually does send. The message could be viewed independently of the actress delivering it. Or maybe for some there is power in that it is Roseanne Barr, of all people, whose mind is changed from bigotry to tolerance.
The episode starts with Roseanne Conner being chastised by her sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) for standing on the lawn staring at the new Muslim neighbors. Roseanne’s prejudices present themselves immediately. There’s an unusual amount of fertilizer stacked by their garage. “That’s how they make bombs!” she says. “What if this is a sleeper cell of terrorists getting ready to blow up the neighborhood?”
For a sense of what political direction this episode might be heading in: Roseanne tells Jackie that she learned terrorists supposedly hide out in neighborhoods like theirs by watching the news, and Jackie’s retort—“You don’t mean the news, you mean Fox News”—receives raucous cheers from the studio audience.
There’s a subplot in which John Goodman’s Dan finds himself out of a job because a contractor is hiring cheaper labor from undocumented immigrants, but the thrust of the episode revolves around the Muslim neighbors.
Because Dan is out of work and the Conners can’t pay their internet bill, they’re in a jam when they need WiFi for Roseanne’s granddaughter to Skype with her mother, who is deployed in Afghanistan. They have no choice but to ask their new neighbors for a WiFi password, leading to a tense encounter at the new family’s door.
The Muslim family invites Roseanne and her granddaughter in to Skype from their house, but when Roseanne demurs, the father alleges, “You don’t want us to see the Skype so we’ll know where in Afghanistan her mother is. Because you think we’ll find out her coordinates and give them to our ISIS friends on Facebook.” In the middle of his rant, his son appears at the door wearing a bulletproof vest, which he asked to sleep in because the family keeps getting threatened and he’s scared.
Roseanne has a moment of empathy. The family gives her the password. “The ignorance of adults shouldn’t punish the children,” the mother says.
Later in the episode, Roseanne and the mother run into each other at the grocery store and exchange pleasantries. When the mother’s EBT card runs out, Roseanne lends her money, and defends her against a racist cashier who insults the mother with hateful rhetoric about immigrants. “You are ignorant,” Roseanne tells the cashier. “That woman is twice the person you’ll ever be.”
Listen, this is a 30-minute broadcast sitcom. The journey from A to B moves from zero to 100, and things are naturally going to be tied up with a bow by the end. Roseanne has always pulled off that jarring acceleration better than most, and Roseanne’s speech to the cashier at the end does feel earned, even if you see it coming a mile away. It’s rousing nonetheless. And yet—it can all be so exhausting.
Roseanne is working hard to prove its value as a revival in the face of harsh criticism for Barr’s public persona, and in many ways the episodes it has produced stand on their own. It’s not the only blue-collar family sitcom. The Middle and Mom are strong alternatives, should you be searching for one. But it is the one with the loudest megaphone and boldest political agenda, in that those other comedies hardly touch on political issues at all, if ever.
You can call “Go Cubs!” baiting, or trolling, or irresponsible, or angering. Or you can call it remarkable, or surprising, or necessary, or provocative. We’ll take the cop out here. At the very least, it’s good.