Should Roseanne Barr’s Racism Ruin the Legacy of One of TV’s Greatest Sitcoms?
In the wake of Roseanne Barr’s racist tweets and the cancellation of her sitcom’s revival, all reruns of the original series have been pulled. Has the punishment gone too far?
The Roseanne bar was a low one. Shamefully low, even.
No matter what you read about supposed unease on the executive floors at ABC and Disney over Roseanne Barr’s views and behavior, all she had to do to keep the revival of her hit TV show on air (and the hundreds of people who worked for it employed) was not express her racist views. By this point, the network seemed to be tacitly OK with her having those views. They were hardly a secret. She just had to refrain from tweeting them out to the world to see, and she couldn’t do that.
They say when someone shows you who they are, believe them. Roseanne Barr seems to travel with her own assemblage of flashing neon signs, each blaring “THIS IS ME, Y’ALL!” No matter how much blame she puts on her confusion over Valerie Jarrett’s race, her co-stars for “throwing her under the bus,” or, um, Ambien, she can’t unplug those signs. She couldn’t leap the moral centimeters required to clear that bar. Roseanne is canceled.
As in, all of Roseanne is canceled.
There will be no season two of the ABC revival, the writers for which, in a cruel turn of events, were pulling into the parking lot for their first day of work when the news came. As the day wore on, the punishments escalated. There will also be no more airing or streaming of the show's original ‘90s run, with multiple networks including Paramount, TV Land, CMT, and Hulu pulling their reruns.
There’s been not one second of this Roseanne revival news cycle that hasn’t been messy. But full erasure isn’t necessarily the best, most responsible, or even most practical clean-up.
Listen, we get it. It’s not good business, good values, or good sense for any network to air Roseanne right now. We’d imagine that to someone stumbling upon a rerun while channel surfing today, Barr’s laugh in that iconic theme song would sound more like a villain’s cackle than a blue-collar mom’s familial joy.
We understand why those networks would want to stop reruns now, and there is no word on whether that decision will be in effect forever. But the immediacy with which all the show's original episodes were made unavailable speaks to our inability to wrestle with complicated legacies and measured responses in an age when all actions are impulsive, reactionary, and informed by intense and myopic passions.
Removing the Roseanne library doesn’t erase the culture that led to Barr’s racist tweets, nor those who defended her and who are now leveling accusations of censorship. That culture existed before there was a Roseanne revival, and it exists now that the revival has been canceled. That is something that must be reckoned with immediately. But, arguably, it must also happen separately from the conversation about the show that turned Barr, now a martyr for that culture's cause, into an influential public figure.
Do we discredit the legacy of that original run of Roseanne and the work that Barr did on it because of the inexcusable behavior she is being held accountable for now?
We are relentlessly engaged in a debate about the art vs. the artist, whether we’re talking about the works of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, how we view the impact of The Cosby Show, what should happen to the creative output of men felled by the #MeToo movement, or even how the new season of Arrested Development plays in the wake of a disastrously misogynistic interview—not to mention sexual misconduct allegations against Jeffrey Tambor.
But when the art itself is not problematic, and even has tangible value, is it wrong to erase it completely? (There’s a reason that HBO’s recent adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 made headlines for being so timely.)
We’ve been through this before. In 2015, TV Land pulled Dukes of Hazzard from its lineup because its iconic car, The General Lee, was decaled with a Confederate flag. Maybe the most dramatic example, because of the role it played in changing not just television, but our culture entirely, is The Cosby Show, which saw its reruns pulled from TV Land in 2014 after a sixteenth woman came forward to allege sexual assault against its star. A lower-profile network, Bounce TV, scrubbed its lineup of Cosby Show repeats following Cosby’s recent guilty verdict. It had been the only network still airing reruns of the sitcom.
At the time of The Cosby Show’s disappearing, it, like Roseanne, had a sort of TV omnipresence. That was because like Roseanne, it was considered one of the best family sitcoms we’ve ever had, and one of the most culturally important. While not conflating the actions of Cosby and Barr, the perceived reasoning for ending their shows' reruns is similar: moral grandstanding borne out of our inability to divorce feelings about performers from feelings about their performances.
Altruistically, it’s a line in the sand, a denial of a platform and publicity to those who don’t deserve it when there are other artists who do. Cynically, it’s an empty gesture barely disguising a PR move.
When TV Land pulled The Cosby Show reruns, The Daily Beast’s Tim Teeman wrote that the network was making the wrong decision.
“By continuing to show his sitcom, TV Land would be doing a huge public service in reminding an apparently unaware public that the actors on our screens are different to the characters they play,” he wrote. “TV Land is not helping Cosby’s alleged victims, or making him pay for his crimes, or even helping us understand those crimes and him, by taking the show off the air.”
“Blissfully—and not a little moronically—beholden to TV iconography, we chose to set Bill Cosby in an eternal cuddly sweater,” he continued. “That suited us until the revelation of these alleged, awful crimes. By cutting The Cosby Show reruns off, TV Land can’t rewrite that history of myopic glorification, or erase the harsh contours of the real Bill Cosby.”
We’ll concede again that it’s unlikely anyone outside of Barr’s fringe supporters would stomach endless reruns of her show right now. Still, there were millions of people eager to watch her revival when her views were already public knowledge, and these same networks that have since pulled their Roseanne reruns had relentlessly advertised them right up until yesterday. So we could even be wrong about that.
Just like no performer is obligated to censor themselves in order to keep a job, no employer is obligated to tolerate speech counter to its values and no network is beholden to carrying a television show that it, for any reason, just frankly doesn’t want to carry.
The team behind the Roseanne revival—and Barr was just one member—justified the show's existence despite Barr’s inflammatory views as some noble mission to start conversations about the issues that divide us in order to bring us together. By the time the show’s finale aired, the revival had become one of the issues that divided us. As we’ve written, the revival got off to a solid start with that mission in mind, before losing the courage of its convictions in an attempt to appease all sides and create some Trump-era fairy tale of blue-collar America that, frankly, does not exist.
The original Roseanne, however, wasn’t as shy or misinformed about the America it tried to depict. It was one that was at times admittedly unrecognizable from the one we saw in the revival. But it was also one that, at the time, reflected back an American family, a society’s progressing values, and, heck, even living room furniture that viewers at home could finally recognize. Because of that, they were able to relate, refute, challenge, and consider the themes the show was broaching, moving society forward because of it.
That’s a hell of a legacy, one that might now have a harmonica wailing away at its funeral.
What happens to Roseanne, and Roseanne Barr? Truthfully, this is such a new and unusual time for both media and society that we’re not entirely sure what to predict for either. While it might be impossible to untangle the former’s future from the latter, Barr herself, as should come at no surprise, has several paths to redemption. As Fast Company’s Joe Berkowitz pointed out on Twitter, Barr’s firing for being racist occurred almost three years to the day from when NBC fired Donald Trump for his own racist comments. Has that guy made a comeback?