It took one brash, baiting, megalomaniac TV star to cleave the country into violently divided ideologies, and now another has arrived to make sense of it. Who would have thought that Roseanne Barr, a one-time Green Party presidential candidate turned alt-right conspiracy theorist and MAGA Trumpeter, would be the one doing it?
When the industry bees buzzed about how the Roseanne revival planned to embrace Barr’s pro-Trump ideology, many of the original show’s largely liberal fans braced to be stung. And while the—by the way, extremely funny—reboot does open with Roseanne Conner smugly cracking about fake news and snowflakes, it hardly goes as aggressively MAGA as so many TV series have been blatantly anti-Trump in the last few years.
In fact, what’s remarkable about this Roseanne revival is how nuanced its political conversations are and, for all the talk about how Barr’s own politics might find its way into the series, how socially progressive. (Who’d have put money on adolescent gender expression getting an entire, impressively sensitive half hour in the Roseanne reboot?)
We might be used to Roseanne Barr being a human fire iron, constantly stoking the flames of debate. But Roseanne isn’t here to incite or divide us any further. In fact, if anything, the show has a more surprising mission: to illustrate that, truly, they are some very fine people on both sides.
Of course, the first modern reality that the Roseanne revival had to reckon with before it could even start tackling Trump is that its 1997 final season killed off John Goodman’s Dan Conner, played fast and loose with the Conner girls’ partners, and, in general, was pretty terrible. Much like Will & Grace when the NBC revival launched last fall, Tuesday night’s Roseanne premiere breezily jokes about Dan’s death before quickly establishing that the show will pretty much pretend that its last season never happened.
Roseanne and Dan are now in their sixties, still living in Lanford, Illinois, and still very much blue collar, struggling to make ends meet. Darlene (Sara Gilbert) is now a down-on-her-luck single mom, forced to move home with her two kids. Becky (Lecy Goranson) is a broke waitress with a controversial plan to get herself back on her feet. D.J. (Michael Fishman), is a military veteran whose wife is still deployed. Together they share a biracial daughter.
Then there’s Laurie Metcalf’s Aunt Jackie, and the main source of the series’ political discourse. Jackie and Roseanne, it turns out, haven’t spoken to each other in a year, respectively livid over who the other supported in the election. Roseanne even set up a shrine to her, as if she had died. (“She’s dead to me.”)
When Darlene insists that they make up, Jackie, who is now a certified life coach—how perfectly insane is that?—arrives at the door sporting a “Nasty Woman” T-shirt, a pussy hat, and a grudge: “What’s up, deplorable?” They spar about the reasons Roseanne supported Trump. Roseanne gets digs at Hillary in—“Liar, liar, pantsuit on fire”—and cracks about taking a knee. When it comes to how politics have been portrayed in comedy these last two years, in which we’ve been united in laughs of solidarity and resistance, Roseanne is treading in exciting, uncharted wars: that of disagreement.
No one’s ideology is ruled the right one or the wrong one, though this may be the sole TV show in which it’s the protagonist who is a Trump supporter. We’re being dragged out of our echo chambers and, albeit with the soundtrack of a studio audience laughter, forced to hear another side of the conversation—one that, by the way, reflects the point of view of a large swath of the country.
While the premiere is heavily political, that does die down in subsequent episodes, though the show’s “edginess” doesn’t. We put that in quotes because the renegade way in which the show courted controversy decades ago has now, thanks to the doors it kicked open, become normalized. In some ways, that makes the issue-heavy storylines seem more ham-fisted than they ever did 20 years ago, veering far closer to Very Special Episode territory than they did then.
There’s a kitchen sink of Big Issues that are introduced that don’t seem to arise as naturally, probably because the revival is such an “event” that each episode must be “about something”: everything from military PTSD to boys who want to wear dresses to the opioid crisis. What makes it all work, though, is the show’s still-rare insistence on portraying a world in which money exists.
The economic hardships of the blue collar working class are reflected honestly here, with Dan and Roseanne anxious about how they’ll pay for their prescriptions, Darlene forced to take a demeaning job because it will give her full benefits for her children, and Becky griping that she can’t sit for 15 minutes without worrying about money. The set decoration and the wardrobe—god bless all that flannel—is more recognizable than anything you’ll see on Modern Family. Nothing more so than the couch.
That shabby couch, the one with the iconic afghan draped over the back, just like the one in your den, is back. The couch was powerful then. It was our couch.
The conversations had on it were so familiar—as mundane as which kids haven’t done their homework, as broad as debates about race, abuse, and sexuality, and as grave as the reality of economic anxiety—that watching the show became a full-sensory experience. You could hear the loose change bouncing beneath the cushions when the Conner family plopped on it. You could smell the plastic-tinged aroma wafting from the TV dinners. You could feel the loose buttons poking from the tufts of the sagging cushions.
To see that couch again, 20 years later, is like a homecoming. It feels right. You missed it. You missed the conversations that were had on it and the people who sat on it, because they reminded you of yourself. The Conners may have been off our TV screens these last two decades. But the American family they represented never went away.
From a commercial standpoint, it’s easy to understand the allure of all these TV revivals. With roughly 500 scripted series to choose from on TV (not an exaggerated number), they make enough noise to get noticed, and woo enough curious viewers to at least muster a solid sampling audience. Practically, it makes sense that after decades of networks trying to find “the next…” of any classic sitcom, that they finally just go back and revive the original.
But then there’s something about this particular cultural moment that should explain why nostalgia thrives. Times are scary, y’all. In the midst of all the political and cultural turmoil, these revivals are comforting. But that’s what makes the Roseanne reboot so distinct in the trend. It’s not seeking to distract from that unrest. It wants to expose it, parse it, challenge it, debate it, and, usually, just hang it out there naked to make us all uncomfortable.
Of course, that’s what the show always did. Roseanne, as much as we hailed her for reflecting an American family that was like our own, never set out to make us feel any better about that reality. It goes as far as that voice of hers; Roseanne was never here to soothe. And that prickliness, that needling, ironically enough, did actually make her show soothing. Or at the very least refreshing.
Comedian Whitney Cummings, who joined the Roseanne revival as executive producer and co-showrunner, wrote an essay explaining why she thinks the reboot is valuable today, after the election of Trump and the polarization that exacerbated, more than ever.
“My gut tells me the show will make you feel like you’re going home to visit relatives who you may not always align with politically or philosophically, that you may have anger toward, but that you still respect and love because they’re smart, self-aware, and always make you laugh,” she wrote in Vulture. “Maybe since the Conners are not actually your relatives, you can listen long enough to face some of your own prejudices and think, ‘I guess I never thought of it that way,’ or ‘I don’t agree with what this person believes, but I can now understand why they believe it.’”
It’s no coincidence that when that harmonica kicks in, the theme song plays while the camera pivots around that kitchen table, and Barr finally cackles, you feel something.
“If nothing else, you’ll get to hear that iconic laugh again, which can take you back to 20 years ago when it was a simpler time, back when we believed our news, when we all had no choice but to talk to each other in person…”
I guess that’s always been Roseanne’s mission, just with easier branding now: Make America Talk Again.