When the new revival season of Roseanne, the groundbreaking sitcom that originally ran between 1988 and 1997, opens, Roseanne Conner and her sister, Jackie, haven’t spoken to each other since the 2016 election.
Jackie (played, as always, by the magnificent Laurie Metcalf, who won three Emmys for her work on the original series) voted for Hillary Clinton (or did she?), while Roseanne (played by Roseanne Barr, but you knew that already) voted for Donald Trump. The rift has consumed both women, but because this is a TV show and because we want to see Roseanne and Jackie together again, it’s taken place offscreen. In the premiere, the two talk again for the first time, reaching a fragile peace.
Plenty of other things have changed in the time the series spent away too. Roseanne’s middle-child daughter, Darlene (Sara Gilbert), now has two kids of her own, a surly teenage daughter and a young son who prefers to wear girls’ clothing but also identifies as a boy, while Roseanne’s son, DJ (Michael Fishman), has a daughter of his own. The Conners are older and crankier, and their problems have shifted with the times.
At times, it seems as if this nine-episode revival (of which I’ve seen three episodes) has shifted its point-of-view character to Darlene, forced not just to raise her own kids but also to care increasingly for her parents (including John Goodman, back as Dan Conner, who ostensibly died in the original series finale, but let’s just pretend that didn’t happen). The Conners are all still living by the seats of their pants, in a world where the gap between the haves and the haves-not grows wider by the second. The family is hanging on, somehow, but every problem that pops up causes four or five others.
The idea that Roseanne, at least, would become one of the white working-class voters who skewed toward Trump makes some sense, even when you consider the character’s largely progressive politics on the original show. But the fact that she’s played by one of Hollywood’s few vocal Trump supporters has raised eyebrows and hackles, for fear that the new Roseanne might amount to a weekly lecture from Barr on how Trump is great, actually.
Fear not, though, America. The new Roseanne isn’t that at all. And what it is is worth wrestling with.
What the new Roseanne isn’t: a pro-Trump screed
Roseanne Barr was unquestionably the most important creative voice of the original series, even if she didn’t receive writing credits until very late in the show’s run. She used the show’s instant, out-of-the-box success to churn through showrunners and writers until she found some who were happy to execute her vision for the program, and even then, she might push them aside.
It was, by all accounts, not a terribly happy place to work, but Barr got the results she wanted. The original series — at least in its first six seasons — was a grounded, naturalistic look at blue-collar life, told through the lens of one family, in the multi-camera sitcom format that tends to allow for more frank discussions of political and social issues than other TV formats. The characters confronted racism and growing awareness of gays and lesbians, to say nothing of issues that directly hit the Conners where they lived, like teenage sexuality and the perpetual specter of poverty.
Since the show made Barr a very, very wealthy woman, she’s retreated to Hawaii, briefly ran for president, and became a Trump supporter. When asked about her support at a Television Critics Association press conference connected to the series (which I wrote about here), she avowed, repeatedly, that Trump isn’t racist and that it was important for him to go to Washington to shake things up. (She also backed assorted right-wing anti-Clinton conspiracy theories.)
This has led to a fear, on the part of some viewers who don’t like Trump or are just tired of him, that Barr is going to spend every week sitting on a bare stage explaining how America is great again or some such. And the Conners’ vague progressivism back in the show’s original run — even if it seemed that neither Republican nor Democratic administrations did much to help the family — might seem directly contradicted by Roseanne’s strong Trump support. (In the episodes screened, we don’t find out whom other Conners voted for, and at the TCA panel, the show’s writers, who are headed up by sitcom vets Bruce Helford and Whitney Cummings, suggested Dan just didn’t vote, period.)
But the series is more nuanced than that. Yes, Roseanne is a Trump supporter, but she’s not there to have the last laugh in every scene. Neither the series nor Barr is afraid of portraying the character as increasingly frail and aging, worried about her health, her kids, and her ability to hold on to what little she has.
If you wanted to read her Trump support in light of this, you’d be more than able to. But if you were a Trump supporter hoping to see her as a valiant stalwart, holding the line against some sort of coming darkness, well, it would be harder, but you could probably do it. Like her obvious forebear Archie Bunker, this new Roseanne can be all things to all people. (And if you’re worried about putting money in the pocket of a Trump supporter, well, Barr has already been paid — and almost certainly handsomely — to make this revival season happen.)
The show seems unlikely to engage with Trump more directly than it does in the first episode, when it’s mostly about how the election caused a rift between Roseanne and Jackie, but it’s very engaged with the idea of what Trump’s America looks like on the ground level. After all, two of Roseanne’s grandkids are a biracial little girl (DJ’s daughter with his yet-unseen, military-deployed black wife) and a boy who seems not terribly comfortable with his place on the gender spectrum. There may not be room for either in Trump’s America, but there’s still room for them in the Conner household.
What the new Roseanne is: an often funny, always thoughtful consideration of how we’re all going to keep from killing each other
What makes Roseanne Conner’s Trump support such an interesting idea to build an episode of television around is the way it blissfully wanders into one of 2018 pop culture’s demilitarized zones: Entertainment can be for Trump supporters or for those who don’t like Trump, but it’s not supposed to be for both.
And for both white progressives and white conservatives who share a family (yes, there are people of color struggling with these political divides in their own families, but this is overwhelmingly an issue for white families), this is a constant fact of life in 2018 America: Can we still love each other? Can we work this out? Should we work this out? The answers are as varied as these families are, but Roseanne takes the simple idea of living in 2018 without killing your family members — or even just dying yourself — and builds a whole season of a TV show around it.
More than any of the recent sitcom revivals, Roseanne is aware of the passage of time, of the way all these characters have fallen short of the marks they set for themselves. Darlene was supposed to be the Conner who went on to some brighter future, and instead, she’s back living with her parents. (We haven’t seen her ex, David, played by The Big Bang Theory’s Johnny Galecki, but we’ve been assured he’ll be back.) Her older sister, Becky (Lecy Goranson), is in her 40s, working in a Mexican restaurant as a waitress, and DJ seems perpetually adrift. Roseanne and Dan are in pain from a lifetime of physical labor, and the pills they take are far too easy to abuse.
Roseanne has always been about the big gap between the American dream and the American reality for too many people. When I cite the original series’ “vague progressivism,” I don’t really mean that it had a coherent political framework so much as it believed in the idea that the American dream was too often hoarded by those who least needed access to it, who then parceled it out in little chunks to those further down the ladders of economic, racial, and social privilege. It called, week after week, not for revolution but for understanding that people like the Conners were out there and just trying their best.
So to reach 2018 and find them still just trying their best and slipping ever further behind should ideally give anybody, of any political stripe, pause. Tensions rise between the characters over political issues because they are struggling and unlikely to stop struggling. Whatever help has been offered them is piecemeal, and often comes in the form of those pain pills that are so easy to become addicted to.
That makes Roseanne sound like some sort of dark elegy for a forgotten America, I realize, and maybe it is that. But it’s also funny and vibrant and warm. It takes a little while to rediscover its rhythms, but once it does, it feels tuned in to its world and its country in a way few sitcoms are anymore. There are punchlines in these episodes that don’t land because the audience seems scared to laugh at how raw they are. Good, I think. This show has always been better when the humor comes peppered with fear.
Roseanne returns Tuesday, March 27, at 8 pm Eastern on ABC. Hey, that’s when the show aired back in the ‘80s and ‘90s too!