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The Roseanne revival, and the argument over how TV depicts Trump supporters, explained

Five interlocking conflicts that add up to one big argument about the sitcom’s new season.

Sara Gilbert, Roseanne Barr, John Goodman
They’re reading what you’ve been saying on Twitter.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

For the near decade her show was on the air, Roseanne Barr seemed to not just court controversy but crave it.

After Roseanne became a hit, shortly after its debut in 1988, Barr took over for Matt Williams, the man credited as sole creator of a show obviously and heavily based on Barr’s standup (an original sin by Hollywood that Barr has never entirely forgiven the industry for), and routinely purged the show’s writing staff. Every behind-the-scenes story about Roseanneeven the ones Barr tells — is filled with fraught creative moments, with conflict, with headache and heartache.

But it didn’t stop there. She performed the national anthem somewhat irreverently and created a national dialogue about respect for the flag (a completely ridiculous one but one that, nonetheless, existed). She married Tom Arnold, a writer on the show, and became an endless fount of tabloid fascination. Every little thing she did became a national news story, until Roseanne inevitably began to soften in the ratings, and America moved on.

But through it all, the series itself was the foremost argument for Barr as a creative force to be reckoned with. While it was not the White Working-Class Sitcom — the show belongs to a tradition stretching back to The Honeymooners and, even before that, radio comedy — it was one of the few on the air in its era, and one of the last to thrive before TV comedy got taken over by upper-class white folks who never seemed to worry about money. Roseanne was tough and honest and occasionally incendiary, and it could pivot from very, very funny to very, very heartbreaking on a dime.

So it should come as no surprise that the new Roseanne — technically a continuation of the original series, but also a different show in some subtle ways — would reignite this old debate between where Roseanne the actress ended and Roseanne the character began. Except, because this is 2018 and everything eventually turns into a discussion about Donald Trump, the political polarity has been completely flipped. The arguments now are less about Roseanne’s bold examinations of feminism and class both on and offscreen and more about how she’s perhaps the president’s most famous supporter.

These arguments have become a vast, interlocking set of controversies that are impossible to separate, because each is necessary to understand the other. For instance, writing off Roseanne entirely — because it homogenizes Trump supporters as people just worried about their families or the country — misses the ways the series depicts Roseanne as a hectoring bully who convinced her sister, Jackie, not to vote for Hillary Clinton at the last minute. (She voted for Jill Stein instead.) But praising Roseanne as a series about the self-delusions of Trump supporters misses the ways it refuses to talk about the harsh realities of living in Trump’s America for people who aren’t straight and white.

As with all uneasy meetings of art and politics, this is more complicated than we might like it to be because good art examines complication. But does Roseanne? Let’s unpack that question into five interlocking conflicts.

Conflict 1: Roseanne Barr vs. Roseanne Conner

Roseanne emerges.

Sooner or later, every argument about Roseanne returns to this central point: How readily can you separate the real Roseanne from the character she plays on TV? And how much should you be asked to?

In a weird way, it’s a question that runs parallel to debates over great films or TV shows made by the many men accused of sexual misconduct. Separating art from artist, of course, is something that is going to vary from viewer to viewer. But what makes Roseanne even more complicated than, say, a terrific movie produced by Harvey Weinstein is just how much the character of Roseanne Conner is based on the former life circumstances of the real Roseanne Barr. The two have always been seen as the same, in the way that, say, Lena Dunham has routinely been conflated with Hannah Horvath, her character from Girls, but the two Roseannes have in fact been different in some crucial ways.

In the case of Roseanne (2018), it’s easy to imagine a version of the show that exists in a world where viewers had no idea Roseanne Barr was a die-hard Trump supporter because the actress had never talked about him on social media. And in that world, it would be easier to swallow this exact version of the series for those who believe support for Trump is a moral wrong because there would be more distance between the fictional Roseanne who supports Trump and the real one, whose politics we wouldn’t know.

But, of course, we don’t live in that world. We know not just that Barr is a Trump supporter but that she’s one who readily and easily adheres to over-the-top right-wing conspiracy-mongering; who considers going on the Fox News program Hannity, which has become a sort of clearinghouse for those very conspiracies; who mocks Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivors on Twitter.

Even if you take Barr at her word that she thought Trump should be president because he would shake up Washington — and sure, I’m inclined to — that defense overlooks the fact that an incredibly rich woman who never needs to work another day in her life unless she wants to would be relatively unaffected by the shake-up Trump was promising.

Barr has repeatedly avowed that she doesn’t believe Trump is a racist, that this is a picture the media has painted of him that is unfair. Sure, he might say some things that are uncouth, but don’t you want a president who isn’t afraid to say what he’s really thinking?

From the earliest days of her standup career, this is how Barr has seen herself, so it’s not hard to see how she would feel that connection to Trump. (It’s in some ways similar to other comedians of Barr’s generation who have complained about comedy becoming too “politically correct,” as old fallbacks of ’80s and ’90s standup that pivoted on supposedly inviolable aspects of race and gender are now routinely questioned as the basis for jokes.)

It is not unrealistic to believe that Roseanne Conner — mired in economic instability and longing for some sort of shake-up — might vote for Trump. Plenty of other white people in that situation did just that. And though the fictional Roseanne is a warmer figure than social media Roseanne, she’s still possessed of a kind of free-floating anger that the new series doesn’t always interrogate but also isn’t afraid to depict.

The new show is about having to deal with someone who holds these beliefs (in ways I’ll deal with momentarily), when you’re maybe just trying to live your life. You might still love your mom or sister, even if she believes some kooky things. What’s your responsibility to disabuse her of those ideas?

It remains to be seen if this new Roseanne will challenge its title character on these beliefs, but the original series, produced at a time when Barr had far more cultural cachet and power, wasn’t afraid to do so. So it’s not completely unrealistic to assume that these sorts of challenges might arise.

On the other hand, the real question here revolves around art’s moral responsibility, if it even has that responsibility, and how synonymous Trump supporters are with the president himself. I promise we’ll get there. But first, we have to take a couple of detours, starting with the elephant in the room.

Conflict 2: Trump vs. culture

In its original incarnation, Roseanne sometimes drew more than 30 million viewers per episode.
ABC via Getty Images

If there’s one thing Donald Trump loves, it’s big TV ratings, even if he doesn’t always understand how they work. And after the new Roseanne debuted with more than 18 million viewers — barely off its original numbers from 1988, a monumental feat in this age of audience depletion — Trump called Barr to congratulate her on her success.

It’s not hard to see why he would do so. Barr is a high-profile Trump supporter, and, as such, the president surely regards the new series as “pro-Trump,” in the way he tends to turn all conflicts into ones that hinge solely on his existence. Even if Trump watched the new Roseanne, he probably wouldn’t notice any of its attempted nuance in regards to the titular character’s support for him. He would just see the support.

Needless to say, this situation has hypercharged the entire debate, which tends to happen whenever Trump inserts himself into these sorts of cultural discussions. Now to watch Roseanne is going to be seen by many who don’t support the president as a tacit support not just of Trump but of everything he stands for, at least for a little while. That makes it awfully difficult for the show to become anything other than a Donald Trump-shaped lightning rod, which is probably what he intended by grafting himself onto the biggest entertainment story of the week.

The ratings for the new Roseanne probably have little to do with Trump. Are there people who tuned in because Barr supports the president? Sure. But there are also plenty of people who tuned in because the original is a fondly remembered, massive hit, or because there aren’t a lot of depictions of white working-class people on TV right now, or because they just miss seeing this cast together, or because they’re John Goodman or Laurie Metcalf superfans.

If other recent revivals, like The X-Files and Will & Grace, are any indication, then the big ratings for the first airing are inevitably going to descend rapidly in the weeks to come. Roseanne is starting from a much higher position, but it, too, will probably slide downward as the cultural conversation moves on to other things. And by grafting himself onto the story like this, Trump might even hasten that slide. But, honestly, enough about Trump. He has less to do with this than you might think. Let’s get back to the show.

Conflict 3: Darlene vs. Roseanne

Darlene is trying to survive living in the same house as her parents all over again.

Lots and lots of critics (including me) have pointed this out, but the point-of-view character of the new Roseanne isn’t really Roseanne. Sure, she’s important, and Barr is first-billed in the cast. But she’s also depicted as somebody who’s increasingly distant and hard to understand — deeply dedicated to her family but hostile to the world at large.

This is not all that different from the Roseanne in the original Roseanne, but the lens through which we view the character has shifted to somebody else entirely: her younger daughter, Darlene, played by Sara Gilbert, who was instrumental in getting this revival to the air and serves as an executive producer for the show.

Gilbert is a very different media personality from Barr. She played the most fully developed of Roseanne’s kids on the original series, a dreamer with big ambitions who seemed like she might escape the Conner household and do great things. From there, Gilbert starred in a number of other projects, but she’s probably now best known as one of the co-hosts of the CBS talk show The Talk, where she is often portrayed as the voice of reasonable progressive America. She’s married to musician Linda Perry, and the two have a child.

If the new series’ depiction of a family divided by politics but trying to figure out those differences occasionally feels like it arrived straight from the brain of a talk show host, well, here’s how Gilbert put it at a press conference for the show in January: “I think this is a time, as we all know, where our country is very divided. And we did have a wonderful opportunity to talk about this in the context of a family, and I think part of what’s going on is that people feel like they can’t disagree and still love each other or still talk to each other.”

All of this is to say that Gilbert is a sort of bastion of white cosmopolitan coastal America, but the white cosmopolitan coastal America that really wants to understand why so many white Americans in rural areas seem to have abandoned reality as white progressives understand it. (Hey, I’m one of them!) This is why, occasionally, the new Roseanne feels like it emerged fully formed from the head of a New York Times Trump supporter profile.

But it’s also why the show isn’t the sort of hectoring screed a lot of its harshest critics assumed it would be, sight unseen. By shifting the point of view to Darlene, by forcing a character who displayed such promise to move back in with her parents, the series takes a long look at the ways the American system fails those who might contribute more to it than their tax dollars. Making Darlene the center of the series means that Roseanne’s Trump support can be portrayed in a more ambivalent light than it might be if Roseanne were at its center, but it also doesn’t create a scenario where wise liberals are constantly dunking on conservatives.

Does it 100 percent work? Not just yet, but it’s a really interesting setup for a sitcom, and as a TV critic, that’s what most excites me about the new series. I’ll quote Slate’s Willa Paskin to explain why:

It’s the show’s vision of Darlene that is the real American indictment, a woman who thought she could get out and do better, who went to college, but who can’t escape generational poverty despite her best efforts. She’s a feminist, too, but one who can’t overcome her seemingly immutable status as a poor person, whomever she voted for.

It’s a radical vision for a heartwarming sitcom, one I hope the series can fully realize. Will it? Well...

Conflict 4: Roseanne (1988) vs. Roseanne (2018)

One thing is always the same: John Goodman is an endless fountain of joy.

A lot of what people think about Roseanne in 2018 is being read into it by what we know about Roseanne in 1988. Viewers have only seen two episodes of the new series (shown over a full hour for the show’s debut). Critics have seen just one more episode, one that complicates the series in interesting ways. (I’ll get to it, promise, and I haven’t forgotten all the other cliffhangers strewn throughout this article. We’re going somewhere, everybody!) So it’s necessary, in some ways, to balance old against new.

And that both cuts against the show and in its favor, in differing ways. In its corner is the fact that the original Roseanne ultimately came down on the side of interrogating both its characters and the power structures that kept them in their often miserable lives. In the episode critics have seen and viewers haven’t, for instance, the show contrasts a job Darlene could take that would nevertheless force her to wear a demeaning, sexualized uniform with Roseanne’s dependence on pain pills to be able to do all the housework her caring but oblivious husband won’t help out with. Both strictures are designed to remind these women of their dependence on the good graces of the American patriarchy, in very different ways.

It’s not hard to see how the series could develop this into a full-blown critique of not just Trump but of America itself, of all of the decisions made in the past 40 years that have widened income gaps and calcified power imbalances until they seem like just the way things are. And if this were the old Roseanne, it would absolutely do that.

But working against the show is that we also know that Barr would routinely overhaul the writing staff of her original series to better suit her vision. If she has that level of power over the new series, then the show’s writers (who are headed up by Whitney Cummings and Bruce Helford, and joined by luminaries like Norm Macdonald and Wanda Sykes) could quickly be fired in the name of making a program more friendly to Trump.

For a variety of reasons, I don’t think this is terribly likely. Gilbert is there, for instance, to prevent Barr from wholesale sacking the writers in order to bring in Anthony Scaramucci or something. But Barr’s actions on the previous series do give pause to anyone hoping the show will really dig into the disconnect between Roseanne Conner’s Trump support and the policies the president backs that would make life harder for her biracial granddaughter, her military-deployed daughter-in-law, and her seemingly genderqueer grandson.

In the three episodes I’ve seen, the show pushes further against Barr’s views than I thought it would, but it also never pushes as far as it might. It is interested in the disconnect between Roseanne’s love for her family and the ways that family is being torn apart by living in America in 2018 with a certain someone as president. It’s even interested in how Roseanne herself is being hurt by Trump’s policies, even if it would never come out and say this. But maybe, in 2018, that isn’t enough. And now we’re finally here.

Conflict 5: The morality of the self vs. the morality of the commons

Jackie does a little light reading on general principles of ethics and morality.

A number of anti-Roseanne commentators have suggested that the series fails a critical test because it suggests that Roseanne Conner’s love for her family trumps her support for a racist xenophobe who’s actively trying to make America white again. How, for instance, can Roseanne be so supportive of her grandson’s choice to wear girls clothes to school when the president she so loves is actively trying to ban transgender troops? How can Roseanne possibly say that the president isn’t racist, especially in light of how strenuously the character pushed back against racism on the original show? The Daily Beast’s Ira Madison III, one of our finest cultural commentators, called the character a “fantasy” of a Trump supporter.

But is it? I, obviously, can only speak from my own personal experience, but I’ve known many, many people who are supportive of their own LGBTQ friends and relatives while happily and even fervently supporting politicians who support anti-LGBTQ policies. I’ve known plenty of people who don’t believe themselves to be racist because they bear no particular ill will toward the black people they know or even “have black friends,” while believing at the same time an assortment of racist falsehoods about intelligence gaps between races or the like, simply based on what they know of the rest of the world from TV.

How we vote is so dependent on what we know of the world, and in the kinds of small, insular, largely white communities like the one depicted on Roseanne (which is somewhere in the Chicago metroplex but well on its outskirts), what the characters know of the world is limited to their own community. Roseanne depicts politics as a kind of phantom that descends from outside for white people to politely argue over, something that has little actual impact on the lives of these characters.

That disconnect exists all throughout these sorts of communities in America too. It’s easy to forget that what’s happening in Washington has genuine impact on your life and the lives of those you love when the community you live in has barely changed in decades and has usually changed for the worst. If you’re lucky, your kids might leave for a larger city, but they’re not sticking around.

To live this sort of life (in my experience) is to be primarily interested in the morality of the self, the morality of what you actually do — how can I keep from seeming racist — as opposed to the morality of the commons, the morality of how the things you support and believe make life worse for others, sometimes thousands of miles away. If you, yourself, are not physically discriminating against people of color, then you, yourself, are not racist, this line of thinking goes. Finding a way to talk about the fact that that’s not true requires completely shifting the frame of conversation. It requires shifting the very definition of the word racism used in these cases. And that’s, uh, not easy.

Here’s how Cummings put it at the press conference I referred to earlier:

I went home for the holidays. I have some family members who were not on the same side on a lot of this sort of stuff. ... And, of course, I’m asking all the same questions. “How could you do this? He said this and said this and said this.” And they said, “Whitney, we’re poor. We don’t have a choice. We have to vote for people we disagree with because they said ‘jobs.’ That’s how bad it is. And then we have to sleep at night knowing that.”

Through the three episodes I’ve seen, Roseanne hasn’t yet explored the gap between a desperate vote for Trump and everything that happened after. It hasn’t yet explored if Roseanne understands that gap even exists, if either the character or the actress can bring herself to think of Washington as something other than a far-off soap opera that should at least be entertaining if it’s not actively helping her. And I can’t say if it will. Honestly, for as much faith as I have in the multi-camera sitcom, it might be beyond the ability of any one show to handle.

But the third episode I’ve seen — in which (spoilers!) Roseanne is revealed to be addicted to pain medication — tries to grapple with these lived realities as well as anything I’ve seen since Trump was elected, and all without once using the word “Trump.” (This episode is the seventh produced and will not necessarily be the third to air. That ABC didn’t send out more contiguous episodes could be seen as troubling!)

And it’s not as if TV isn’t currently full of other shows that examine these sorts of social issues through the prisms of characters who have no love lost for the president, most notably ABC’s Black-ish and Netflix’s sterling One Day at a Time, which examines life as a Cuban-American family in Trump’s America with heart and humor. No single show can cover these issues all by itself, but maybe all of them can when combined.

A lot of the pushback against Roseanne that I’ve seen ultimately boils down to this one simple idea: A Trump supporter should never be given this large a bullhorn. As a non-Trump supporter myself, it’s an idea I’m at least sympathetic to. But I also understand how thinking of that ilk led directly to the popularity of Trump, who seemed to his fans like he was puncturing these media bubbles with reckless, thrilling impunity. But there will never be a magic salve that suddenly causes scales to fall from Trump supporters’ eyes, that causes them to say, “Oh, I was wrong all along!” and even if there were, hoping it might come in the form of a TV show is a little silly.

TV, more than any other medium, can drag us, kicking and screaming, toward a more empathetic understanding of each other. The new Roseanne might have set its sights so high it will never reach them, but it shouldn’t be dinged merely for trying to depict the complicated mess of family relationships in this era.

The politics of Roseanne — and maybe Roseanne — are confused and incoherent, but so are a lot of our politics. Untangling them is the work of this show, and the other shows I listed above, and all of us. There is no magic “cure” for Trump voters, as surely as the magic cure for liberalism my parents almost certainly wish they could buy doesn’t exist. But Roseanne, flawed and difficult as it is, at least gives us all a space to hash out a few of these things. And that’s valuable.