The premiere of the Roseanne revival — 21 years after its initial finale and starring a Roseanne Barr, who now spreads right-wing conspiracy theories on Twitter — sparked several outrage cycles, massive ratings, congratulations from President Trump, and, eventually, a shocking cancellation following a racist tweet from Barr.
ABC’s announcement of the successful revival’s second season, which called Barr’s statement “abhorrent, repugnant, and inconsistent with our values,” represents a huge shift from how the network has thus far characterized the show and its success. In fact, per ABC executives, the presidential election and Roseanne’s subsequent success has inspired the TV industry to consider a “heartland strategy” when approaching their programming.
“We had spent a lot of time looking for diverse voices in terms of people of color and people from different religions and even people with a different perspective on gender,” ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey told the New York Times in March. “But we had not been thinking nearly enough about economic diversity and some of the other cultural divisions within our own country.”
This falls in line with how some people, and especially conservatives, have talked about the Roseanne revival. The way this logic goes, Roseanne is one of the only shows on TV that dares talk about “economic diversity” and “cultural divisions,” political correctness or whatever be damned.
The weird thing about that line of reasoning, however, is that it’s not true. While Roseanne’s original run was indeed groundbreaking, in the years since, countless politically and socially relevant sitcoms have followed in its footsteps. Many of them are on the air right now; some are even already airing on ABC.
With the Roseanne revival no longer a going concern, we figured it’s a perfect time to spotlight some of the sitcoms it overshadowed in its brief, contentious run. Here are 11 great series either centered on working-class families or on underrepresented groups that find ways to dig into timely issues without becoming too treacly about it, and talk out tough political issues with true empathy.
One Day at a Time (Netflix)
One of the go-to ways to describe a sitcom that can deliver serious talk amid serious laughs is to compare it to anything Norman Lear has touched, so we have to start this list with the sitcom the 95-year-old legend is currently producing. One Day at a Time is a reboot of Lear’s 1975 sitcom about a single mother raising two kids with the help of her mother and (to a much lesser extent) nosy landlord. Netflix’s version keeps that basic premise but updates it to be about a Cuban-American family living in Los Angeles. The fantastic Justina Machado plays single mother and Army veteran Penelope, while the legendary Rita Moreno taps in as her theatrical mother Lydia.
The show touches on everything from Penelope’s PTSD and depression to the everyday racism her son encounters to her daughter coming out to Lydia grappling with the fact that her beloved homeland will never be what it once was. (And yes, it’s also very funny!) One Day at a Time is one of our favorite shows here at Vox dot com slash Culture, so if you don’t give it a shot, just know that you have disappointed us greatly.
Before most of the shows on this list were even glimmers in their networks’ eyes, Mom, now in its fifth season, was busy becoming one of the best things ever made by its co-creator, Chuck Lorre (who, incidentally, did time as a writer and producer on Roseanne’s original run). Following Christy (Anna Faris), a single mother of two, and her own mother Bonnie (Allison Janney, winner of several Emmys for her work on the show) as they struggle to break free from addiction, Mom has a few very sitcom-y issues here and there — like how theoretically working-class women live in such a huge house — but it’s by and large a forthright depiction of the twin struggles of poverty and addiction, bolstered by co-creator Gemma Baker’s willingness to let the show sink its teeth into complicated social issues.
As creator Kenya Barris has put it, Black-ish follows in the footsteps of the Lear model of weaving serious topics into the framework of an accessible network comedy. Now in its fourth season, the show has tackled everything from police brutality to postpartum depression to the consequences of the 2016 presidential election. The series even incorporates debates around class mobility, since it relies on the perspective and voiceover of patriarch Dre (Anthony Anderson) — who, like Barris, grew up in Compton and now lives in an upper-middle-class Los Angeles suburb.
In Roseanne’s third episode, the Conners slept through “all the [ABC] shows about black and Asian families” —presumably Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, another entry on this list — which is a shame because Roseanne is lucky to share a night with it.
Freeform’s Black-ish spinoff follows in the tradition of A Different World by tagging along with the oldest Johnson kid — Yara Shahidi’s glam Zoey — as she heads to college. There, she finds herself surrounded by people and perspectives she never encountered growing up and is forced to reconsider her accepted truths and what she might want from life. It’s still working out some of its growing pains, but Grown-ish is a fizzy surprise of a show that has made a sincere effort to address #millennial issues, like how social media affects relationships, the nuances of sexuality, safe spaces, and the very real tension of class differences on a campus that insists everyone is on equal ground.
Another ABC comedy that is consistently crushing it, Speechless follows the DiMeo family working to make ends meet and support their eldest son J.J., whose nonverbal cerebral palsy necessitates the kind of care they can only barely afford. Created by Friends producer Scott Silveri, whose brother has cerebral palsy, Speechless is smart and quick, keeping the DiMeos grounded while letting them be, as they would be the first to admit, the most lovable dirtbags you’ll ever meet.
With a stellar cast including Minnie Driver as a fiercely protective mom and Micah Fowler as J.J. — who actively resists and resents the sort of saintly clichés usually associated with people in wheelchairs — Speechless is an underrated gem lurking right under ABC’s own nose.
Big Mouth (Netflix)
We’ll allow that putting an animated comedy about the hilarious horrors of puberty on this list might seem like a bit of a stretch, but y’know what? We’re gonna stand by it.
Big Mouth — which stars excellent comedy voices like John Mulaney, Nick Kroll, and Jenny Slate — was one of our favorite TV surprises of 2017. It manages to balance gross-out jokes with real compassion for how much it can suck to grow up and figure out what sex means to you in a world that’s alternately fascinated and disgusted by it. In between letting an anthropomorphized “hormone monster” wreak havoc, Big Mouth actually tells some of TV’s most compassionate (and always timely) stories about consent, exploration, learning how to set boundaries, and the radical power of just being honest about your feelings, no matter how dumb or small they might feel.
Bob’s Burgers (Fox)
This animated sitcom, consistently one of TV’s funniest shows, even now in its eighth season, might not be as forthrightly political as some of the shows on this list, but it makes up for that with being one of the few to be set on the ground floor of class conflict in America, without making a big deal about it. Bob and Linda Belcher and their three kids run the titular burger shop, which has its loyal customers but also seems to leave the family barely enough to live on. (They even live in the apartment above the shop.) And because a restaurant is a great way to have others in the community come through its doors, Bob’s Burgers is slyly smart about interactions between the rich, the middle class, and the poor in America — and all of the ways they can break down.
Fresh Off the Boat (ABC)
And lo, another ABC family sitcom appears on our list. This one, originally based on Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name, centers on a Chinese-American family adjusting to a move from Washington, DC, to a far more monochrome Florida suburb. Louis (Randall Park) runs a branch of a Cattleman’s Ranch barbecue restaurant, while Jessica (Constance Wu) juggles running the family and practicing real estate.
Not only is Fresh off the Boat a warm show, it’s also a deeply weird one that’s unafraid to have fun and let the Huangs indulge their quirkier habits (see: Jessica’s crime novel, and her son Evan’s vice hold on the neighborhood council). In the first season, that adjustment was a rocky one full of everyday racism. As the show’s gone on, it’s also tackled issues of citizenship and civic duty in a way that makes it clear some issues are relevant regardless of time period.
Superior Donuts (CBS)
Superior Donuts is unusual on this list for tacking subject matter TV almost always glosses over: gentrification. Based on the play of the same name by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts, the sitcom follows doughnut shop owner Arthur (Judd Hirsch) and his new young co-worker Franco (Jermaine Fowler), who’s certain that the shop can be saved from the wave of younger, richer people changing the face of the neighborhood with some better doughnuts and a better promotional strategy. The show doesn’t strain to incorporate issues, but its setting naturally suggests them, and its cast includes comedic heavy hitters like Katey Sagal, David Koechner, and Maz Jobrani. Sadly, the show was canceled after its second season.
One economic trend TV hasn’t kept up with nearly as much as it could have is the way most working-class jobs have shifted from the industrial sector to the commercial one, especially when it comes to jobs in the service and retail industries. That’s what makes Superstore, set in a St. Louis-area big-box store named Cloud 9, such a refreshing change of pace. Its characters clock in every day at a store that never seems like a place anybody enjoys working at or even shopping at. But how else will they get paid? With a surprisingly deep ensemble cast and a willingness to talk about issues other sitcoms get squeamish about, Superstore is one of TV’s best comedies.
The Middle (ABC)
What if we told you that all the things Roseanne does well when it comes to depicting the struggles of the white working-class in the formerly industrial Midwest were already being done just as well — and often better — on another ABC show for nine years? And was created by former Roseanne writers? And just wrapped its run as one of TV’s most underrated working-class sitcoms?
We’re describing The Middle, the warm and affectionate look at life in the lower-lower middle class, centered on the Heck family of Orson, Indiana, who are trying to make their ends stretch enough to almost meet their needs, and often failing at that task. The show has explored the struggles of having too little money all the time, of living a very traditional life in an America that’s changing rapidly, and of so many other things, and it’s got some of the best characters on TV, especially in middle daughter Sue Heck (the tremendous Eden Sher). Hell, it even stars one of Hollywood’s more prominent conservatives (Patricia Heaton), if that’s what you’re looking for in a TV show.
But The Middle was never as noisy as Roseanne (just as Heaton seems highly unlikely to get on Twitter and promote weird conspiracy theories). It’s not about shouting whatever you want, but instead, about navigating a world that doesn’t always seem to care how you’re doing, something it tackles with grace, humility, and respect. The Middle never got nearly the amount of attention it deserved, from viewers, from critics, or from awards voters. That it ended just as Roseanne was once again the focus of our culture’s collective attention is at once apt and more than a little sad.
NBC’s The Carmichael Show, an insightful comedy that ran for three seasons with the help of producer Lear; Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which mostly sticks to zany antics but occasionally makes room for heartfelt episodes centering on race and sexuality; The CW’s Jane the Virgin, which was only disqualified for not being a sitcom but is one of the best shows on TV about how the political is personal and vice versa, period.