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The Roseanne revival’s Islamophobia episode is boring. But its implications are fascinating.

A self-congratulatory episode about Roseanne’s new Muslim neighbors missed its own point.

Jackie and Roseanne meet the neighbors, learn valuable lessons about tolerance, etc. and so on.
ABC

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for May 6 through 12 is “Go Cubs,” the seventh episode of ABC’s Roseanne revival.

Are you tired of talking about the controversies and politics surrounding Roseanne yet? Well, strap in, because this conversation isn’t going away anytime soon.

ABC’s new Roseanne revival has been controversial since the second it was announced, in large part due to the fact that Roseanne Barr became an outspoken right-wing conspiracy theorist in the 20 years since the show first went off the air. And once the show did finally start to air, it became clear with the premiere’s reveal that Roseanne voted for Donald Trump that this revival would, indeed, be more explicitly political than the original run.

That thread continued with “Go Cubs,” an episode devoted to Roseanne recoiling from her new Muslim neighbors before learning that, hey, they might just be people after all. It’s not a particularly new premise; in fact, NBC’s excellent and prematurely canceled sitcom The Carmichael Show did an episode with exactly the same plot more than two years ago. But given Barr’s own political views and Roseanne’s reigning spot in today’s pop culture zeitgeist, it became a lightning rod of controversy almost immediately.

At first, Roseanne spends her time spying on the neighbors, insisting to her sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) that their huge supply of fertilizer could mean they’re “a sleeper cell full of terrorists getting ready to blow up our neighborhood,” and suggesting that their wifi password would be “deathtoAmerica123.”

Once she’s finally forced to meet Samir (Alain Washnevsky) and Fatima (Anne Bedian) face to face, however, it’s harder for her to keep up the vitriol. A scene in which Roseanne has to ask them for their actual wifi password so her granddaughter can Skype her mother (who’s currently on a military tour in Afghanistan) drives home how badly Roseanne misjudged them with a series of blunt reveals. The neighbors’ outsize fertilizer collection came thanks to an Amazon misunderstanding; their password is “go Cubs” for their favorite baseball team; racist threats have caused their scared son to start wearing a bulletproof vest to sleep.

According to writer and producer Dave Caplan, the idea of Roseanne getting new Muslim neighbors came from Barr herself, who apparently wanted to show her character getting “a comeuppance for her own bias.” And lo, Roseanne does. She even gets to end the episode on a triumphant note by taking a racist checkout girl to task for assuming the worst of the neighbor she herself had unfairly profiled just a couple scenes before. So hey, all’s well that ends well, right?

Depending on whom you ask, the answer is a little more complicated. Almost immediately after the episode aired, the internet was awash in controversy — which, as per Barr, is exactly what the new Roseanne is going for.

As with just about every new Roseanne episode so far, the most interesting things about “Go Cubs” are courtesy of the extratextual conversation surrounding it. And as LA Times critic Lorraine Ali pointed out, “America’s pullout from the Iran nuclear accord was announced hours before Roseanne aired. Not even Barr, the crafty master of controversy, could have planned such a serendipitous coupling.”

But the episode also highlighted a consistent disconnect of the Roseanne revival — one that the show may not even be aware it has.

This revival shows Roseanne learning tolerance — but only when her biases affect someone she personally knows

When it came to light that Roseanne would be a Trump supporter in the revival, the reaction was swift and even outraged. When Roseanne originally aired in the ’90s, the character was a feminist who valued the most compassionate kind of tough love. That character, detractors have argued, wouldn’t have evolved to the point where she could cast a vote for someone like Trump. Even former writers for the original series were surprised, with one anonymous person telling BuzzFeed that they “don’t recognize that character” and that the Roseanne they wrote for wouldn’t have cared about having Muslim neighbors.

There is, I think, one key line of “Go Cubs” that addresses this concern. When Roseanne insists that her fear of the new Muslims next door is logical because of all the horrors she’s seen on “the news,” Jackie cuts in with searing disdain that Fox News doesn’t count. If there is anything that could have radicalized Roseanne Conner, a poor white woman who prizes the right to say whatever she damn well wants, a hearty diet of Fox News is the most likely culprit.

But the most telling thing about the entire episode is something that I’m not convinced the show even realized it was doing.

As my colleague Todd VanDerWerff wrote when trying to untangle the many, many controversies surrounding the new revival, this disconnect between Roseanne’s apparent political beliefs and members of her family who will be hurt by Trump’s policies is a particular sticking point for those wary of the revival.

“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?” he wrote. “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 thing is, as VanDerWerff then pointed out, there are plenty of Trump voters who find a way to compartmentalize their politics from the people they know and love. And on the flip side, it’s so much easier for someone to demonize an entire populace if they don’t interact with them on an everyday, personal level.

So this week, Roseanne learned that #NotAllMuslims are bad. But that moment when she overcomes her own biases to tell off that cashier by saying that Fatima is a better person than she’ll ever be isn’t exactly a cut-and-dried triumph. She’s not defending the honor of Muslims everywhere; she’s defending the honor of Fatima specifically, because she now knows that at least this Muslim is okay.

If Roseanne wants to live up to its purported mission statement of tackling today’s complex political climate head on, depicting Roseanne’s ability to dissociate her politics from her personal life is, in fact, a pretty important thing to do. It would just be more convincing if the show purposely engaged with that idea instead of accidentally stumbling into it.

Roseanne airs Tuesdays at 8 pm on ABC.

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