‘Roseanne’: As Subtle as a Stormy Daniels Movie

The ‘Roseanne’ reboot leans too much on cheap political humor, but there are glimpses of the witty yet affectionate take on blue-collar life that made the original a groundbreaking sitcom

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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'Roseanne.'Credit: Robert Trachtenberg / ABC
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

In an age dominated by the buffoonish antics of a man who claims to represent the underrepresented, it seems entirely appropriate that a reboot of white-trash sitcom “Roseanne” is the ratings sensation of the year in the United States.

The show has proven so popular that, only days after the first two episodes of the nine-part series aired in America, ABC rushed to green light an additional season, which will be its 11th.

In its early 1990s heyday, “Roseanne” was lauded for its witty yet affectionate depiction of blue-collar life. It was a homey, less coarse version of “Married With Children.” For nine seasons between 1988 and 1997, we followed wife and husband — in that order — Roseanne and Dan Conner (Roseanne Barr and John Goodman, respectively), and their struggles to provide for their four kids. These included rebellious tomboy Darlene (Sara Gilbert) and her flaky sister Becky (played initially by Lecy Goranson and later by Sarah Chalke — both women return for the reboot, in one of several in-jokes; another refers to Darlene’s character as gay, when in fact it’s Gilbert herself who’s a lesbian).

Two decades on, this long-forgotten sitcom has become the unlikely new battleground for politically divided America. That’s chiefly because Barr was one of the few household names to admit voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, but also because her character in the show identifies as a Trump supporter. The latter comes as no surprise, almost acting as a counterbalance to the way another successful reboot, “Will & Grace,” vilified the Trump presidency for its own liberal purposes last year.

Of course, the successful reboot of “Roseanne” was hailed as a victory by the president himself, prompting him to boast about its stellar ratings at a rally in Ohio. “Over 18 million people!” he gushed. “And it was about us! They haven’t figured it out! The fake news hasn’t quite figured it out yet!” (Side note: If Trump is now seeing fit to pronounce on TV shows, it’d be great to get his thoughts on Ken Burns and and Lynn Novick’s recent documentary “The Vietnam War” — which must have been a real eye-opener to the world’s most famous draft dodger — and the sixth and final season of “The Americans,” about Russian spies in 1980s Washington.)

The president is no doubt part of the reason for the show’s topicality and the surprising amount of public interest in it. What’s more preposterous is his claim that, to reference the hit NBC show, “This is us.”

Or is it? Because if we overlook the fact that he’s orange trash — if Trump has taught us anything, it’s that wealth and class are completely separate entities — maybe there are some issues in “Roseanne” that he genuinely relates to. Money issues? Check. Living in fear of being kicked out of the (White) house? Check. Offspring struggling to make their way in the world? Check. He presumably also identifies strongly with the character of Roseanne: the straight-talking head of the family, prepared to bully and bulldoze their way through life’s problems.

Then again, it’s probably not much more of a stretch to imagine Trump connecting with the working-class lives in “Roseanne” than Barr herself. After all, this is now an environment as alien to her as the concept of a working weekend is to the president. She may have been born into an average Jewish family in Salt Lake City in the 1950s, one of five kids, but she’s long since left that world behind.

Roseanne Barr and John Goodman appear in a scene from the "Roseanne" reboot. Credit: Adam Rose/AP

“Roseanne” turned the stand-up comedian into a multimillionaire — albeit one with an increasingly toxic reputation in Hollywood. But her career flatlined post-“Roseanne” and, oddly enough, she also flirted with the White House, launching her own presidential bid in 2012. Indeed, in a throwaway line at the end of the first episode, Roseanne asks her sister, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), “Who’s Jill Stein?” — a nod to the fact that Barr herself was beaten in the Green Party presidential primary by Stein that year — before eventually running for the Peace and Freedom Party, securing a less than Trump-esque 61,971 votes in the election.

I hated the first episode of the reboot and its obvious political jibes, all of which are as subtle as a Stormy Daniels movie (presumably). Pussy hats, “Nasty woman” T-shirts, “taking a knee,” “snowflake” and “deplorable” references: All are deployed in the first 20 minutes, potshots that are neither funny nor surprising. I sat through it stony-faced, as involved as Trump at a climate change conference. The only time I laughed was at the irony of a Trump supporter bemoaning the fact that in their new health insurance program, they now receive half the number of drugs for twice the price.

But then a flicker of the old “Roseanne” appears on screen: Becky arrives for a family dinner and announces her plan to become a surrogate mom in order to earn $50,000 and pay off her bills. Suddenly, the show stops being a point-scoring political feud between Roseanne and Jackie and starts mining the rich terrain of sibling rivalries and generational confusions.

Barr and Goodman could play these roles in their sleep, and at times they seem to be doing just that. But the story line in the second episode — which revolves around Darlene’s young son, Mark (Ames McNamara), going to school wearing a skirt and blouse — suggests there might be comedy mileage in the Conner clan yet. Becky and Darlene are the undoubted stars of the show this time around, and the more time we spend with them, the more fun “Roseanne” is (although, that said, it’s always a joy to hang out with Metcalf — fresh from her wonderful performance as the passive-aggressive mom in “Lady Bird”).

I was never a big fan of Barr’s comedy shtick, but the baggage of her own Trump-supporting past makes me even more indifferent to her character now. (The stories of how she allegedly forced the writers on the original “Roseanne” show to wear numbered T-shirts so she wouldn’t have to memorize their names doesn’t endear me to her, either.) Still, she remains the brains behind one of the most revered sitcoms of all time — something she hasn’t received due credit for — and it would be a real shame to tarnish that legacy by letting the political trump the personal.

Trump is right in saying that a segment of American society has been neglected in recent decades, on television and elsewhere. But the most worrying thing is that if the ratings success of “Roseanne” is maintained, it won’t be long before Tim Allen gives his agent a call to try to resurrect “Home Improvement.”

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