Humans are such simple creatures, especially the American kind. Because we crave comfort and familiarity, we will sit idly for hours, allowing others to beam ideas into our brains through our screens. The right combo of information lets loose the feel good chemicals, and we’re happy for a moment. Nostalgia is one of the most consistent ways to make that happen, and that’s why, every ten years or so, we decide that two decades ago was the best time ever, and marketing changes to hit the group with the biggest buying power right in the childhood.
She was never sold as America’s TV Mom, but the reason the show had such staying power is because she could’ve been anyone’s mother. It was easy for poor and middle class white folks to identify with the Connor’s circumstances and humor. (It’s almost like all TV was built towards them, with what little regard there was given toward diversity was making sure to hire a token black/brown/gay and give them a speaking line or two.) At the time, her cutting yet ultimately “loving” style of parenting and interacting with the world was viewed as comedic genius. Roseanne Barr herself, was viewed as edgy. She was opinionated, called out bullshit, didn’t give a fuck about what you thought of her big body or her loud voice or her extreme ideas. She became a star on the merit of her work, and made it through the gauntlet of the entertainment industry’s boy’s club to do it. To be fair, the traits that let her have that success were part of what should have killed her career. When a person loses (or never has) the capacity to take criticism, we end up with a mess like the Connors winning the lottery as a for real plot line we were supposed to take seriously, and photo shoots of Hitler Housewife cosplay. America’s Mom would do no such thing. But Roseanne would, and did.
She’s not being any less incendiary now, she just has Twitter instead of having to act a fool in front of the media’s cameras.
President Trump has freed so many children held in bondage to pimps all over this world. Hundreds each month. He has broken up trafficking rings in high places everywhere. notice that. I disagree on some things, but give him benefit of doubt-4 now.
— Roseanne Barr (@therealroseanne) March 31, 2018
Per @snopes @RoseanneOnABC asked to dress as Hitler for the photo shoot because she believes that she is the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler. Yesterday she tweeted in response to a conspiracy theorist attacking David Hogg “Heil Hitler.” @ABCNetwork made her delete it. That it #abc? pic.twitter.com/wDOWHtZwlR
— Debra Messing (@DebraMessing) March 30, 2018
In order to function, a sitcom must have a trouble making character for everyone else to bounce off of. It’s called, in TV Tropes, an Overarching Villain. In the case of Roseanne, she is simply a reflection of the trouble we find ourselves in right now. A common critique is that watching this show normalizes bad behavior – her flippant sarcasm, the inability to empathize with people outside of her inner circle, and see how her own actions effect others. Of course Roseanne voted for Trump. “But he talked jobs, Jackie!” His bombast and lack of fucks for how his actions effect other people totally would’ve appealed to her, deep in the lizard brain place that she couldn’t really verbalize. The fact that he pissed people off would’ve been the orange flavored icing on her vanilla cake. She’s never had time for politician’s bullshit, and the current POTUS both never appeared at her door, and sold himself as an alternative to a political establishment that has been trying to fuck with her (and her family’s) happiness through their shit policy for her whole life. Roseanne isn’t normalizing or validating Trumpist behavior, the 30% of people in this country that supported him already did when they cast their presidential vote.
Maybe its true that ABC is just trying to capitalize on Trump’s fans money and capture that ad revenue. Maybe Sara Gilbert’s drive to have closure on this part of her life by recreating this show is not as pure-hearted as she is portraying. But TV has always been a fun house mirror, a fictionalization of our society filmed through a rich, white male lens. This time, we get to see Sara’s vision, and that makes even a rehash of something old, so intriguing.
The second episode dealt with Darlene’s son, Mark, going to his new school in the burbs instead of in the city, and how his proclivity for glitter and skirts pushed Dan and Roseanne out of their comfort zones and right in to the cluebat that Darlene has been carrying around for use on her parents since sometime in the early 90’s. When Becky figures out an out of the box solution for her money issues, which would allow her to buy her own home, and get some economic stress relief, Roseanne does her level best to sabotage the new relationship with the woman she will be surrogate for. Darlene’s (and therefore Mark’s) boundaries are respected, because she enforces them mightily, backed by some of the few weapons that can wound her mother – snark and facts. Becky’s boundaries are trod on constantly because Roseanne finds getting a loud and angry reaction out of her much more easy and satisfying. Becky bottles it up, because Becky is earnest, and flashes her mother the “omfg if you don’t stop RN I’m gonna lose my shit” look. Of course, she almost always gets pushed into losing her cool and yelling, because one of the great comedy devices on that show is the dominant personality having to sheepishly apologize for going too far, yet again.
For a while, it will work and work well. Lots of sitcoms have long, amazing runs where they tackle difficult topics in approachable ways. But Roseanne and her inability to act on criticism are going to trip it up. Remember, she doesn’t have many fucks to give to others. She’s got attention and ratings success. A call from the President. Validation of the conspiracy theories she likes by the bots and sycophants who like sewing discord. This thing is already back on the road to cancellation, even as a second season gets picked up by ABC. Not because of the advertiser boycott, but because Roseanne Barr is likely going to refuse to find her fucks. Maybe, instead of winning the lottery, this time the storyline will have her appointed as Trump’s Secretary of State. (TBH, I’d like to see her scream at Ivanka like she did at Becky.) Unless, of course, this time, she learns. It’s not bloody likely, though.
Roseanne Connor will probably never become the union building, progressive, ball-busting feminist icon that she could’ve been if she had stayed on the same track as the first round of the show. But since that’s not the storyline, she can mirror the cynicism and fear that some people feel now. The Trump faithful have someone to mirror their reactions to similar situations IRL, and have Darlene and Becky and Jackie to mirror society’s reaction right back at them.
The show is a flashpoint. It was in 1988, and it is in 2018. But it was never about showing Roseanne as being right and correct – it was bigger than her. It was about Darlene, Becky, and DJ separating themselves from the family that they loved and sometimes loathed by the inevitable process of growing up. It was about DJ finding his identity outside of the one bestowed on him by the group. It was about Roseanne and Jackie figuring out their relationship as adults who don’t always agree, or even like or understand each other. It was about Roseanne and Dan’s marriage, that didn’t hide that sometimes, partners are awesome and sometimes they suck, but the love can endure. (Or, it can get killed off in the final episode and then gaslit back to life 20 years later, whatevs.)
Not all shows are for everyone. I’m not pitching that people should or should not watch it, especially if you identify with none of it and it truly pisses you off. (Ask me about my experience with Shameless!) But I will keep checking in until it gets too stupid. Because cultural touchstones are important, and if we’re talking about Roseanne around the holiday table, its one more opportunity to discuss big, important issues without all the baggage of reality attached.