The “Roseanne” that existed two decades ago didn’t have to remind us that it was topical. From 1988 to 1997, the show built its foundation on the everyday plight of a working-class family struggling to stay afloat in small-town America. The verisimilitude was often searing, and always rollicking. Even in the titular matriarch’s loudest moments, no one preached about current events in such a way that politics superseded the actual situations greeting characters in this situational comedy.
But today’s rendition, returning to ABC on Tuesday, is jonesing to announce its topicality, figurative megaphone in hand, almost as quickly as the opening credits roll. Face-to-face with the Donald Trump era, the inaugural episode’s politics are thundering, confrontational and ham-fisted.
Early on, a svelte Dan (John Goodman) returns from the pharmacy to report that the Conners’ health insurance no longer funds all the medicine they need ― their “candy,” as Roseanne (Roseanne Barr) calls it. Dan and Roseanne are left to divide what’s left of their statins, anti-inflammatories and pain pills as if playing a game to see who lands the bigger stash. After the next commercial break, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) arrives at the Conners’ comfortingly cluttered home wearing a pink “Nasty Woman” shirt and pussy hat, estranged from her sister because Roseanne pulled the lever in Trump’s favor.
“How could you have voted for him?” Jackie demands before we’ve even been reintroduced to the whole clan. Their argument turns to talk of “snowflakes” and “making America great again” ― the same polarization that plays out ad nauseam on social media and during cable-news cage fights.
That transition, from medical woes to tired retorts about an election we’ve spent a year and a half mourning, epitomizes the shift in woke sitcom writing that has occurred in the years since “Roseanne” first signed off. The original program was founded upon situational concepts that couched real-world issues in primetime banter, while the reboot opens with a showboating scheme that borrows low-hanging ideological fruit to paint a heavy-handed divide across party lines.
Despite her feminism, it makes some sense that Roseanne Conner would have voted for Trump. Discounting the messy final season that aired in 1996 and ‘97, in which the Conners won the lottery and imploded the series’ spirit, the eight years Roseanne spent assembly-lining at a plastics factory, sweeping a beauty-parlor floor, telemarketing, working a fast-food joint and eventually co-owning a small luncheonette, all the while fretting about bills and taxes and college funds, make her a fitting figurehead for toiling middle-class parents who felt ostracized by the proverbial establishment and lashed out in the 2016 election. Trump “talked about jobs,” she insists.
Alas, watching Roseanne and Jackie bark clichés at each other in 2018 is already stale, as if the writing team ― spearheaded by Bruce Helford (who also oversaw one previous season) and Whitney Cummings ― took too many notes from the virtue signaling that attracts retweets and viral headlines. “Roseanne” was already the most political sitcom in history; must it be so literal and loudmouthed about it now?
But, as a longtime disciple who thinks the Conners’ living room is among popular culture’s greatest hallmarks, I’m pleased to report that this bug is not a feature of the entire season ― at least it isn’t so glaring in the third and seventh episodes, which, oddly enough, were the only other installments ABC provided to press ahead of the premiere. In fact, once we get past the unrefined, rhythm-less debut, what I’ve seen of the show is downright wonderful. We can exhale. “Roseanne” is indeed back.
It must be hard, anyway, to revive characters left dormant for 20 years, especially for someone as erratic as Barr, who hasn’t maintained much of an acting career beyond guest spots on “The Office,” “Portlandia” and the short-lived “Cristela.” But by Episode 3, she’s restored her brassy groove. Everything about Roseanne’s repartee with Jackie, along with her hard-edged but ultimately loving parenting tactics, feel plucked right out of the “Roseanne” we once knew, with one golden difference: Where her own mother (Estelle Parsons) was once the out-of-touch try-hard, it’s now Roseanne who has to play catchup with the world her children (and grandchildren) occupy. As such, the banter between them is laugh-tracked and whip-smart, the punchlines are pithy and purposeful, and the politics aren’t reduced to ersatz sermonizing.
“Roseanne” does a splendid job recontextualizing its characters. A divorced and jobless Darlene (Sara Gilbert, who orchestrated this reunion) moves back in with Roseanne and Dan, bringing along her teenage daughter (Emma Kenney) and gender-probing 11-year-old (Ames McNamara), who identifies as a boy but prefers to wear skirts and nail polish. These are the sort of politics at which “Roseanne” excels: Through the lens of their underemployed daughter and nonconforming grandchild, Dan and “Granny Rose” are forced to examine their own prejudices. They want to protect their beloved from schoolyard bullying but encourage his self-acceptance, opening up a conversation about identity that need not to underscore its message with platitudes or homilies.
The rest of Episodes 3 and 7 operate with the same delicate blend of comedy and domestic drama. Jackie spouts the canned advice she now doles out as a life coach ― Metcalf again nails Jackie’s mania with supercharged precision ― while a waitressing 43-year-old Becky (Lecy Goranson) sparks when a woman (Sarah Chalke, the other Becky) offers her $50,000 to serve as a surrogate mother. And tender D.J. (Michael Fishman) has just returned from military duty in Syria, caring for his young mixed-race daughter Mary (Jayden Rey) while his wife serves overseas. Meanwhile, Roseanne can’t afford surgery to fix a bad knee, so she’s hogging those analgesics her insurance will hardly pay for. When she and Dan attempt to cash in on rewards points for their anniversary by spending a night at a hotel, the credit card they’re required to log upon check-in is declined, thwarting their respite and shoving them back out into the jungle. (“I just want to go home, and if you saw where we live, you would know what an insult that is,” Roseanne quips.)
There’s even a peanut-allergy subplot thrown in, proving just how down and dirty this reboot is willing to get.
Through it all, the writing is faithful to the Conners we knew in the pre-internet age, letting the show be woke without proclaiming itself as such. Maybe that’s the hurdle in expunging a series’ plot points, as “Roseanne” did with Dan’s death and “Will & Grace” did with the title pair’s parenthood: There’s so much exposition to establish and history to redraft that preaching about the corrupt election we can’t stop stressing about simply adds another layer of bulk. Why are our characters debating Trump’s candidacy now? Well, because that’s when their TV show is airing ― a poor excuse that convinces some sitcom writers they have a duty to address the national mood head-on.
Roseanne and Jackie’s feud probably sounds familiar to many American families, sure, but let’s see them experience the world, not just argue about it like a half-baked Facebook debate. That dynamic may have worked for Archie Bunker on “All in the Family,” but, 40 years later, we need characters who will do more than regurgitate media buzzwords.
By most accounts, it looks like “Roseanne” will, eventually, return to its nuanced roots, crocheted afghan and all. And if it’s able to depict a Trump supporter who has more to offer than verbal trolling, well, it might just make us stronger.