“Roseanne” (2018): Neither Here Nor There

Roseanne 2018

Having the highest ratings for any network sitcom in almost four years, the revival of the ABC television show “Roseanne” had 18.2 million viewers last week, and features most of the original cast.

And then this high-concept sitcom begins to evoke memories of the good old days of “Roseanne” and “All in the Family”, with the same old-fashioned couch, the living room that made “Roseanne” a bona fide pioneer (1988-1997) with its focus on blue-collar Americans in Lanford, Illinois. Still set in this fictional town in the Midwest, now Roseanne is back, and Trump is in. And every viewer knows Illinois is a “red state”.

Although the divisive Trump is never mentioned by name (rumored to be a requirement for funding the show), Roseanne Barr has let it be known that her show would grapple with how the 2016 election has divided American families and friendships. This is an intriguing goal for revitalizing the most difficult of comedic themes: family dysfunction and how families change and redefine themselves. Now overlay that with the cultural and political wars of today.

In the opening scene we see Dan Conner (played by John Goodman) come back to life literally after the 1997 finale in which Dan died of a heart attack. The new Roseanne Conner (Roseanne Barr) is an unabashed Trump supporter while her sister, Jackie (the Tony-award winning Laurie Metcalfe) again plays Roseanne’s polar opposite. She wears a “pussy hat” , “Nasty Woman” t-shirt, and battles almost every argument her sister puts forth.

“Roseanne” of the 1988-1997 seasons had many darkly political themes including sexism, racism, abortion rights, and gay rights. But the landscape has changed. The highest-rated series among adults under 50 is currently “This Is Us,” and tackles the same issues of the old “Roseanne” but now interracial marriages and relationships, same-sex marriage, and a host of former hot-button divisive issues are more widely accepted in some demographics. In attempting to update the new “Roseanne” with current issues, the premiere features a grandson who wears skirts suggesting he will be transgender and a granddaughter who is biracial.

Laughing at the old Roseanne, Jackie, and Dan Conner of the late 20th century, viewers were encouraged to see the Conner family torn by everyday challenges that many viewers did not have personal experience with. We were pulled in by razor-sharp dialogue, character arcs driven by superb actors, and humor not overridden by laugh tracks. The vintage sitcom was enjoyable regardless of whether the political arguments were ones the viewer agreed with.

What happened to Roseanne Barr’s gift for vocal range, not strident or flat delivery? And the two additions of child actors–the possibly transgender little boy struggling with bullying from classmates and the little biracial girl who silently sits at the dining room table so the viewer notices her? They have no character development. Roseanne is afraid for her little grandson but isn’t sure confronting the school administrators is the answer. Why not have Dan go to school in a tutu to challenge the bullies? The little girl is assumed to be part African American. Why not have her play with a white Barbie and a black one and ask her grandpa which one he thinks is prettier? That would be suggestive of the “Roseanne” I miss so much.

The reboot of “Roseanne” was an opportunity to explain the nation’s culture wars to an audience that sorely needs to hear it. And the producers and writers passed. Millions of viewers, perhaps, gathered around their televisions and, as in the vintage ” Roseanne”, some may still see themselves in the Conner family. But it is not the Conner family we came to understand in the vintage show. The 2018 “Roseanne” doesn’t deliver what was promised and the acting is a lukewarm flat series of performances, with the exception of the incomparable Laurie Metcalfe.

Too bad that blue collar and low socio-economic class are now identified with Trump. This is both inaccurate and overly simplistic.

Some reviewers called the new “Roseanne” timeless, but with its overtly political message that no one (including Trump) can ignore, what is timeless about 2016? ABC executives and “Roseanne” producers reject the notion that the show’s popularity is mainly because of its appeal to Trump supporters. Will we see sustained viewer numbers or will the gap between what was promised and what was delivered be too wide? Certainly this viewer was turned off.

Note: The top audience markets for the debut were a red-state checklist: Cincinnati, OH; Kansas City, MO.; Tulsa, OK, Springfield, IL. Liberal metropolises like New York and Los Angeles did not crack the top 20.   Channing Dungey, the president of ABC Entertainment, said “the success of ‘Roseanne’ was a direct result of the post-Election Day initiative to pursue an audience that the network had overlooked.”