This week, Roseanne returns to television, 30 years after its October 18, 1988, debut on ABC. Controversy has already surrounded the new season following the announcement that the title character will be, like the outspoken star Roseanne Barr herself, a Donald Trump supporter. Fans of the original questioned the reboot’s decision to get so overtly political, but Barr defended her decision to create “a realistic portrait of the American people.” Likewise, the show’s executive producer, Bruce Helford, has promised that the series will depict “something that doesn’t really exist on TV anymore, which is an honest family.”
Such comments could be seen as a swipe at ABC’s current line-up of sitcoms celebrated for their diversity, like Modern Family, Black-ish, The Goldbergs, and Fresh Off the Boat. Combined with Roseanne TV spots promising the return of the family that “lives like us” and “looks like us”—with all of the fraught connotations of those words—one might believe the all-American family had been banished from network television. But if the return of Roseanne in 2018 ends up feeling more reactionary than it does revolutionary, it’d be largely because the original series inspired these same concerns about the politics of the sitcom.
Enter Roseanne. Commissioned by the executive producers of The Cosby Show, Roseanne offered a different kind of family sitcom, one that brought the white working class to the small screen in an era of yuppiedom. Sarcastic and often unruly, the Conners were, as Variety’s review of the first episode remarked, “appalling TV role models.” Other reviewers read the show’s touted radicalism as superficial. Comparing them to their blue-collar comrades from All in the Family, Walter Goodman argued in The New York Times that, “despite appearances, the Conners are throwbacks to a kinder, gentler sitcom. They represent inoffensiveness with a dirty face.” While Roseanne’s significance will likely change in 2018, its birth out of the 1980s culture wars hinged on one question: Could a family sitcom be a political statement without actually being political?
Barr had already made a name for herself as a stand-up comic, performing her “Domestic Goddess” routine on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. She cracked jokes about marriage and motherhood drawn from her own life, which she more seriously chronicled in her 1989 autobiography. Vogue had taken notice of Barr’s comedy routines, anointing her in 1987 as the “rude voice of women” who had been silenced onscreen. Barr became an unlikely icon, what she called in 1990 “a sort of postfeminist mud pie in the eye to the Super Mom Syndrome.” Other family sitcoms were eager to portray women who had it all. The Cosby Show’s Clair Huxtable was a successful lawyer and affectionate mother, while Growing Pains’ Maggie Seaver even left her husband at home with the kids while she returned to her career as a reporter.
While these shows portrayed the working mothers as polished professionals, Roseanne reinvented the primetime American family around the materfamilias in all of her overworked, exasperated glory. “I put eight hours a day at the factory, and then I come home and put in another eight hours,” Roseanne tells her husband Dan (John Goodman) in the pilot episode, “Life and Stuff.” Roseanne runs errands, makes dinner, and fights with her boss (George Clooney) to clock out early—so she can meet with a teacher about why her daughter Darlene (Sara Gilbert) has been barking like a dog. When Darlene’s teacher suggests her behavior might reflect “a problem at home,” Roseanne retorts, “Our whole family barks.”
Still, the show refused to disentangle the Conners’ loving bark from the working world’s bite. If unpaid bills and time clocks were largely absent from other family sitcoms, Roseanne brought them to center stage as Roseanne and Dan work overtime and cycle through odd jobs to make ends meet. On one hand, the show was gently critical of the Conner family’s finances. Roseanne’s sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) at one point scolds, “Your problem is that you and Dan don’t know how to manage your money, and that’s why you’re always broke.”
On the other hand, the show was aggressively critical of low wages and big business. In the first season’s finale, Roseanne inspires her fellow workers to quit their jobs when a new supervisor raises quotas on production; she then jokingly compares herself to Sally Field’s character in Norma Rae. And a 1992 episode features a skeptical speech directed to a state representative who promises tax breaks for corporations as a way to revitalize the local economy. Audiences—and advertisers—took notice: The AFL-CIO aired a pro-union commercial featuring the famed labor activist Lech Walesa during a 1989 episode of the series.
Despite the program’s general sympathies toward the working mother and its awareness of blue-collar labor issues, Roseanne remained politically agnostic. As Barbara Ehrenreich noted in a 1990 essay, the show was “not given to didacticism,” instead favoring a politics of dysfunction. Roseanne was quick to identify the many flaws that plagued the American family, but it was also hesitant to endorse a remedy.
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Roseanne had become the most popular show in America by its second season, but its star was quickly turning into one of the country’s most controversial women. In 1990, Barr’s infamous rendition of the national anthem, complete with crotch-grabbing and spitting, even prompted President George H. W. Bush to call her performance “disgraceful.” Barr’s off-screen antics put her in the crosshairs of the conservative press. A 1990 article in the National Review called her “the Hulk Hogan of feminism,” accusing her of perpetuating “a form of vulgar reverse sexism.” Roseanne Barr soon began to eclipse Roseanne Conner as the actress’s escapades with Tom Arnold (to whom she was married from 1990 to 1994) helped attract cover stories in Vanity Fair and People.
Though Barr provoked opinions from across the political, social, and economic spectrum, her sitcom’s success also cut across audiences. A Time infographic from January 1994 revealed that the “typical households of Roseanne fans have an annual income of $50,000 [well above the 1994 median household income of around $32,000]. They support gay and abortion rights, but see themselves as more conservative than liberal.” Just a couple of months later, an episode featured a kiss between Roseanne and a character played by Mariel Hemingway. The encounter prompts Roseanne to remark, “If I was gay, that’d be just fine,” before worrying about how Dan will react to the kiss.
One year later, the show aired an episode where Roseanne plans her boss’s gay wedding; in another storyline, Roseanne’s mother comes out. And a 1994 episode depicted Roseanne contemplating an abortion: As Roseanne’s grandmother and mother debate the issue, Roseanne arrives at the conclusion that “this is a much more complicated decision than I ever thought it would be,” before deciding to have the baby.
This was the show’s greatest political statement. It invited its viewers into the culture wars via the family sitcom, where American home life privately grappled with the controversies that were becoming harder to ignore in public discourse. Roseanne questioned how the realities of the working world affected traditional models of the husband and the housewife, and explored how hot-button issues called for a reassessment of family values. The Conners were neither typical nor exceptional for the white working-class, much less the American family at large. But no matter how cavalier they were with their barbs and jabs about marriage and children, the family unit remained at the heart of the series—and its opening credits.
By the time the show’s final season aired in 1996–1997, the Conners had evolved from a down-on-their luck clan to lottery winners, and Roseanne’s rock-solid marriage was tested after Dan has an affair. But in a move rivaling Dallas’s infamous dream season, the series finale revealed that the show was all a fiction written by Roseanne, who has realized her dream of becoming a writer. The family hadn’t won the lottery; Jackie was gay, and their mother was not; there had been no affair, but Dan had died instead.
In the series finale—co-written by Barr herself—Roseanne delivers a monologue explaining her efforts to walk “a tightrope between tradition and progress,” before concluding, “Usually, I failed.” But at the center of the show was a question about how the two would be reconciled in changing times. While the sitcom’s revival will certainly have to contend with the backdrop of the continuing and deepening culture wars of 2018, the real radicalism of the original Roseanne was its willingness to wade—and laugh its way—through them.
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