“We’re not going to talk about who the Conners are going to vote for. I think people would turn us off real quick.”
That was Roseanne Barr, talking with the Los Angeles Times about the politics of the original version of her hit ABC sitcom. It was 1992: The American presidential campaign, Bill Clinton versus George H. W. Bush versus Ross Perot, was being waged. Dan Quayle was arguing about family values with a fictional journalist. Roseanne, though—the producer, the character, the star—was insisting that her TV family transcended both the vagaries of political partisanship and the messiness of the culture wars themselves. The Conners are “somewhere in the middle of it all,” Barr said, “not knowing what anything stands for anymore. So really what they do is go to work and come home to be with their family, and try to make do.”
Well. Times haven’t merely changed; they have been thoroughly made over. The new season of Roseanne, rebooting after a decades-long hiatus and premiering on Tuesday, has an invisible guest star—two of them, actually. “What’s up, deplorable?,” Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) says to Roseanne (Barr), when the sisters are reunited after a yearlong estrangement following the election. (Jackie is wearing, as she does so, a bright-pink T-shirt with NASTY WOMAN written on the front and a “pussy hat” to match.) Roseanne, later, informs a member of her now-large brood, “Aunt Jackie thinks every girl should grow up and be president, even if they’re a liar, liar, pantsuit on fire.”
In the three episodes of the new Roseanne made available to critics, there are scenes about declined credit cards; about jobs taken for the benefits; about drug abuse; about life in Lanford, Illinois, as the now-expanded Conner clan reassembles in the family home. Darlene (Sara Gilbert) has just moved back to Lanford with her two kids, the teenage Harris and the tween Mark. D.J. (Michael Fishman), a veteran whose wife is still serving in the military overseas, has moved back with his own daughter, Mary. Becky (Lecy Goranson) lives out of the house but in town, working as a waitress at a Mexican restaurant. The family will clash and jab and continue the brand of lovingly mutual mockery that made the original show so compelling. (“You qualify for a state grant,” Darlene helpfully informs Becky, suggesting that she go back to school, “because luckily you’re poor and old.”)
The family will also tackle of-the-moment issues such as gender fluidity and the ethics of surrogacy and the realities of opioid abuse. And they will continue, as before, to find dark humor in financial instability. Before any of that classic Roseanne comedy takes place, though, there’s the partisan elephant in the room: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. 2016. The events of two years ago read, in the show, almost as demons that must be exorcised—political versions of the retconning that has allowed Dan, revealed to have been killed by a heart attack at the end of the show’s ninth season, to be alive and well in the new episodes of Roseanne. The first episode of the reboot—the premiere that announces the rearrival of the Conner family on the American stage—has the feel of a sitcom-esque form of Stockholm syndrome, its stories held captive to the battle that ended two years ago.
Roseanne and Jackie, reunited by Darlene, proceed to argue—via dialogue created in part by Wanda Sykes and Whitney Cummings, who serve as a writer and an executive producer, respectively, on the rebooted show—about Clinton and Trump, about healthcare, about jobs, about guns, about the culture wars that have only become more vicious and violent since the days of Roseanne’s original run. “Mom, Aunt Jackie’s standing right here, pussy hat in hand,” Darlene says, trying to broker peace. She fails.
“Knee still giving you trouble, Roseanne?” Jackie asks. “Why don’t you get it fixed with all that healthcare all you suckers got promised.”
“It works good enough to kick your ass, snowflake,” Roseanne replies.
Later, Jackie brings salad dressing as her contribution to the family dinner; she smirks as she reveals that the dressing in question is Russian.
There is something well-meaning but also distinctly cartoonish about these exchanges: the language of political debate, rendered as caricature. “Jackie, would you like to take a knee?” Roseanne asks her sister, as the family sits down for dinner. The joke lands, like so many others, with a thud.
The show’s producers, writers, and cast members have spoken of their intention for the plotline they selected for their two-decades-in-the-making return: The partisan feud between Roseanne and Jackie is meant to serve as a metaphor, of sorts, for the partisan disagreements that are cleaving the American family at large. “I wanted to represent the county and how divided we are,” Barr—who herself has been very public about her vote for Trump—told The Hollywood Reporter. She added: “It’s the conversation everybody is having. Families are not speaking to each other. People are still shocked and upset about it. It’s the state of our country.”
It may be. And the effects of a day in November 2016, of course, have radiated and diffused across Americans’ collective fate. What’s striking about the partisan-divide story line, though, isn’t that it’s part of the new Roseanne; it’s how lightly that story line is part of the new Roseanne. The politics that so deeply affect people’s lives—that will keep affecting their lives, long after the reboot’s episodes end—are layered onto the other proceedings here with a whiff of obligation. The original ethic, We’re not going to talk about who the Conners are going to vote for, has been, like so much else, subsumed into a culture that is unable to see beyond the divides of partisanship.
The irony of that—and of all the other jokes that hope to make light of life in Trump’s America—is that Roseanne is one of the shows that might have been able to speak to political division with meaningful satire. Today, many sitcoms have eschewed discussions of money and class to locate characters in a suspended reality of ambiguous affluence; Roseanne, on the other hand, is best remembered for its insistence on discussing the ways money—its presence and its absence—exerts itself on every element of life. (“Our school’s having a food drive for poor people,” Becky announces in the show’s 1988 pilot episode, as she plunders the family pantry for cans of soup. Roseanne, protesting the charity, replies, “Well, tell ‘em to drive some of that food over here.”)
Roseanne also adhered, however, to an even broader insistence on unflinching hyperreality: The show was blunt not only about money, but also about pretty much everything else. It considered, over the course of its nine-season run, domestic violence and contraception and abortion, mental illness and drug addiction and first periods. (The show was so edgy—for its time, and for this one—that it once invited ABC’s beleaguered standards and practices manager to appear, as himself, in a cameo role on the show: a piece of meta-humor that needed, for even casual viewers of the show, no explanation.) Much of this was in the service of Barr’s particular brand of feminism. Roseanne, as Barr summed it up, “made it okay for women to talk about their actual lives on television.”
Roseanne didn’t need to be partisan, in other words, because Roseanne was content to be political. We’re not going to talk about who the Conners are going to vote for. I think people would turn us off real quick. The show was, above all else, an acknowledgement of the way politics infuse people’s lives, often invisibly and even more often imperceptibly. It took on “issues” (then, as now, a polite term for things that could conceivably be weaponized in the culture wars), but it did so with heart and humor and easy wit. All in the Family and Good Times and Sanford and Son had done issue orientation; Taxi and Alice and Laverne & Shirley had done class; what made Roseanne revolutionary was how seamlessly it fused those two things together. It made its own “issues” feel realistically banal. Money is a character on the show; financial insecurity is a chronic condition. Roseanne didn’t have Very Special Episodes; each episode, infused as it was with the politics of subtext, was Very Special.
Which is what makes the Trump talk and knee humor and pantsuit jokes of the new premiere so out of step with the Roseanne of the past. They’re on the nose. They’re reductive. They’re easy. They conflate partisanship with politics writ large. They suggest an American political situation that is a matter of performance and personality rather than of systemic crisis. The Conners’ struggles—the same ones, fundamentally, season after season—were an indictment of a system of power that kept them struggling, no matter how hard they worked; Roseanne was a seasons-long critique of an economic infrastructure of insecurity that shapes every element of so many American lives. That was part of the joke of the ill-conceived ninth season: The only way the Conners could get ahead was to, literally, win the lottery. It’s a joke that remains urgently relevant two decades later, and one that the Roseanne reboot, in its best moments, keeps telling.
“Hey, Mom, can I have some money?” Darlene’s daughter, Harris, asks her.
Darlene turns to Roseanne. “Hey, Mom, can I have some money?”
Roseanne looks heavenward: “I don’t know, can I have some money?”