Barr’s volatile personality was well-known to ABC when it ordered a revival of Roseanne in May 2017. The network’s willingness to gamble on it was two-fold. Resurrections of ’90s hits like Will & Grace and Full House had worked for other networks, but Roseanne was particularly appealing to ABC because it was looking for a show that would appeal to Donald Trump voters. Part of Barr’s pitch for the revival was that her character would be written as a supporter of the new president, reflecting her real-life personality. Other members of the fictional family, like Laurie Metcalf’s Jackie, are written as Clinton supporters who push back against Roseanne.
“We had not been thinking nearly enough about economic diversity and some of the other cultural divisions within our own country. That’s been something we’ve been really looking at with eyes open since that time,” Dungey said in a March interview with the Times. “[The show] speaks to a large number of people in the country who don’t see themselves on television very often,” Sherwood added. Trump called Barr to personally congratulate her after her show debuted to a massive 18.2 million viewers in March.
As the rise of streaming television and cord-cutting continues apace, ratings numbers like 18.2 million are just unheard of for a network like ABC. Though Roseanne’s viewership cooled in the weeks after (typical for a new show), it was still by far the biggest hit of the year. In the crucial 18-to-49 year-old advertising demographic, the pivotal number for any TV series, Roseanne averaged a 3.6 Nielsen rating—the only show on network television to post a number over 3. Indeed, only five current nonsports shows average over a 2 (the others are This Is Us and The Big Bang Theory with 2.7, Young Sheldon with 2.2, and The Voice with 2.0).
The absolute enormity of that number was seemingly enough to overshadow any network concerns about Barr’s online behavior, which, ABC seemed to reason, could be explained away by hinting vaguely at her eccentricity. Her Twitter feed was cluttered with rants about George Soros and retweets of conspiracy theorists, but the obvious bigotry of her Jarrett tweet managed to stick out immediately. Barr tweeted an apology less than 12 hours later, saying, “I should have known better.”
The reality is that ABC knew what it was getting into when it brought Barr back into the limelight. But the network likely thought it could manage her public persona by convincing her to stay off social media (which she did in the immediate run-up to the show’s debut). Or perhaps ABC believed it could counterbalance Barr’s views by hiring figures like Sara Gilbert, Wanda Sykes, and Whitney Cummings, all of whom were producers on the show with more progressive politics. Though their creative input did seem to help temper the critical reaction to the show (which was largely positive), it could only do so much to distract from Barr herself.