In the first episode of “Roseanne,” the ’90s sitcom that launches a revival run on ABC on Tuesday, we learn that Roseanne Conner and her sister Jackie haven’t spoken in a year, on account of the 2016 election. Roseanne, played by the outspoken comedian Roseanne Barr, voted for Donald Trump. Jackie, played by Laurie Metcalf, did not. “Not only did she vote for the worst person on Earth,” Roseanne says, “but she was a real jerk about it, too.” Jackie shows up at the house wearing a pink pussy hat and a “Nasty Woman” T-shirt. After a tense dinner, the sisters shout and parry; Roseanne explains her vote—“He talked about jobs, Jackie. He said he’d shape things up”—and Jackie tells Roseanne what she was really thinking on Election Day, and whom she really voted for.
No one switches sides, but they declare a truce and return to their default relationship, loving but comically strained.
It’s the most overtly political exchange in the episode, and in the nine-episode season overall, says executive producer Bruce Helford. But the way he describes it, it’s also a metaphor for the series and its overarching goals. Barr herself is a vocal Trump supporter, and has talked about how meaningful it felt to place one of TV’s quintessential working-class families in Year Two of the Trump administration. So I asked Helford, who also worked on the original show, about the producers’ intention. Was it to appeal to Trump voters, who might finally see themselves in sympathetic TV characters? To explain the Trump-voter mind-set to coastal elites? To bridge the gap between two sides?
Helford responded by talking about conversations. As ever-present as politics might be in people’s lives today, he notes, we often avoid tough discussions, in real life, with people on the opposite side.
“There are lots of families that are divided. It’s like a civil war,” Helford says, recounting some of his own family gatherings, where people steered away from political topics because they knew things would get too heated or cruel. “What’s really important to ‘Roseanne,’ and for all of us, is to put the whole discourse out in the open,” he says. “We’re hoping we can bring a kind of dialogue back.”
The idea that a sitcom could change American discourse feels like something between a tall order and a self-aggrandizing Hollywood pipe dream. But it’s also not entirely far-fetched. A sitcom, after all, is TV’s best approximation of your own extended family—a group of characters you examine, understand and invite into your living room on a regular basis. And the Conners have been a proxy family for millions of Americans. They sniped at each other, reconciled and hugged for nearly a decade, from 1988 to 1997, consistently landing at or near the top of the Nielsen ratings. They reached millennials through reruns on Nick at Nite and TV Land.
The Conners happen to fit the stereotype of the white exurban Trump voter. They live in fictional Lanford, Illinois—loosely based on the city of Elgin—struggle with money and chronic underemployment and blink in disbelief at the pace of social change. And they return at a time when countless media outlets have sent reporters into the heartland, with the inquisitive zeal of foreign correspondents, to uncover the hopes and fears of the white working class. (Some artists have tried to cross the divide—notably, Sarah Silverman, whose fall Hulu show “I Love You, America” sent its liberal star to kibbitz with real people with opposing politics.)
The results of these well-meaning inquiries are filtered through the echo chamber, with predictable results. Depending on your perspective, you might mistrust that earnest mainstream-media feature because it comes from a Fake News purveyor, or view it from a distance, detachedly, like an anthropological study. The “Roseanne” revival lands in this polarized world, and it’s unclear how it will be received. Barr’s outspoken pro-Trump views, and her pugnacious Twitter feed, have turned off some potential viewers; this winter, activists tried to launch a boycott movement to persuade ABC to drop the show.
Still, anticipation has been high, driven by nostalgia and genuine affection for the characters. Those are powerful forces, says Dannagal Young, a professor of communications at the University of Delaware who studies the interplay between politics and humor. And they give the show a chance to reach an audience that journalism can’t.
The academic term for this phenomenon, Young says, is “parasocial relationship.” We have a natural tendency to empathize with fictional characters and distant celebrities. And as we’re drawn into their narratives, we’re forced to imagine life from their perspective. That’s how some of the other sitcoms currently undergoing revivals have, if not created social change, at least greased the gears that propel it forward: “Will and Grace,” now running on NBC, helped pave the way for gay rights and gay marriage. “Murphy Brown,” which is returning for a 13-episode run on CBS next season, advanced the conversation about women and mothers in the workplace.
“Once you tap into that empathy and you put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s experiencing those issues,” Young says, “then you have your guard down, and you’re exploring this issue without the reflexive partisanship that seems to invade everything these days.”
But “Roseanne” isn’t just trying to explain the Conners’ perspective to outsiders. It’s also one of few TV series that has focused on the working-class white experience, allowing a demographic that’s psychologically distant from Hollywood to see itself in a positive, nonjudgmental light. “There’s something really important about visibility and representation, and we know that because we’ve heard it from minority groups for years,” Young says. At a time when viewership is fractured and even NFL football gets swept up into the partisan divide, this feels like a rare opportunity: a show that people of different perspectives might actually watch together.
Hanging out with the Conners, 20 years after they first left the air, requires some willing and winking suspension of disbelief to erase some casting shifts and abandoned plot points. (Most notably: Roseanne’s husband, Dan, played by John Goodman, was killed off in the series finale in 1997, and now is very much alive.)
But the central themes of the show, like the afghan on the couch in the Conners’ living room, haven’t changed much since the original. “Roseanne” was always about the stops and starts of a family that couldn’t keep up with the economy, and it remains a study of downward mobility. The Conners’ younger daughter, Darlene—played by Sara Gilbert, an executive producer and driving force behind the revival—is now a struggling single parent who has moved back in with Roseanne and Dan. Their older son, D.J., is a military veteran whose wife is still serving overseas. Their older daughter, Becky, is widowed, works as a waitress, and intends to become a surrogate mother—because, she tells her family, the $50,000 she’d earn would allow her to pay off her credit cards and possibly buy a house. ($50,000 “just for having a baby?” Roseanne quips when she hears the news. “Dan, you owe me $200,000.”)
Many of the painfully specific dilemmas the family faces, Helford says, unfolded naturally as the writers imagined how the characters would live and act. Barr had a knee injury before the shooting began, he says; she thought at one point that she’d have to perform in a wheelchair, and wound up with a demonstrable limp. The writers realized they needed to write her injury into the show. And a storyline flowed logically from there: They imagined that she’d be on painkillers, that some of her supply might not come from her doctor, and that she thus gets swept up into the country’s deepening opioid crisis. What she really needs is surgery—which is out of reach because the family health care plan has a $3,000 deductible. “We just took the next step and the next step and the next step,” Helford says. “We really tried to get into the heart of what a family would be dealing with.”
That extends to other issues of the day, economic and otherwise. Darlene’s son, Mark, is an elementary-school-aged boy who likes to dress in girls’ clothes—and wants to attend his new school wearing frilly boots and a sparkly skirt. Dan objects: “May the winds fill his sails and carry him to the boys section of Target,” he says at one point. But it’s not that he reflexively disapproves; he’s mostly afraid the boy, whom he loves desperately, will be picked on by other kids. The characters talk it out, as they will later in the season, Helford says, when the Conners encounter illegal immigrants from Mexico: Are they hurting the current residents or—as the character Roseanne will contend—being exploited themselves?
That sense of hashing it out, rather than simply declaring judgment, is consistent with a show that always wrestled with social issues, from gender dynamics to gay rights. “The Conners were a very accepting group of people. They were very much about being open to people who were different from them,” Helford says. And the writers still assume that, regardless of their politics, the characters think and act with good intention. “We write it from the point of view that working-class people are the nobility of this country,” Helford says, “and not that they’re rednecks or hillbillies.”
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