It’s been over 20 years and, for better or worse, Roseanne Barr is once again the most influential person in TV.
In the years since Roseanne was the top-rated comedy series of the ’90s, the comedian has evolved from pop culture provocateur to political menace. Once known for using the relatable Conner clan as a vehicle for pushing progressive boundaries on her show, Barr’s public persona in recent years has been defined by her peddling of alt-right conspiracy theories, her baiting and inflammatory social media presence, and a laundry list of offensive controversies.
That is, her public persona in recent years had been defined by that, until she traded in her tinfoil hat for a cultural lightning rod when ABC’s revival of Roseanne not only premiered to a media frenzy over how Barr’s politics would or wouldn’t be represented, but also became the most-watched new TV series in years.
The think-piece war waging over the responsibility (or lack thereof) of giving Barr a network TV platform, what the revival is tapping into in the zeitgeist, just how pro-Trump or political it is or isn’t, and Barr’s continued social media terrorizing has yet to reach a ceasefire. That makes this past week in the long Roseanne and Roseanne national nightmare—or, let’s face it, harsh reality—a particularly interesting one. The revival’s season is coming to a close as other networks officially announce their bids to capitalize on its success.
The Roseanne season finale, “Knee Deep,” aired Tuesday night. Once again, the episode delved into social issues facing blue-collar American families: opioid addiction, the prohibitive cost of necessary health care, and competition with undocumented workers.
One week after wading into the national opioid crisis with a storyline that had Roseanne hiding her prescription pill addiction, her knee is still bothering her. She won’t make an appointment to fix it because the family can’t afford it. So Dan vows to ensure he lands his next construction bid by hiring undocumented workers—the show keeps lovingly referring to them as “illegals”—instead of more expensive union workers.
Any anxiety over the decision clarifies when a rainstorm causes a flood in the Conners’ basement, leaving Dan now with thousands of dollars in water damage in addition to the bills he already can’t afford. Financially underwater and almost literally drowning in stress, he delivers a monologue explaining why he has to hire undocumented workers. Performed by Goodman, it might be the highlight of the season.
“I spent my whole life hanging on by my fingertips,” he says. “Telling everybody not to worry. That I was going to make it OK, because that’s my job. Well, now I can’t promise that anymore. So yeah, it makes me sick. But I’m going to do whatever I have to do to take care of my family because I’m old, I’m tired, and I’m not sure how much longer I can hold on.”
It’s a bold stance to take in a fiery national debate about immigration and undocumented labor, but a stance that is nearly betrayed by a wishy-washy resolution. A state of emergency is declared, which means FEMA money will pay for the flood damage, and whatever is leftover can be used for Roseanne’s surgery. Roseanne toasts Dan to celebrate: “The flood did so much damage in Lanford that there’s plenty of work for everybody, legal and illegal.”
It’s a rather gross, not to mention unrealistic, “everybody wins” attitude, one indicative of why this series continues to frustrate so many. It purports to wade into the debates happening in this country that few other TV series will touch, but routinely lacks courage in its own convictions once it’s there, retreating to appease all, but still somehow offending some.
The early frustration was that the series was purportedly pro-Trump because Barr was an avowed MAGA supporter. While Roseanne is one of the few, if not only, series to have a Trump-voting lead protagonist, it in no way is pro-Trump—which, by the way, is a political bent that still does not exist on a major scripted series and could be a necessary, refreshing change of pace if done responsibly.
No, as the series wore on and quips at the expense of Fox News and, as in the finale, Trump’s Twitter grammar played to loud screams from the live studio audience, it became clear that the show’s politics actually lean liberal. (Progressive comedian Whitney Cummings was co-showrunner with original series alum Bruce Helford, though she won’t return for season two.)
As more and more pundits pointed out that the stressors on the Conners’ lives were actually byproducts of adverse Trump administration decisions, the show could actually be described as anti-Trump. (Not that it stopped the president himself from calling Barr to congratulate her on the show’s success.)
As executive producers and cast members began doing press for the show, there was this oft-repeated assurance that, as the season moved past its first episode, politics would take a backseat. While it’s true that Trump was rarely referenced directly, the social issues the show did explore were intrinsically political in a way few shows are. And that’s where more of the exasperation came from.
Is it noble for a series which so many, whether or not correctly, assume has a conservative bent to script an entire plot blasting xenophobic Trumpsters’ ignorance about Muslim immigrants? Absolutely, and “Go Cubs!” executed the storyline with as much nuance and panache as could be expected of a multicam sitcom. But making the avatar for tolerance and compassion a character played by Roseanne Barr is about as high-level a troll as TV has produced this season.
It’s the blight on what we would rule a strong season of television: an inability to pick a lane and properly shake off the baggage of Barr’s politics.
These are lessons here that other networks supposedly hope to have learned from as they embark on TV’s annual copycat race, the announcements of new fall series.
In a new Hollywood Reporter piece interviewing a conference room’s worth of studio execs about last week’s upfronts—in which new TV series are picked up and existing ones officially canceled—20th TV’s Jonnie Davis said the buzzword of the week was “Roseanne.”
“We’re thrilled it’s still possible to gather 27 million viewers but lightning in a bottle is still lightning in a bottle,” he said. “It’s not a formula for us all to follow.” Not all, perhaps. But certainly most.
Just one year after networks went on a killing spree of its multicam sitcoms, they went into overdrive greenlighting new multicam pilots, referenced in the industry as “the Roseanne effect.” Universal Television’s Pearlena Igbokwe told THR, “Given the interest in multicams at multiple networks, we would have developed more.”
Format is but one trait vulnerable to identity theft. Ethos is another. Fox, suffering a network identity crisis like none seen in recent years, canceled the majority of its comedy series closely associated with its brand—Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Last Man on Earth, The Mick, New Girl—and instead adopted a new identity, one glaringly inspired by Roseanne.
In a move that shocked and irritated many critics, the network revived Last Man Standing, the defunct ABC family sitcom that stars Tim Allen. Allen, who identifies as a conservative, has spoken before that he felt his show was canceled for political reasons (ABC denies that), making its reboot for political reasons a pretty rich turn of events.
There are many reasons networks cancel or renew shows, but the optics with Fox weren’t great. Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a series with a multicultural, LGBT cast was canceled (though saved by NBC) while one about a white Trump-supporting family is brought back from the dead? Call Roseanne the grim reaper.
Of course, that’s the danger whenever anything successful spawns rip-offs from competitors. They are subpar. Yes, the Conners are white, and its matriarch supported Trump. But the reboot is multicultural, does tackle sexuality, and weighs into social issues with a nuance that, it should shock no one, a Tim Allen comedy series does not possess.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Roseanne’s hit first season is already changing the landscape of television. But we should be nervous that we don’t seem to know how to navigate the new terrain.