Critic's Notebook: In ABC's 'Roseanne' Demise, a Predictable Tale of Frog and Scorpion

ABC didn't stop Roseanne Barr from fighting with fans, peddling conspiracies and being peripherally racist on Twitter — so what changed?
Adam Rose/ABC
'Roseanne'

There's an unwritten Hollywood rule that states if your TV show runs long enough, you eventually have to utilize the tale of the scorpion and the frog.

Depending on the context of the telling, I rarely feel the same way twice about the frog and his fate. Is the frog kind, but ultimately naive? So do we feel pity? Or do we dismiss his pointless sacrifice and thwarted karma?

Do we feel like the frog got what he deserved and good riddance?

Do we feel angry at the frog? Best case scenario, the frog is allowing a dangerous creature access to a whole new geography. Even if the frog is correct in hoping that the scorpion's sense of self-interest will keep him from doing anything destructive on their voyage, the frog has to know that the scorpion is absolutely going to sting somebody else on the other side. Is the frog's act ultimately more reprehensible because his act of generosity is fundamentally selfish and couched in a total lack of interest in the common good?

ABC canceled Roseanne on Tuesday. It was shocking, except that it wasn't shocking at all. It was decisive, except that it wasn't decisive at all.

For those who, like I did, spent the morning on a flight without internet access and are just now tuning into the news, the tweet that got Roseanne canceled came from star Roseanne Barr and malignantly cackled, "Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj." ("vj" referred to former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett.)

Barr deleted the tweet.

She kind of apologized, calling the tweet a joke and "in bad taste."

Nah. It was bigoted and repulsive.

ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey put out a statement accurately declaring, "Roseanne's Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show."

Let's be honest, though: Barr's Twitter feed has been abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with what should have been ABC and Disney's values since long before the show was picked up, and also subsequently. Barr's Twitter feed has trafficked in vile and disproved conspiracy theories and ample content that walked lines many considered racist or xenophobic or prejudiced or judgment-clouded in a number of ways. She has engaged in hostile and insulting fights with Twitter followers high and low. She has shown no interest in controlling herself.

This is not new, and no one at ABC can pretend they didn't know.

Last August at the TCA press tour, I asked Dungey if it was anybody's job to monitor Barr's Twitter feed in case she said something that made airing the show untenable.

"She actually publicly announced a few weeks ago that her son is going to be taking over her Twitter feed for the near future," said the exec. "That was all by her. We did not ask her to do that, but she did make that decision. What we’ve heard from Roseanne is she is very excited about the show and wants to be very focused on the show. The writers room has just gotten started, and she’s going to be an active contributor to that."

Several questions are raised here in retrospect.

Why was ABC comfortable with Barr's son running a gross Twitter feed in her name, one that featured a verified check mark and was assumed to be coming from Roseanne? Why was that better?

When did that experiment with her son running the Twitter feed end? Did anything change? Why does it matter?

And why didn't ABC ask Barr to take a break from Twitter? Or to take a break from specific aspects of her Twitter?

And does this imply in some way that at a certain point Barr ceased to be excited about and focused on the show, and this is a manifestation of that?

After Dungey's TCA panel response, according to the transcript, I followed up, "But no matter who is actually doing her Twitter feed, if you look at the things that whoever it is has tweeted in the past week, there’s some wacky conspiracy stuff that either she or her son has tweeted, and it’s not like this is a new thing. I’m just wondering if that concerns you."

She said, "I try to just worry about the things that I can control."

I return again to my confusion. Why was this not something that worried them? And why couldn't ABC control Barr's Twitter feed?

This was August 2017, remember.

At the time, nobody knew how Roseanne would do in its return. Its value to ABC and to Disney was uncertain.

I hadn't yet given the new episodes a fairly positive review in which I attempted to separate artist from art.

Then it premiered huge. And even after weeks of declines, it still remained at a level well above any reasonable expectations for the show. Since March, ABC has known exactly what the show's value was and that value was potentially huge. How has Barr's Twitter feed not become something ABC could or wanted to control since then?

I guess I assume a line was drawn and this tweet was the first one to cross it, and so this was the control that ABC exerted. It's here that anybody talking about "1st Amendment Rights" has to have their teeth set on edge and be reminded that Barr has a right to say what she wants and ABC has the right to decide it no longer wants its brand associated with certain thoughts and to make that clear to her. This has absolutely nothing to do with the 1st Amendment.

This was also inevitable, assuming ABC lacked the power or will to tell Barr to stop tweeting entirely or lose the show. By my read, you could go back through the last two months of Barr tweets and find dozens that could easily have been interpreted as going over some line or at least running contrary to certain values of a network that put her onstage to open its upfront presentation to advertisers just two weeks ago, where she made jokes about Disney/ABC Television Group chairmain Ben Sherwood writing her tweets. Ha ha? I'd guess you could find hundreds of tweets in recent years that many people would have thought were grounds for punishment, censure or a total severing of ties. She could not stop herself. She did not want to stop herself.

As tipping point tweets go, this was a worthy one. There's no ambiguity.

I don't think it was the first tweet that met that threshold and ABC's statement on Tuesday treats it as a single killshot, not as a straw that broke a camel's back or anything cumulative or confirmatory of long-term questionable behavior.

This. Was. Inevitable.

ABC shouldn't be expressing outrage at one tweet. The network should be expressing disappointment at an employee who cost the company millions and cost dozens of extremely talented co-workers their livelihoods by not being able to resist being reprehensibly racist, when merely being tangentially gross was apparently condoned.

This is way too late to count as the frog refusing to give passage to this scorpion. Heck, the frog booked a return engagement.

This is roughly who Barr has been on Twitter for years and ABC put her back on TV and renewed her, let her keep tweeting and let whatever sentiments of hers seep into the show that you want to read into it. This was always her nature, and ABC was willing to transport her across the digital river to a potential audience of hundreds of millions of viewers, doing months of cost/benefit analysis before Barr finally reached a point at which her words were no longer supportable — before she stung it in a way that the venom became too much for ABC to bear.