Critic's Notebook: The Right (and Wrong) Take-Aways From the Huge 'Roseanne' Return

Now that 'Roseanne' is back and big, what should networks be learning about future reboots or revivals? And why isn't anybody remaking 'Manimal'?
Courtesy of Adam Rose/ABC
'Roseanne'

On Tuesday night, two episodes of ABC's Roseanne revival averaged nearly 18.2 million viewers and did a 5.1 rating among adults 18-49. Those aren't quite peak Walking Dead numbers, but for the reanimated remains of a long-deceased broadcast show, it's pretty remarkable.

The Roseanne return wildly exceeded all expectations, actually improved in its second half-hour and gave a big bump to Black-ish, which on every superficial level — racial, socio-economic, comedic format — couldn't be more different.

Nobody's going to wait for final data or to see what a second week looks like before leaping to the lessons that Roseanne is supposed to teach ABC and the industry.

Of course, we're deep into pilot season in Hollywood. Scripts have been ordered to pilot. Pilots have gone into production. Like all pieces of cumbersome, largely antiquated machinery, this train is hard to slow down and impossible to stop.

Fortunately, the key take-away is one that's already baked into the 2018 TV culture. This launch, plus the solid continuing ratings for NBC's Will & Grace, have definitely reaffirmed the need to reboot, revive and remake absolutely everything in every major studio's vast library, everything other than Manimal, which if you think about it is probably the first thing they should remake, because it was a show about a guy who could turn himself into a black panther (and an eagle and occasionally other stuff) when he was fighting crime. Seriously, Hollywood. How is Manimal 2018 not on anybody's schedule for next fall?

This is a trend I've been on the record many times as detesting, but the more I think about it, the more it's clear that there are three kinds of reboot or revival, each to be wary of on a different level.

There are the shows that were about nothing to begin with and were revived to continue to be about nothing — and yes, I'm looking at you, Fuller House. There's no more pathetic way to develop new programming or to look at audiences than to say, "Viewers were willing to settle for sub-mediocre crap 20 years ago, so rather than trying to do something better now, we'll give them the exact same sub-mediocre crap." This is, as I've said before, nostalgia's taint.

There's slightly more validity to a second kind of reboot/remake/revival, which is the Six Million Dollar Man approach — the character, not the series, because for some reason we're leaving that property to Mark Wahlberg on the big screen — in that you take something that existed and you augment it with whatever's new and shiny and expensive. That's the frequent CBS path, the MacGyver approach. Thematically, it's basically unchanged or negligible, but the gizmos are new. That development strategy is based around, "Gee whiz, wouldn't it be cool if…" It's lazy, but not as lazy as Fuller House.

But for all my distaste for this trend, I gave reasonably positive reviews to both the Will & Grace and Roseanne revivals, and that's because they fit into a third category. In these cases, they were shows that existed in the modern world of their moment and shows that had a true push-and-pull with culture. They were representationally distinctive, and that representation helped advance conversations in society at large. They are shows where their creators looked at the core DNA and said, "Here's why it was notable to tell these stories when the shows premiered. Here's why the stories would be different in 2018 and why they'd be funny, but differently funny." That's not the same as the Fuller House team giggling and saying, "But what if the characters were older now and had kids themselves and those kids had annoying catchphrases and dogs of their own? Holy chalupas!" It's saying, "Here's where gay representation was in the 1990s and how Will and Jack fit in. It's 20 years later. How have they changed? How has the world changed?"

That's what Roseanne does, too.

That, of course, brings us to the other lesson people are going to take from the Roseanne premiere, namely that America is ready for sitcoms either about Trump supporters or about bridging gaps between Trump supporters and their estranged Trump-hating families (or Hillary supporters and their Trump-loving families).

You can already bet that somebody in ABC's halls of power is wishing they had a new season of Last Man Standing ready to premiere after Roseanne next week or, failing that, hoping that they might convince Jonathan Taylor Thomas that America is ready for more Home Improvement.

But Roseanne is not a conservative show. In fact, I heard a lot of people being outraged that the Roseanne Conner they knew would have voted for Donald Trump. They felt like that vote represented a seismic change for a family that reliably championed diversity and inclusiveness, at least as much as it was able to with a backdrop that was very, very white. They also felt that while Roseanne, as a show, had always been about social and economic issues, it had never made those issues political before in quite this way.

To me, it actually felt exactly right. The election of Donald Trump was not a business-as-usual thing. It caused many voters to override what media folks in our ivory towers — my ivory tower is a cheap IKEA couch — thought looked very clearly like "common sense" to us. Many of the left-leaning reactions to the character's political shift treated it like a betrayal, like a violation of what we thought we understood about her and many of those reactions didn't stop and ponder if we've had the same response to people we know in real life who voted for Trump. It's that response of, "Wait, how could you?" or "Wait, you didn't seem like the kind of person who…" that has caused months of perplexity since Nov. 8, 2016.

[Note: This is all separate from Roseanne Barr as a person and as the name behind a Twitter feed that recirculates misinformation, conspiracy theories, lies and occasional madness.]

"He talked about jobs, Jackie," Roseanne Conner said very simply in the premiere. There are voters like that, voters who taught their kids the same tolerant and often progressive lessons Roseanne taught hers through the '80s and '90s, who decided they were voting on a single issue this time.

I buy it. The Trump thing never would have kept me from watching, but boy, oh boy, are some people on Twitter demonstrative about how it kept them from watching. It's my guess that most of them weren't going to be a Roseanne revival's core demo anyway and that the show's core demo was probably just appreciative to be visible in a TV landscape in which almost every character probably either votes Democrat or doesn't vote at all. As they strategized last year to figure out what Trump's America wanted to see on TV, broadcast networks debuted a lot of military-themed shows that have been greeted by, at best, lackluster interest. Maybe the answer is just that there's a portion of the audience that wants to be seen.

But as a TV show, Roseanne hasn't suddenly become a mouthpiece for the alt right and any interpretation of the premiere that pretends it's a validation of a need for conservative TV is absurd. "Dress to Impress," the episode that aired after the Trump-centric premiere, was Trump-free and basically back to the ethos of the original show, that sometimes Dan and Roseanne Conner don't immediately "get" things, but they eventually come to operate from a place of compassion and prickly, thick-skinned understanding. The conflict and the consensus have to coexist in the new Roseanne.

Or, put a different way, Roseanne, a show that was once of its moment, came back as a show of a new moment and just as there was an audience for the show when it was at its peak, there was clearly an audience waiting for the show now.

Very few of the upcoming, already announced reboots and remakes and revivals seem like they're being built to do the same. A key exception is CBS' Murphy Brown, a revival that I don't need, but a revival that I can imagine having purpose even if all of the descriptions and loglines for new characters make it sound like CBS is just continuing the "millennials are weird" generation-gap humor of The Great Indoors. I hope I'm wrong, because there's room for it to be something more. I don't think there's much mystery what Murphy Brown's politics would be in 2018, but her place in the media world today, in contrast to where she was when we first met her, could be worthwhile.

Or we could just remake Small Wonder, because imagine the sort of crazy things that robot could do with today's technology!