'Roseanne' Boss Asks Viewers to Separate Revival From Controversial Star's Persona

[This story contains spoilers from the "Roseanne Gets the Chair" episode of ABC's Roseanne revival.]

Following a week of headlines — some good, some less so — ABC's Roseanne revival returned Tuesday with its third episode of the season.

The latest installment featured Darlene's (Sara Gilbert) teenage daughter Harris (Shameless' Emily Kenney) clashing with Roseanne (Roseanne Barr), prompting a frank discussion about parenting styles among the Conner family. Meanwhile, Roseanne refuses to acknowledge that she's "old," and won't use a mechanical chair to help her climb the stairs as she battles knee pain.

It arrives as ABC — and, incidentally, President Donald Trump, whom Barr heard from post-premiere -- is taking a victory lap. After all, the revival starring the Trump supporter (on air and off) delivered the jaw-dropping ratings at a time when little else has been able to cut through. In fact, with three days of DVR returns factored in, Roseanne's premiere episode viewership is now bigger than the Oscars. 

Here, co-showrunner Bruce Helford — who ran one season of the original series — talks with The Hollywood Reporter about this week's episode, his controversial star (and her controversial tweets), hopes for season two and what he hopes the show will accomplish.

Congratulations on the ratings and quick renewal. What surprised you about how the show was received?

The size of it. People want to see this dialogue. They want to see a family they can relate to. They wanted to see the Conners again. And it was incredibly gratifying — beyond anything anyone expected — to have this many people watch. It's up to 25 million and we haven't even had the plus-seven [DVR returns] yet.

That's more than the Oscars.

It's a great tribute to the legacy of the show, which was a beloved show back in the day. I was surprised by the number of young people watching it — 7.3 [in the coveted adults 18-49 demo]. I was glad to see that "Oh, networks can't possibly beat cable and raise those kinds of numbers again" is not necessarily the case. I believe that the audience will find a good show wherever it is, which is surprising to say about broadcast because it used to be what people used to say about cable.

Did ABC send you champagne for those kind of numbers?

No, we got a lovely renewal. (Laughs.) That was the big gift. [Exec producer] Tom Werner sent us cookies in the shape of the couch and the crazy chicken shirt the night before. But ABC congratulated us. I think everyone was a little stunned as the numbers started coming in.

How did you feel having Trump take credit for your ratings?

(Laughs.) I remember back in the day on Family Ties [which Helford wrote on], President Reagan wanted to appear on the show. And [creator] Gary David Goldberg, who was a staunch liberal Democrat, said, "No way." The network [NBC] was like, "Are you kidding us? It's the President of the United States who wants to guest star!" I remember Richard Nixon, before he became president, was on Laugh-In. It's always weird when someone at that level weighs in on these kinds of things. In any case, everybody wants to be part of a winner, so everybody sort of jumps in.

What role do you think Barr's personal politics played in the show's success?

I really don't know. I don't discuss her politics, that's her private business. There's Roseanne Barr and then there's Roseanne Conner. There are some similarities and plenty of differences. I honestly think this really was about the show come back into people’s lives. There is a nostalgia factor and the feeling of being accepted among the Conners.

This week's episode touched on a lot of different subjects, namely how parenting strategies have evolved. What do you hope viewers take away from that storyline?

We were excited to deal with how Roseanne perceived Darlene as a parent because she was hell on wheels as a child. We took into consideration where she's at emotionally, having to come back home from Chicago after having had things not go so well there. I personally related because when I was 15, my father lost his job and we had to move from Chicago, where I grew up, to Philadelphia. I remember my father writing me a letter because I was upset at being pulled away from my friends. I remember how important it was to my father that I accepted the change. There is a lot of that going on here with Darlene, having pulled her kids back to a place that's much different than Chicago. The storyline is about what your obligations as a parent are to your kids if things don't go the way that you want and how you deal with that.

There was also a nod to ABC comedies Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat when Roseanne tells Dan, "They're just like us." What are you trying to accomplish with that bit?

We were commenting on the fact that all sitcoms really want everybody to feel included of all diversities and it's kind of a funny thing. That's all. When we did the George Lopez show, we didn't want anybody to feel excluded because it was about a Mexican-American family. And I don't think anybody wants to be excluded because it's [a show about] either a black family or an Asian-American family.

There's also a very loaded line of dialogue when Harris says, "I'm hungry now," and Roseanne responds with, "Well, you're a woman in America, get used to it."

It truly is pretty loaded. I think it's a fair comment on the way that women in America have been forced to this very rigid model of being thin. I think acceptance of diverse body shapes and all that is better than it was in the 1960s when Twiggy was considered the model of beauty. That's was what everyone wanted to be and it was so unhealthy. Roseanne is making a comment on what the standard is and how it's sometimes still held to be artificially by magazines and the media.

Season one of Roseanne will never mention Trump by name. Going forward, now that you have the official pickup, will that continue in season two?

We never set out to be a show about politics. We set out to be a show about the Conners and how the current political climate affects the family. We made a point of not mentioning names in the beginning and I believe we will probably maintain that same thing. There is no agenda here, in any direction. The idea is to present all sides of the dialogue. Making it specific like that isn't necessary. That's not what we're doing. We're not talking about the personalities involved. We're talking about the effects of all the politics on the lives of people like the Conners.

When we last spoke, you mentioned DJ's wife and daughter and that dynamics there were something you wanted to really explore more in season two. Now that you have four more episodes for the return, what other subjects and storylines are you looking forward to exploring?

You're going to meet DJ's wife in an episode coming up this season via Skype from Afghanistan. We hope to bring her into the fold and bring her home, if not permanently, at least for a break to visit the family and see the interaction of DJ's wife and daughter and Roseanne as well as DJ's family with his wife's family. This season, we'll also deal with opioids. You can see some of the beginnings of that storyline in this episode with the chair.

As in the chair that Roseanne uses to get up the stairs because she has a bad knee.

I didn't hide that one very well! We'll be dealing with that and the healthcare issues that surround that. It's not going to be "issue of the week," but we definitely cover a lot of topics that people in America are dealing with everyday.

ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey said that a decision about whether Roseanne returns in the fall or midseason has yet to be made as it will depend on returning shows, new series pickups, etc. Given the choice, which would you prefer?

A lot of this will depend on people's personal schedules because there were no deals for anyone to return after the first group of eight episodes. No one was committing beyond that. Personally, I would like to be on the fall schedule.

An Elle column and subsequent remarks from its author — and multiple people within ABC — feel the show "ignores the very real racism of many white working-class families" and exists to monetize Trump's base. Thoughts?

Just keep watching the show.

Do you feel like there's truth to any of those remarks?

I'll just say keep watching the show. We certainly deal with some of those things, but monetizing Trump's base? No. We have no agenda, one direction or the other, in terms of anything regarding the show, but we do deal with aspects of how the Conners perceive people who are different than they are.

What sort of conversations has the network had with you about Barr's political commentary on social media?

I'm not familiar with any conversations regarding that. There may have been some, but I'm not familiar with it.

Photos surfaced on Friday with Barr dressed up as Hitler and holding burned cookies that she's taking out of an oven. Have you and Barr and her team had any kind of conversation about how her social media posts — sharing conspiracy theories, etc. — impact the message that you're trying to send with the show? Do her social media posts take away from what the show is trying to say?

All I can say on that is that I was listening to a CNN discussion and the subject came up of her personal politics and the attitude was generally, look, everybody's got the right to say what they're gonna say and that's not what the show is. The show is not representing her personal politics. The Conners were Bill Clinton voters back in the day. Those people have very heavily shifted toward Trump. We did our due diligence on what all that would be about. And the show, aside from the fact that Roseanne Barr and Roseanne Conner both happen to be Trump supporters, has been borne out to be pretty realistic, in terms of the demographics of that area [the Midwest]. But aside from that, there's a big difference between anyone's personal politics and what the show is about. They're not meant to be interrelated in any way.

How do you feel seeing the star of your show dressed as a Nazi?

I know that Roseanne is a very staunch supporter of Israel and she has said as much. I imagine there's probably some amount of parody involved and all that. I don't know the context of that so I wouldn't make a comment on it. My feeling is that people should just watch the show and judge it on its merits. Watch the show without the accompanying background noise. Everybody, including Roseanne, wanted the show to be balanced. When we talk about wanting to open a dialogue in America, that's something that the show does. We're not trying to perform brain surgery or cure cancer. We all hoped that this would open a dialogue where people would start laughing at themselves a little bit, get a little less polarized and realize that this is a universal conversation. Lots of families find themselves divided on these issues. There's got to be a way to talk and still love each other the way that Roseanne and Jackie made their peace [in the revival's premiere]. And that's really what we want to have come out of it.

So, how do you get people who are turned off by your star's politics to watch?

There should be an understanding that there is a difference between people's personal politics and what you present onscreen. We're hopefully presenting a wonderful, balanced show that doesn’t have an agenda. But beyond that, anybody can dig into anybody's stuff and find stuff. But if her politics bothers them, then they shouldn’t watch the show. That's OK. Nobody is making anybody watch the show. We consider ourselves guests in the public's home and as guests we know that people have the option to turn it off if they don't want to watch.

Roseanne airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC. Bookmark THR.com/Roseanne for complete coverage.

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