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More than 20 years after wrapping its nine-season run on ABC, Roseanne‘s working-class Conner family returned to ABC with a politically themed series premiere that also set the stage for what’s to come from the nine-episode revival.
Showrunner Bruce Helford, who ran one season of the original series starring Roseanne Barr as the married and harried mother of three, tells The Hollywood Reporter that the series quickly and intentionally tackled its star’s support of President Donald Trump out of a desire to discuss the country’s political divide. Doing so, Helford says, immediately addressed the elephant in the room while it also helped to pave the ways in which politics trigger bigger issues within the show’s central family.
Below, Helford talks with THR about how emotional the season is, why he hopes viewers will judge the series based on their experience (and not what they read) and his desire to get the gang back together on ABC as a yearly event.
When did you get the call to come back?
I was leaving New York after doing CBS’ Kevin Can Wait and coming back to L.A. when I got a call from [executive producer] Tom Werner asking if I’d be interested in doing Roseanne again. We talked about it and then I met with Rosie. We spent hours talking about the old days and what we each wanted to do.
What were some of the subjects that came up in that conversation?
She wanted to deal with health care in America. She had a knee problem — it’s better now — that spurred the whole thing. She said, “What would Roseanne Conner do?” She couldn’t afford the deductible to have surgery, so where does she turn to be able to get through work and everything else? She wanted young grandchildren that her character could dote on, spoil and ruin because she has grandchildren. When she first hired me in the fifth season, she said, “I want you to be brave.” It turned out to be a brave season and the same applied here. She wanted me to go to the edge and I wanted her to do that, too. We don’t agree on lots of stuff, but we do agree on lots of stuff! (Laughs.) The show reflects Roseanne’s views. She is way out there [on some topics] and people aren’t going to agree with some things. But when push comes to shove on important issues, when Roseanne believes in someone, she’ll back then up.
How did you navigate balancing the show so that it wasn’t all Barr’s political point of view?
I’m really happy with the balance in the show. Roseanne said that [the revival] “can’t be my bully pulpit, it has to be everybody.” [Meaning that] Darlene [Sara Gilbert] and Jackie [Laurie Metcalf] would certainly agree with Roseanne on a lot of stuff, too.
Is that the genesis for the first episode as you get into Barr’s personal politics?
Yes. We thought there was no way that Roseanne, Jackie and Darlene would have all voted for the same person. Which is why when the show started, they haven’t spoken for a year and a half because they’ve been fighting. That all comes up again when Darlene comes home and brings Jackie over. That was our way of discussing the political divide, which is tough territory — but there are lots of homes in America going through that.
Was taking on Trump and having the show’s central character back him an easy decision for you?
Yes. I love the debate. The world has become very politically correct. Some things for good, some things not for good, as far as I’m concerned. As a writer, I’m never going to support being too politically correct because I want to be able to get the conversation going. We knew that we were going to be challenging ourselves. We’re tackling some stuff that most comedies wouldn’t go anywhere near but we have a legacy to be that show and I think we’re allowed.
That dialogue is a big part of why the show is back. ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey said last year that a lot of networks don’t do a great job of appealing to the working class/Trump’s America —
That’s one of the reasons. There are a couple of exceptions to that — like Showtime’s Shameless and SMILF. But when it comes to how the working class is depicted on TV, [a lot of shows have] generally been people making fun of them. I grew up in a working-class family from Chicago and my folks would put me on the phone to tell the people from the electric company to not turn our electricity off because I’d be in the dark. There was really nobody addressing that stuff. Now, with the huge voter turnout for Trump with people who were disenfranchised … I don’t think those people have voted for 20 years. And now in retrospect I think a lot of people are torn about their decision. But like the Conners, you’re voting with your pocketbook, you’re voting for jobs and if you can’t feed your family, you’re going to vote that way.
Which is reflected in the premiere when Roseanne says something along the lines of, “He said he’d bring jobs, what was I supposed to do?” Does the character regret voting for Trump?
No, but there are things she does that you’ll see as the show goes on over all the episodes. There are plenty of things that she wants and believes in that are things he would definitely not want or believe in. Roseanne Conner is a little less educated than Roseanne Barr, so [the character looks at] more bread-and-butter issues: family, health care, etc.
What do you say to viewers who may have been put off by the Trump storyline from the premiere?
You have to give the show about three episodes to see what it really is. The first episode is definitely not all pro-Trump. We had a lot of things to catch up with. Give it two or three episodes. I think everybody is going to find something that they love and believe in — and that they’re going to laugh because it’s the funniest cast on TV. Let the show speak for itself. Don’t just go with what you hear; go with what you see.
Was it intentional to address Barr’s views about Trump in that first episode?
It was intentional to start something that people wanted to hear. People were going to be intrigued. Certain people will be turned off, but you can’t help that. No matter what you do, a certain percentage of people are going to opt out and that’s just the way it is. But I think people are going to be intrigued to see where this goes. When they get through the body of the show, it’s going to be a really enriching experience and hopefully get people talking to each other again.
And that was something Barr really wanted the show to do.
Roseanne doesn’t want people to hate each other; she is really big on that. She has mellowed. She’s a grandmother and in a good relationship and is more about peace and love and that comes through. The surprising thing about this season is it’s very emotional. It’s the most emotional season of this show we’ve ever done.
Will there be more Trump storylines outside of the first episode?
There are some but politics doesn’t dominate [the season]. They do trigger bigger family things.
The second episode deals a lot with bullying, with Dan [John Goodman] struggling with the possibility that his grandchild is gay. What makes the rest of the season so emotional?
Becky [Lecy Goranson] is single and she’s in her 40s and her husband died and she isn’t letting that go. Darlene is going through a lot because she’s got kids and has a lot of guilt about the fact that her relationship didn’t work out. She’s a single mom and they have to struggle a little bit because of that. Johnny Galecki comes back as David for an episode and we deal that. That’s a very emotional episode. Darlene and David have been separated for six years or so and he has only seen the kids a few times when they were living in Chicago. Darlene lost her job and is struggling and David comes back into that mix and raises a lot of emotional issues for all of them. Dan is older and, as a construction guy, it’s harder for him to work and that presents a lot of challenges. It’s a big problem in the Midwest with a lot of illegals getting work and being taken advantage of and being paid nothing to work. And Roseanne and Jackie’s mother Beverly [Estelle Parsons] returns, after having had some big problems with Jackie and some big events come up with her this season, too. Estelle — who is 90 — is fantastic.
Is there something you didn’t get to do in these nine episodes that you’re hoping to explore should you get a call for another season?
We didn’t get a chance to explore DJ’s relationship as much as we wanted to. His wife is in the military and stationed in Afghanistan and he was let go out of the service. He has a lot of feelings about that and having to raise his kid alone. Darlene and Becky’s personal relationships have a lot to be discovered and explored. And there’s a lot going on with Jackie and her mom. We haven’t even scratched the surface. This show never had a lack of stories because the people were so real. We go around the writers room and talk about the best and worst things that ever happened to everybody. We have all these stories to tell.
ABC ultimately won the revival over Netflix. Why was it important to you and the team to have the show back on broadcast?
[Disney CEO] Bob Iger wasn’t going to let this go. We wanted it to be where it started and not on Netflix. That would have been wonderful, but it would have been packaged all at once and gone. And this is going to be over the course of eight weeks. Having it rolled out that way meant a lot to us and makes a bigger event of it.
And ABC reaches a broader audience who may not have Netflix…
It’s about a loyalty to our home network. ABC let us get away with a lot more stuff than they would let their other shows get away with now because we were grandfathered in.
Was there something specific that you were surprised the network let you get away with?
There was a bunch of stuff! (Laughs.) They were nervous but supportive all along the way. The Standards and Practices people were tearing their hair out along the way. But they would also suggest things. But we never had to get rid of anything we loved and that was important.
In success, do you want to do an 11th season?
We’d love to.
Does the season finale provide closure if this is indeed the end?
Nothing is wrapped up neatly, but it is a satisfying ending to the nine episodes.
If you were to get another season, is the plan to always keep it a short run or could you envision doing another 22 episodes again?
I don’t know that we’d ever go to a 22-episode season. That’s a lot. John and Laurie have movie careers. Everybody has things that they’re doing, so it might be hard to get 22 episodes in. But I would love to do another 10 or 12 on a yearly basis.
What did you think of Roseanne‘s return? Sound off in the comments section, below.
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