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To address the elephant, politically speaking, in the room: Yes, the premiere episode of ABC’s revival of Roseanne spends a fair amount of time on the main character’s support for Donald Trump. And yes, the fights between Roseanne (Roseanne Barr) and Hillary Clinton supporter Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) over that vote are awkward and uncomfortably familiar.
Now imagine, if you would, a world in which social media hadn’t made it possible to know Barr’s every hateful thought about Clinton or which bizarro conspiracy theories she was peddling to hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers. In that world, wouldn’t you find it perfectly reasonable that the Conners, who spent nine seasons from 1988-1997 as TV’s best representatives of blue-collar economic anxiety, might fall somewhat into a Trump-friendly demographic? And wouldn’t you think that it was potentially the highest of praise for a revival of Roseanne to hear that the show still isn’t flinching from addressing uncomfortably familiar aspects of contemporary life?
Air date: Mar 27, 2018
Through three episodes sent to critics, the 10th season of Roseanne has put itself squarely in the camp of revivals that have no trouble justifying their purpose in 2018. Barr and showrunners Bruce Helford and Whitney Cummings have made a show that has its own recognizable perspective on the 2016 election, exploding health care costs, the opioid epidemic, changing perspectives on gender and sexuality and more. The show’s biggest liability is its own influence even at its own network, as shows like Speechless, The Middle and Black-ish are doing a lot of the same things as Roseanne used to do but with more freshness.
Things are actually going pretty well for the Conners as the series returns. After all, when we left the show, Dan (John Goodman) was dead, yet he wakes up in a sleep apnea mask in the premiere, instigating a series of jokes about his tenuous mortality. Original Becky (Lecy Goranson) is also back, while Sarah Chalke, known to fans as Second Becky, has a key guest-starring role that includes the not-so-subtle acknowledgement, “We could be the same person!” Those are just a couple of the meta moments that are mostly limited to the premiere, which at least resists Fuller House-level nostalgia bloat.
Darlene (Sara Gilbert) is living at home again with her two kids (Emma Kenney and Ames McNamara), ostensibly to help her parents out, but maybe due to difficulties of her own. D.J. (Michael Fishman) and his daughter (Jayden Rey) are around. Aunt Jackie, as eccentric as ever, begins the new season estranged from Roseanne due to the whole Trump thing, but the political debate lasts only an episode. This is a good thing if you don’t much want to hear Roseanne singing Trump’s praises, but it’s also ideal because the show’s approach to the divide is oppressively broad — Aunt Jackie shows up in a “pussy hat” and a “Nasty Woman” shirt and later arrives to dinner with a bottle of Russian dressing to taunt Roseanne — and only barely broaches what I think is the season’s real thesis: the breakdown of civil debate within families and the country at large. The show does more interesting things with Dan and Roseanne’s medical struggles and their frustrations coming to understand Darlene’s gender-fluid son Mark and Darlene’s professional difficulties and thwarted ambitions.
The show quickly settles back into rhythms that felt revolutionary when Roseanne was in its heyday, but have almost become the norm among better sitcoms. An issue arises, debate ensues including at least one character taking a position that runs counter to how you’d think they’d respond, followed by hugging or convivial basketball in the driveway. The sweetness of Roseanne is of a more tart variety, with that trademark Roseanne cackle and attitude serving as an astringent, but the series’ more recent heirs like NBC’s The Carmichael Show and Netflix’s One Day at a Time did similar things in a multicamera format with more immediate vitality.
Of course, vitality is less what Roseanne is going for than the impressive proficiency of stars who make multicam look easy. If Barr’s signature bray is what keeps the show from ever getting too cute, Goodman’s big-hearted bellow still keeps the series in balance, offering regular reminders that his lack of Emmy recognition for this role was a crime. Given that Metcalf won three Emmys for the show, it feels odd to say that Jackie is a minor disappointment, but subsequent years of TV, stage and film have proven repeatedly that this character’s near-cartoonishness requires only the smallest piece of what the actress is capable of doing.
The return of Roseanne is also a great opportunity to reflect on how tremendous and perhaps underappreciated a sitcom actor Gilbert is. When you start with a child actor, there’s no way of guaranteeing he or she will evolve from precocious to as great as Gilbert continues to be, tracing how Darlene’s youthful sarcasm has evolved into grownup disaffection even as she tries to remain a positive parent. She hurls every punchline like a dart, and you can sense the writers leaning into Darlene, as maturation has left Goranson and Fishman best described as “Surprisingly OK” and “Just happy to be invited back,” respectively, as actors. There are so many returning figures that the new additions remain forgettable, though I love how Kenney’s casting works as a nod to Shameless, which, despite its great stylistic differences, is in many ways perhaps the truest Roseanne successor on TV.
Enough shows are following in its convention-rejecting footsteps that Roseanne almost is left looking like the conventional one. That’s why the “I like Roseanne, but I don’t know if I can deal with the Trump stuff” is such a strange worry. That Roseanne can still make you squirm, just a little, is proof that it’s still Roseanne.
Cast: Roseanne Barr, John Goodman, Sara Gilbert, Laurie Metcalf, Michael Fishman, Lecy Goranson
Executive producers: Roseanne Barr, Sara Gilbert, Tom Werner, Bruce Helford, Whitney Cummings, Tony Hernandez
Premieres: Tuesday, March 27, 8 p.m. ET/PT (ABC)
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