A Liberal Reviewer's Take On Why The Roseanne Revival Is Actually A Really Good Show

In the lead-up to its premiere on Tuesday I truly did not know how to feel about the twenty-years-belated tenth season of Roseanne, or what to expect. The original Roseanne was a legitimately important TV show, well deserving of its status as one of the classic American sitcoms: beneath the familiar surface of a family-centered comedy it was a deceptively intelligent, thoughtful, groundbreaking show which sought to deconstruct the myths and stereotypes about blue-collar middle-America, and tackle real issues that average people faced. It was also a very progressive, socially-liberal show, with themes of LGBT rights, birth control and abortion rights, and feminism. Taking on these topics at all was pretty radical for a sitcom in the late-80s or early-90s, let alone taking them on in a show about a blue-collar family who represented a slice of America typically stereotyped as socially-conservative Republicans. That was a huge part of Roseanne Barr's goal, to deconstruct those stereotypes while speaking out on these issues she felt passionately about to an audience who might not otherwise be receptive to the social arguments she was making, especially when it came to her LGBT advocacy. All of this is why I felt shocked and disappointed when Barr turned into a Trump supporter (despite still claiming to hold those same socially-liberal values): she sounded a bit unhinged at best in her “burn it all down” attitude and embracing of conspiracy theories, and at worst seemed like she had outright betrayed the progressive philosophies that had been a huge part of the thematic richness and social importance of her show.

Hence why, as a liberal appreciator of the original series with a great disdain for the views and public persona that its creator/star had taken on in recent years, I was deeply skeptical about Roseanne's revival season, and nervous about what it would do to the show's legacy (which is saying something, since we are talking about a series whose bizarre, shark-jumping last season turned out to have all been a fictional novel within the world of the show itself). Still, I hoped for the best, particularly upon learning that Barr's Trump-supporter views would be counterbalanced by Sara Gilbert (a liberal, gay, political activist, in addition to the show's own Darlene Conner) not only being one of the new season's producers, but actually the one whose idea it was to make this revival happen in the first place. I'm so glad that I went into Tuesday's hour-long season ten premiere with an open mind: I was greeted by genuinely very good television which is a successful return to form for the show's thoughtful dissection of the crises facing middle-America. This is not a conservative show, nor is it a liberal show, but a show born of the tensions between the two: equal parts Roseanne Barr and Sara Gilbert, working in a writer's room with liberal and conservative voices on a show that doesn't shy away from their deep philosophical differences, but works them into the material. The result is a very honest look at a middle-class family split down the middle by the tense and bitter political landscape, but still having to fight it out and love each other anyway (or at least coexist in a truce) at the end of the day. If your extended or immediate family is likewise split between those who love Trump and those who absolutely hate him, the dynamic of the Conner family in 2018 will feel extremely familiar. While you're undoubtedly going to sympathize the most with the characters whose views line up most with your own (whether you see the show as existing at center-left or center-right will likely depend on your own political views, as the material itself tries to stay balanced and let both camps duke it out, except for on a few issues), the show rejects stereotypes in the way that it always has, and builds a cast of characters who are all sympathetic, fully-realized people who are more three-dimensional than just who they voted for. It isn’t aiming to glorify one side or vilify the other, but to start long-avoided conversations among viewers who disagree, especially in divided families like the Conners. With these themes allowing the show to directly engage with the world of 2018, this becomes a reboot that isn't just a nostalgia trip or a return to a past ratings success, but that actually has a well-thought-out thematic reason to exist; the anti-Fuller House.

Honestly, who hasn't wanted to do this
when going over to that relative's house?
The show finds Darlene and her two kids moving back in with her parents after getting divorced and laid off; a liberal Chicago resident who is an outspoken advocate for her genderqueer son, she seems like a bit of a fish out of water in Lanford these days (Roseanne and Dan voted for Trump, as presumably did much of the town). Which is why she immediately reaches out to her aunt Jackie, who stopped speaking to Roseanne after the election, and who shows up to their door wearing a Nasty Woman shirt and a pussy hat just to troll her sister. It doesn't take long at all for them to start clashing over their ideological differences, with both sides scoring points and both sides being satirized; again, whether you’re liberal or conservative there will be zingers sent at the opposing side that you find pretty hilarious, and probably zingers aimed at your own views that you’ll find funny too, if your sense of humor allows it. But the humanity of all of the characters ultimately comes through, and that is where the show's progressive soul and challenging of blue-collar myths returns the strongest; it seems to be channeling its inner All in the Family quite a bit in the very human nature of its political bickering. The show doesn't make Roseanne and Dan stereotypical Trump voters as we liberals often imagine them, but actually delves into why they voted for him (in their case, particular socioeconomic woes), and how things have gotten a bit worse for them since his election in ways that they refuse to explicitly acknowledge. Likewise, the liberal characters are not stereotyped or subjected to smear campaigns in the way that many feared they would be (well, Jackie is pretty over-the-top, but that's mostly because she's flaunting her liberalism to deliberately make her sister squirm, in keeping with their love/hate relationship which has always been pretty over-the-top), and are just straightforwardly portrayed as good-hearted, compassionate people. Roseanne and Dan are likewise still good, compassionate people, and they try to distance themselves from Trump's bigotry – and try to learn and be better when faced with things that challenge their worldviews, like Darlene's gender-nonconforming middle-school-aged son.

One of the things that won me over the most in the new Roseanne, despite my skepticism, is that the show's positive LGBT themes appear to still be fully intact, as best evidenced by the plotline of Darlene's son Mark (whose name will allow fans of the original series to guess at some of the events from the years between the old show and now). His gender-nonconformity is portrayed not just respectfully, but thoughtfully, and the script gives him some speeches about gender performance and being comfortable and authentic in your identity that are pretty darn philosophical for a sitcom kid. Darlene is awesomely supportive, and while Roseanne and Dan are clearly confused and a bit weirded out at first, their character arcs of trying to understand modern philosophies of gender and do a better job of being good, supportive grandparents are quite well-written. Equally well-written is how all four of these characters deal differently with the tough reality that a genderqueer middle-schooler is going to be treated a lot differently and more unfairly in blue-collar Lanford than in a liberal neighborhood of Chicago.

"I ain't bowling on the Shabbos, Roseanne."
Of course, one could make an argument that having Roseanne and Dan come around so fast on gender issues lets them off the hook too easily when it comes to having voted for the blatantly bigoted, anti-gay Trump administration, and it's a fair criticism: it doesn't ring true that Darlene wouldn't call them out on this hypocrisy. But the show is called Roseanne, so it isn’t surprising that it takes a kind view of its title character; and it is all about dispelling blue-collar stereotypes, and one of those stereotypes is definitely the generalization that all Republican voters are bigots. That it lets them grow and admit that they were wrong is significant, and might persuade viewers to reconsider their stances on gender-related issues as well (as I’m sure is the whole point), so this plotline is handled quite well in that regard. It is also where Darlene comes into her own as a main character on equal footing with Roseanne, and counterbalancing her. The scenes in which she schools the old-school Dan on the idea of gender as a spectrum are pretty great, both in their philosophy and in their development of her as a strong character who has grown up wonderfully in the past twenty years. There are hints in the episode that this may not be the only LGBT-centric plotline that Darlene gets this season, and it will be very interesting to see how that side of the show plays out.

Of course, in addition to the social/political aspects which are undoubtedly getting the most attention, there's also the more obvious (and at least as important) question of how well Roseanne still works as a sitcom after twenty years. The answer to that is very well indeed. The season premiere sees the series almost immediately return to top form, back on par with the stronger eras of its first run, and way better than its bizarre, baffling final stretch. It really does feel like a natural re-entry into the same world two decades later, as time has kept progressing while we were away. The almost completely reunited cast still has fantastic chemistry, and feels very much like a family indeed, which makes perfect sense, since the actors who play the three Conner kids literally grew up on this set with Barr and John Goodman as their TV parents. The resulting easy, natural dynamics between them feel very real, especially between Barr and Goodman, who still very realistically channel the dynamic of a long-married couple in ways both sweet and acerbic, and between the strong-willed, often-exasperated Darlene and her parents. Gilbert has grown up into a solid actor, and the material allows her to show her range very well. It is also particularly great to see John Goodman back as Dan: if we doubted whether any of the main stars would return, it was surely him, both because he went on to have by far the most successful film career of anyone on the show, and because the original series famously ended with Dan being dead (don’t worry, they do address that continuity problem). Goodman truly is one of the great character actors in modern American cinema; no one plays an endearingly cranky, larger-than-life eccentric quite like him, and Dan Conner remains one of the quintessential John Goodman roles. It’s great to see him step back into the role so comfortably, and great that, according to Gilbert, he was very excited about returning to the role that put him on the map despite how far his career has gone since; the show just wouldn’t be right without him (yet another reason why that last season jumped the shark).

Or maybe this revival was just created
to finally get the two Beckies together
in one scene...
Also returning is the show’s snarky postmodernism, which was one of the original series’ most unexpected and hilarious qualities. The season premiere makes recurring jokes of the original’s more dubious bits of continuity, opening with a pretty fantastic way to address the whole “why is Dan not dead?” question. The new season also finds a (different) role for “Second Becky” Sarah Chalke, and has some fun with the opportunity to put both Beckies on-screen at the same time. Pretty much everything else stylistically about the show is the same too, to an impressive degree: the Conner’s house set looks identical down to every noticeable detail, the same couch with the same quilt is still the centerpiece of the set, and (in a rare move these days) the show is filmed multicam in front of a live studio audience. The way in which they tried to replicate the technical aspects of the old show’s production to make it feel as much like the same world as possible is pretty admirable, and it definitely works to build the connection between the old and new series. Plenty of people have been calling this a reboot, but that term doesn’t really fit it at all; this is definitely season ten of the same show.

All in all, the revived Roseanne is not only a good sitcom, but a surprisingly thoughtful, relevant show looking at divided middle-America in the age of Trump. It is easy to lump the show in with the real-life Roseanne Barr's weird and upsetting personal politics, and I understand why plenty of liberal viewers considered this revival guilty by association, because I too was really worried how the cringey ways in which she has changed in recent years would tarnish the show. But it is important to keep in mind that she is far from the only voice guiding the new season (and not even really the primary voice), and other revival co-creators like Gilbert are there to counterbalance Barr. It is a mistake (and simply incorrect) to write the show off as conservative propaganda; this isn't Last Man Standing. The goal of the season, as voiced by both Barr and Gilbert, is to accurately portray political divisions in middle-class American families, and by giving both sides of the political spectrum equal footing in the conversation, hopefully spark further conversations among viewers. A reasonable, and admirable, goal in a time when most people are becoming increasingly comfortable with just digging their trenches and blasting the other side. The show really does seem to want to do what All in the Family did in the equally politically fraught Vietnam era, and while it is yet to be seen how well the season will do that in the long run, it is off to a pretty good start. Not to mention, disagreements over Trump aside, the show's progressive attitudes towards social issues like LGBT and reproductive rights seems to still be intact, and seems to have evolved in the issues it plans to address since it went off the air in the mid-90s. The new Roseanne is much more complex than meets the eye, and doesn't deserve to have the real-world craziness of its eponymous actress/creator held against it. As a liberal who went into the season premiere very much needing to be convinced, I can safely say that it won me over. Plus, it is genuinely refreshing when, in this age of needless reboots and cash-ins on past success, a much-belated sequel/revival is made not just to make money or jump on the nostalgia bandwagon, but because it genuinely has points to make about the modern world, and a reason for coming back at this particular time.

- Christopher S. Jordan

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