If you liked Roseanne during its initial run from 1988 to 1997, you will probably enjoy its new iteration, also called Roseanne. The tone is certainly the same, as is Roseanne, mostly. Her face is different, having undergone plastic surgery; Roseanne Conner (Roseanne Barr) now has cheekbones sharp enough to slice through cheese. Her newly refined looks don’t integrate well with the theme of Roseanne, which is that working class people never get ahead—that is, if they manage to hang on to what they’ve acquired in the first place.
Working class woes—a realistic take on a hardscrabble existence—have always been the theme of Roseanne, and the new version reiterates the old one. In fact, the current version of the show brings an amplified resonance to the idea of working class hardship. The point that economic struggles tend to span generations is well-made with the story lines of Roseanne’s two daughters: Darlene and Becky. Darlene (Sara Gilbert) lost her job and moved back into her parents’ house along with her two kids. Becky (Lecy Goranson) is still working as a waitress at 43, trying to gain an economic foothold by becoming a paid surrogate before discovering she’s too old. In a very believable way, both daughters are aimless and unmoored in middle-age, which Roseanne and her husband, Dan (John Goodman), seem to understand as a sort of inevitable state of existence for people in their tax bracket.
As the central theme of the show, the economic status of the Conner family seems more timely than ever. The Roseanne revival has received much media attention regarding its portrayal of the fictional Roseanne Conner as a Trump voter motivated by economic malaise. Roseanne’s politics put in her in direct conflict with her pussy-hat wearing sister in the series, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf). When, after months of silence, Roseanne and Jackie finally have a conversation about the 2016 election, Jackie rants at her sister about the outcome, still regretting that she wasted her vote on Jill Stein (“Who?” Roseanne shoots back), after Roseanne convinced her of Hillary’s corruption.
The sisters’ deep political divide drives the plot of the first episode, which culminates in their reconciliation. In a surprisingly weighted moment, Jackie apologizes for the role she played in their rift. “I’m sorry,” Jackie says, her face crumpled with regret. She waits for Roseanne to apologize in turn. Roseanne, after a long silence, finally says the words, “I forgive you.” Jackie melts into a tearful smile; she leans in to hug Roseanne before responding, “That must have been so hard to say.”
While this exchange plays for laughs, it spoke more to the sisters’ dynamic than to the national one. In spite of the fictional Roseanne being cast in the media as a stand-in for the real-life Trump voter (of which Roseanne Barr was one), Roseanne Conner only represents a very specific sort of thumb-in-your-eye Trump voter—one who might just as easily have voted for Bernie Sanders had he been the Democratic nominee.
Still, the power of this cultural moment as some sort of reckoning for the anti-Trump contingent in facing the resilience of the pro-Trump contingent cannot be denied. The premier of the Roseanne reboot shocked television industry analysts, with an estimated real-time audience of over 18 million viewers, adding nearly 7 million more over the next few days of streaming. In this current era of audience fragmentation, these numbers are considered nothing short of statistically impossible, the TV equivalent of lightning striking the same place a whole lot more than twice.
It might very well be that Roseanne nostalgia can account for these returns, but it seems unlikely. Rather, Roseanne Barr’s very public role as a Trump voter, and the press coverage about the fact that the premier episode would feature Roseanne Conner declaring her fidelity to Trump in opposition to her politically progressive sister, seemed to tap into a deep need of American audiences to have it out. Maybe watching Roseanne and Jackie yell at each other could serve as a proxy for the conversations taking place (or not) all over America, in our own living rooms and around our own dinner tables. We are all still psychically recovering from the bruising 2016 election: could Roseanne provide some catharsis?The Conners’ current state of fragmentation, political and social, is like holding a mirror up to our society. It ain’t pretty, but it’s us.
Catharsis or plain old smugness—it’s hard to say. Roseanne Conner certainly wasn’t meeting bleeding-heart Jackie halfway when it came to their reconciliation. But then, Roseanne doesn’t meet anyone halfway. Not really. As a character, she’s hard to take. Every line is delivered as though she is at the end of an aisle in Walmart, hollering for her kids to get out of the toy section. Roseanne’s unyielding persona may be the result of years of struggle, but watching someone struggle without holding out the possibility of change can be unbearable. At least Roseanne has been consistent across the decades, and the show reflects this as her daughters—and now grandchildren—crash against her again and again, waves against an implacable rock. Twenty years after Becky ran away, she is still stomping out of the house, still exchanging withering barbs with her sister Darlene: two grown women who are spending their adulthood in the same way they spent their adolescence.
What is especially depressing about Roseanne is the depiction of the American family, circa 2018. In the original version of the show, the Conners, however dysfunctional, constructed their family life with the same basic building blocks as non-fictional families everywhere. The relationship between Roseanne and Dan was fraught with the usual perils of an economically stressed long-running marriage, but it was also the bedrock of an otherwise shaky existence. The Conner parents may have lacked money, but they never really lacked the ability to raise their kids with some level of assurance. Becky and Darlene, however, are a different story. No member of the next generation of Conners (at least as depicted so far) has the same sort of inner resources, the sense of stability that has nothing to do with where you fall on the poverty line.
Darlene, at least, has the honesty to voice the fact that she is lost. Her teenage daughter is stealing clothes, her 9-year-old boy is dressing like a girl. It’s not that these things are harbingers of doom, necessarily, but that they are happening to Darlene’s little family in a post-binary world. Without a clear framework for making sense of the world, Darlene doesn’t know how to point her kids in a particular direction. She can only offer them the hope that someday, they won’t feel as bad about themselves as they do now.
In the new Roseanne, Roseanne and Dan are still chugging along as a unit, bum knees and multiple pharmaceuticals aside, but their kids represent family togetherness in a wholly contemporary, de-centered way. The family is now a loose cast of characters, as likely to exit the house (slamming the door on the way out) as enter it, in all probability never to return.
The fictional Conner family tracks with real-world statistics. More Americans are choosing not to get married or have children. We are geographically mobile and economically immobile, unless it’s a downward move. Our relationships are fractured. Maybe this is why Trump’s supporters just shrug at his bankruptcies and multiple marriages, the fact that he fathered children by three different wives. It just makes him one of us.
The Conners’ current state of fragmentation, political and social, is like holding a mirror up to our society. It ain’t pretty, but it’s us. In this sense I did find the show to be cathartic. It may not be politic to say, but there is a sense out there in huge swaths of this country that there is a real America, a more socially stable America, and that this America has receded into the twilight. Trump tapped that vein, and so does Roseanne. The show feels real. Not in the way conservatives might have hoped for, as an artifact of the Culture Wars, with Roseanne suddenly changing course and declaring herself to be pro-life and against gay marriage, but as a depiction of messed-up families everywhere. People are looking for a light at the end of the tunnel, and when a tunnel is very dark, it is easy to hallucinate.
In the months since the 2016 election, I have often thought that Trump is not the symptom, but the disease. He is us. He represents a level of desperation in a huge segment of the population—nearly half of Americans who voted, apparently—yet sometimes it seems that all we’ve done in the year or so since his inauguration is blame various subgroups of Americans, trying to figure out who is responsible for what happened, without considering the fact that we all are.
As far as Roseanne is concerned, essayist Chuck Klosterman argues in his book But What If We’re Wrong? that Roseanne just might be the TV show that future generations will study in order to understand life as we know it. Klosterman says of Roseanne, “It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t reasonable, and — sometimes — it wasn’t even clever. But Roseanne was the most accidentally realistic TV show there ever was.” The same might be said of its new incarnation.
The infatuation with the new season of Roseanne will wear off, and the show will no doubt become just another sitcom, destined to end in an episode in which we learn that it was all just a dream. Yet I hope we don’t dismiss the hype and the statistics around the premiere as just that—the result of trumped-up media interest in a show that doesn’t deliver. Roseanne does deliver. It just may not be delivering a message we want to hear. Trump voters, including evangelicals, are out there, and they aren’t sorry. In fact, like Roseanne, they may just be willing to forgive you for voting otherwise.