I Already Miss Roseanne. Don’t Hate Me.
I’m not on Twitter, so I was never privy to Roseanne Barr’s tirades there until the one that did her in. But I already knew she was a nasty woman months before ABC rightly fired her from her own show after she described an Iranian-born black woman as “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby.”
When a friend and former colleague told me how horrible Barr had been to her during a sit-down interview promoting ABC’s revival of her late-’80s and ’90s sitcom Roseanne, I got all the shock out of my system. By the time the 65-year-old actress got around to delivering the death blow to her career and her sitcom as we know it on Twitter, she was already high on my shit list. I wasn’t surprised at all.
Previously, I honestly hadn’t ever given her much thought. I never watched a single episode of her eponymous TV series during it’s original 1988-to-1997 run, and I skipped She-Devil when it hit cineplexes in Gainesville, Florida, in 1989.
I remained more or less unexposed to the comedic talent of Roseanne Barr until last weekend when I finally got around to binge-watching all nine episodes of the Roseanne revival, which ABC cancelled following its star’s “Planet of the Apes” crack. Due to my lack of history with the show, I approached the revival with no preconceptions of how the titular character should act based on how she used to act.
For me it was a totally new show, and as I sat there, eyes glued to the screen and especially to both Roseanne Barr and Roseanne Conner, I kept feeling twinges of sadness. And I hadn’t even yet read co-star John Goodman’s major spoiler (keep reading).
Better than expected
Why did Roseanne Barr have to go and ruin everything for Roseanne Conner and for the rest of us?
The show was so much better than I expected it to be. Despite its stellar ratings, I’d go so far as to call it underrated. Sure there were some kinks and inconsistencies (for a family that proudly wore the “poverty” tag, they sure did live in a nice big house), but the characters were all so sharply defined and specifically played.
As for its much-discussed politics, I preferred the way it handled Trump vs. Hillary to the way the Will & Grace revival tackled it this past season. When Will, Grace, and Karen talked politics, it always felt too superficial and agenda-driven to be particularly funny or revealing. Will & Grace’s political humor was broad when it should have been nuanced.
Roseanne Conner’s support of Donald Trump may have reflected the politics of Roseanne Barr, but unlike real Roseanne, TV Roseanne’s points of view included contradictions and shades of gray that made her as human as they made her flawed.
Intriguingly, one of my favorite elements of the Roseanne revival was Mrs. Conner’s politics, which wisely played a supporting role rather than a major one and didn’t translate to staunch conservatism. Roseanne Conner’s support of Donald Trump may have mirrored the politics of Roseanne Barr (in contrast to, say, All in the Family’s liberal Carroll O’Connor vs. racist Archie Bunker, which may have made the TV alter ego easier to love), but unlike real Roseanne, TV Roseanne’s points of view included contradictions and shades of gray that made her as human as they made her flawed.
Revival Roseanne was the flipside of the ultra-liberal ’70s sitcom character Maude. Not since I started regularly binge-watching old episodes of Maude on YouTube five years ago have I been so taken with an acerbic, outspoken female TV character.
Like Maude, who spanked her grandson Phillip for being bratty in one episode, Roseanne wasn’t afraid to not spare the rod to not spoil the grandchild. When she shoved her granddaughter Harris’s head under the faucet for calling her a “stupid old hillbilly,” I wanted to high-five her after she dried her hands. I’ve never understood how white TV kids get away with being so rude to their parents, and it was nice to finally see one get put in her place.
Roseanne Conner’s MAGA-waving Trumpianism may put us on opposite sides of the political divide, but I wouldn’t want her in any other place. By pitting her against her sister Jackie (the great Emmy-winning Laurie Metcalf, once again nominated for the 10th season) in the premiere episode of the revival, the writers showed that Republicans and Democrats can be equally stubborn.
In the premiere, Roseanne was just as unyielding as her sister, who made her first appearance wearing a “NASTY WOMAN” t-shirt and calling Roseanne “deplorable.” It was played for comedy, but it was grounded in reality: Roseanne Conner’s Trump support, like that of so many people who voted for him in the 2016 Presidential election, was driven more by financial concerns than by ideology.
The recurring poverty theme underscored the irony of all the Trump-as-economic-savior rhetoric in real life, a twist that wasn’t lost on Jackie. Making America great again clearly doesn’t mean lower-middle-class families like the Conners will be able to afford decent healthcare or even WiFi. Yet many continue to wait in vain for a savior who is too busy trying to save his own ass to worry about theirs.
Layered and complex
Just because Roseanne Barr turned out to be a cartoon Trumpian doesn’t mean a vote for Trump was always an endorsement of white supremacy, homophobia, and all those other “deplorables” causes. In the revival, Roseanne Conner reflected the reality that people with terrible taste in Presidential candidates can still be layered and complex.
Despite her political affiliation, she seemed to be closest to her black grandchild (Jayden Rey), whose race was treated as a matter of fact, not as a source of comedy, the way Saffy’s biracial daughter was on Absolutely Fabulous. I don’t believe any character ever mentioned that DJ (Michael Fishman) was married to a black woman and had a black kid. They both could have been white with no changes to the script.
Roseanne was just as accepting of her grandson Mark’s preference for female clothing, more so than her husband Dan (John Goodman, spending too much of the first few episodes hovering in the background). She even made a very Maude-like speech to Mark’s classmates warning them to be kind to him or risk her “white-witch” wrath.
But my favorite episode was the one featuring the Conners’ new Muslim neighbors. At first, Roseanne’s reaction to them was one of fear and distrust, which felt a lot like Trump’s America. But over the course of the episode, Roseanne slowly began to see the error of her initial presumptions. In the climactic scene, she made another very Maude-like speech to a bigoted supermarket cashier who was meant to represent the demonized Republican that many Democrats accept as the blueprint.
What I loved most about the episode was that despite Roseanne’s enlightenment and her coming to terms with the fact that her Muslim neighbors weren’t that different from the Conners, both Roseanne and the show resisted giving us that warm and fuzzy a-ha moment.
Yes, our Muslim neighbors deserve our respect, as Roseanne realized by the end of the episode. But that didn’t excuse her same-but-different neighbor from knocking on her door at two in the morning to pay back the $30 Roseanne had loaned his wife in the supermarket.
By the time Roseanne was finished scolding him for rousing her from her pill-induced slumber, I was thoroughly in love with her. Can the show go on without her? Is the proverbial fat lady about to sing?
The Roseanne-less reboot of the Roseanne revival won’t debut until October 16, but John Goodman confirmed on August 26 in The Sunday Times that his TV wife will be a goner in The Conners. Presumably the knee surgery she was so afraid of in the season 10 finale will silence her for good.
What’s that sound I hear? I think the fat lady might already be clearing her throat?