Television

Is the Revival of 'Roseanne' Merely Televisual Grave-Robbing?

Roseanne Barr and John Goodman in "Twenty Years of My Life" episode, Roseanne (2018) (Photo by Adam Rose/ABC - © 2017 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.) (IMDB)

The return of Roseanne brings with it some complicated political baggage -- and it brings Dan Connor back from the dead.

Roseanne
Roseanne Barr, Matt Williams

ABC

2018- (US)

Other

Nostalgia is a powerful force, as the current glut of reunion shows filling out our television schedules exhibits. Whether the reason for these returns of once-dead series is the product of a genuine desire by creative people to reconnect with a story they feel is not yet complete, or just a cynical move by broadcasters to cut through the white noise of the myriad new programs that flicker in and out of existence, the results have certainly caught audiences' attention. Netflix seems to have cornered a market on revivals, bringing back everything from Gilmore Girls, to Full House, to Mystery Science Theatre; there was frenzied critical buzz around the recent Twin Peaks: The Return miniseries; and the premiere episode of the Roseanne reunion scored record ratings for a scripted series (18 million viewers, second only to the post-Super Bowl episode of This is Us).

But there's always the fear that these reunions will amount to little more than an exercise in morbid curiosity, a redundant romp through material better left buried. For every show that innovates (e.g., Arrested Development's fourth season did something experimental with its format that ingeniously responded to the binge-watch culture into which it was reborn) there are multiple others that seem to merely be shuffling through the motions (programs like Heroes: Reborn and Prison Break that reanimated all of their worst impulses). Some shows seem to do both simultaneously: in the case of The X-Files, a handful of the new episodes have exhibited how masterfully Mulder and Scully work in this post-truth, Birtherism, 'Deep State' paranoiac world ...but then series creator Chris Carter writes an episode and it immediately dissolves into incoherent, maudlin, pretentious drivel – everything that dragged the original seasons down.

In all, every attempt at a revival has to grapple with the prospect of merely being an act of televisual grave-robbing. In the case of the Roseanne reunion, that's literally true. Because for all of my issues with Roseanne's reunion, the one thing that must be celebrated is the return – from the 'dead' – of Dan Connor.

In the ninth and final season of the show it was revealed that Dan, played by John Goodman, was dead. It was a surprise M. Night Shyamalan-style twist in which the concluding minutes of the finalé reveal that Dan had supposedly died of a heart attack a year previous. Roseanne, who was said to have been writing a version of her life story, had merely imagined her husband to still be alive.

Happily, the opening scene of the revival's first episode therefore undoes this premise, re-revising the narrative to wipe the entirety of the ninth season from existence. Even the characters themselves nod to how relieved they are to be free from the idiocy of the original Roseanne rewriting-her-life premise. Dan, once again played by the always phenomenal Goodman, awakes wearing a sleep apnoea machine, lamenting that everyone always assumes he is dead; and later in the episode, finding a copy of Roseanne's unpublished manuscript in the garage, he chides her for killing off 'the most interesting character'.

As for everything else in the revival, the viewing experience elicits a curious blend of trepidation and hope; at times stirring nostalgic goodwill, at others, moments that feel dated, or ill-judged. Other reviewers have noted that the three leads, Roseanne Barr, Laurie Metcalf and John Goodman, seem a little rusty in their delivery, perhaps even hunting for cue cards off camera before delivering their lines, and while there may be a small amount of truth in that, Roseanne always was a show that set its own unhurried pace. Meanwhile, even when the script took a couple of turns toward the mawkish – including one moment in which Darleen became choked up with regret that she had never made it out of Langford – I was surprised that I felt something. Perhaps it was just a shadow of the greatness that Roseanne once was, but it was there. Of course, there's the way in which Roseanne Barr's real-world support of Donald Trump has bled into the show, with her character, Roseanne Connor, proudly supporting him in the 2016 election, an act that might superficially sound like hack proselytising, but that in practice may have the potential to offer a more nuanced response to the realities of the current political climate.

Sara Gilbert and Laurie Metcalf in "Twenty Years to Life" episode. (Photo by Adam Rose/ABC - © 2017 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.) (IMDB)

The reason this might be possible is because, as mentioned, the show took the ingenious (although thoroughly, self-evidently necessary) step of dismissing the entire prior season as bad fan-fiction written by Roseanne herself. Because Season 9 of Roseanne was objectively awful.

It blew up the themes, the likability and the reality of the whole series, making the primary characters unrelatable, the comedy too broad and goofy to feel organic, and went to the extra trouble of burning the entire show down on its way out the door with a pointless Nyah-nyah,-everything-you-loved-was-a-misrepresentation' revelation. Worst of all, the 'joke' of the season – a wish-fulfillment fantasy of a working class family coming into extraordinary, instantaneous riches – contained a truly uncomfortable undercurrent of mocking of the poor. The season was predicated upon the idea that the Connor family wins the lottery, and thereupon goes about indulging all of their fantasies of wealth – many of which involve them draping themselves in gaudy fashion, buying expensive trinkets, and exploring trendy fads.

While the season attempted to draw humour from the collision of cultures being presented, self-described 'white trash' mingling in the echelon of the wealthy elite, ultimately it just seemed to mock the Connors themselves for their ignorance and tastelessness. The wealthy were occasionally presented as pretentious or rude, traits against which Roseanne and family's earnestness was seen as a stark relief, but often the 'elite' appeared in person as awesome guest-stars to be celebrated (including Steven Segal, Tammy Faye Bakker, Jerry Springer, and Hugh Hefner), or impossibly beautiful people attending glittering events; glamorous idols for Roseanne and Jacky to ogle. The ultimate message of the season (if it had one) appeared to be trying to communicate that 'Money cannot solve your problems', but in order to do so it turned a family defined by their honesty, love, and strength of will in overcoming struggle, and at times presented them as boorish and tasteless, sniping at each other despite having money to burn. (And that is before even getting into all the nonsense of Dan having an affair and his mother trying to murder him...)

It perhaps makes sense, then, that the Roseanne Connor of the revival season would be attracted to Donald Trump, a man who similarly has an obsessive (comically overcompensating) need to exhibit his wealth in garish displays. Trump has spent his life coating everything he owns with gold, putting his name on every visible surface, cheating on his wives with porn stars and playmates, loudly braying about how important and wealthy he is, and suing anyone who points out that this may not be entirely true. He's like a cartoon hobo's fantasy of what a millionaire's life must be: ostentatious, thin-skinned, and thuggish. For the Roseanne Connor who apparently wrote 'Season 9' of Roseanne, that unpublished manuscript now languishing in the garage, the Trump of 2016 may well have presented an appealing image in the lead up to the election. Powerful – because he repeatedly claimed he was. Successful – because an orchestrated 'reality' television show insisted every week that he was. A great businessman – because he went bankrupt several times and continuously ran multiple businesses, including casinos and a scam University, into the ground? ...Okay, I don't really get how that leap of logic works.

But the point remains: the Rosanne Connor who fantasised about easy wealth and quick fixes, who had dream sequences about being Xena Warrior Princess or Evita, and believed she could singlehandedly solve a terrorist attack on a train (all this actually happened in season 9!), might very well be attracted by Trump's glorification of avarice, easy answers, and fantastical promises, even if less enamoured with his xenophobia and boasts about grabbing women by the genitals. (It's a little less clear why real-life Roseanne Barr, celebrity and multi-millionaire herself, would be so taken in by him. Or, for that matter, why she seems to be transforming into something of a right-wing conspiracy nut.

Roseanne Barr and John Goodman in "Twenty Years to Life" episode (Photo by Adam Rose/ABC - © 2017 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.) (IMDB)

In the first episode of the revival, that support for Trump remains solid, even if just as a point of contention between Rosanne and her sister Jackie, but there is reason to hope that its appearance is more than just an indulgence for the series' star. Because in its first half-hour the show made a point of obliterating season nine from its narrative.

It sounds small (because really, what else could they have done?) but that act revealed that the writers, to her credit Rosanne Barr included, have come to terms with the prior season being self-indulgent nonsense, a creator taking a narcissistic victory lap, not caring if it chewed up her own legacy in the process. It was all just an egotistical illusion that now has no impact on what remains. And that dual acknowledgement of Roseanne Connor's pig-headed, unapologetic nature and the show's need, for the good of its own message, to bend around such an ego, perhaps even walling it off from the spirit of everything else going on around it, allows the pro-Trump material with some mild optimism.

For while Jackie absolutely did get the less developed side of the argument between she and Roseanne – made, as Jackie always is, to look foolish in her over-eager posturing – it felt like some of her hits landed (or at least, went unanswerable), such as when she asked where Trump's promised magical universal insurance is, or made a (admittedly incredibly lightweight) Russia reference. In reply Roseanne could just offer redundant putdowns like 'Liar, liar, pantsuit on fire,' which, minus Roseanne's fired up delivery, is a fairly asinine dig at a now politically irrelevant figure, one that thoroughly fails to address the current turmoil felt as the country lurches from one scandal to another under the leadership of an erratic, flip-flopping Twitter troll.

Even at the 'resolution' of Jackie and Roseanne's fight -- which paints Roseanne as the 'realist' and Jackie the 'dreamer', and in which Roseanne admits to respecting that Jackie is a good-hearted person who wants everyone to have healthcare, even if she 'can't do simple math' for how to pay for it -- Roseanne is still presented as a stubborn person who cannot, ever, acknowledge that she has made a mistake. 'It is not my fault if I just happen to be a charismatic person who is always right,' she says, exhibiting an intractability that remains true to her character in the original series, and one that may well play out as the series progresses, with Roseanne, as a representation for the working underclass who voted for Trump, grappling with the realisation that really things have only gotten worse; that the promised Babylon of Trump's business acumen, which would 'fix' Washington, was all just another salesman patter of empty promises that has only put them (and the country) further into debt.

Another ray of hope lies in the fact that although, due to Roseanne's real-world political stance, the series seems to have attracted the attention of Trump's loyalists (Trump has even been crowing about it at rallies and called Barr up to congratulate her for ratings that he hysterically wants to take credit for), any of the worst of Trump's truly faithful – the neo-nazis; the hate-mongering alt-right stirrers; the Anne Coulters – would no doubt have choked on the message of the second episode, which (clumsily, but still earnestly) preached acceptance and inclusivity. A young boy wanted to wear women's clothes to school, and even the people in the family who were at first opposed to his doing it were worried not because they thought it was 'wrong', but because they knew that the world is full of abusive bigots who treat other cruelly for being different. In the end, the boy is presented (again, clumsily, but still) as a hero who is brave enough to be himself, with the bullies of the world who would prey upon him revealed as backward, ignorant cowards. Meanwhile, in a story still waiting to be explored, DJ's daughter is born of a bi-racial marriage between two serving members of the military. Barr's personal politics might be a worry, but the idea of those beliefs perhaps Trojan-horsing the tiki-torch-waving white nationalists among Trump's supporters to rally around a show that ultimately celebrates everything they see as an abomination -- is worth celebrating.

In all the Roseanne revival (or at least it's first two episodes) feels a little stale where it should rocket, feels dated in some of its production, and comes loaded with some horrible real-world baggage. But watching the series again, after 20 years off the air, it corrects some old mistakes, feels reassuringly familiar, and makes a compelling argument for its existence. Where the remainder of the season goes will determine whether this exercise was worth it, or whether it just dissolves into morbid curiosity. Viewers should be delighted that Dan is not dead, but if the writers have merely dug up his corpse to poke it with a stick, fans will be disappointed.

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