We’re approaching the two-year anniversary of ABC’s swift and shocking cancellation of its Roseanne reboot. After Roseanne Barr, the sitcom’s titular star, sent a blatantly racist tweet about former White House aide Valerie Jarrett, network executives had little choice but to pull the plug on its ratings juggernaut.
It was always hard to separate Barr, the opinionated gadfly, from her landmark TV series. So now, with Barr disgraced in exile, the legacy of her show may forever be tarnished as well. That’s a shame because, in its prime, Roseanne was an undeniably brilliant examination of blue collar America, and its subject matter has never been more relevant.
Unlike other revivals looking for a quick payout—with dependable characters and a built-in audience—the 2018 Roseanne had an actual reason to exist. Donald Trump’s election did spark genuine curiosity about America’s struggling white working class, and Roseanne could explore these issues while reaching more people than Hillbilly Elegy ever could.
The short-lived revival’s quality was decidedly mixed. “Go Cubs” is a ridiculous episode where Roseanne thinks her Muslim neighbors might be terrorists after she spots a large supply of fertilizer. But the reboot also advanced intriguing character development, with plainspoken, true-to-life dialogue.
Defending her Trump vote to her sister, Roseanne says, “He talked about jobs, Jackie. He said he’d shake things up. I mean, this might come as a complete shock to you, but we almost lost our house, the ways things are going.”
It’s the kind of calculation—how people often reduce voting decisions to a few carefully selected thoughts—sophisticated political analysts often miss.
But the Roseanne reboot experiment had limitations from the start, and that’s partly due to changes in how we consume television. We like to think Netflix and Hulu ushered in an explosion of creative content and entertainment, but Roseanne illustrates how the old mediums were occasionally superior. We now binge one show and then quickly move on to the next, just to keep up with dinner party (or Zoom) conversations of, “So, what are you guys watching?” Roseanne, in contrast, needed reruns on Nick at Nite to really shine.
Roseanne originally ran from 1988-1997, and the ratings plateaued by 1992. Yet some of the best episodes came later, as we saw Roseanne and Dan (John Goodman)’s children, Becky (Sarah Chalke, Lecy Goranson), Darlene (Sara Gilbert), and D.J. (Michael Fishman) (not counting the late series baby), growing up before our eyes. And by re-watching reruns, often out of order, we began to see behavioral patterns we could empathize with.
In the early seasons, Becky’s boyfriend, Mark (Glenn Quinn), is a James Dean-without-brains kid with a bad attitude and little respect for Becky’s parents. Eventually, when Becky is just 17, they elope. Dan is irate and threatens to force their annulment. Later, when Becky and Mark are living together in a trailer home, she expresses regret and wants to return to school to become a doctor. When she complains to her mom about her life decisions, she blurts out, “Why didn’t you stop me from marrying him?”
It’s a startling moment, because we, the viewers, know that her parents made every attempt imaginable to prevent her from dating Mark. The point was obvious to everyone who watched the show. Roseanne responds with a typical joke, but then calmly reminds her that while “it’s too late for me, you’re still young, Becky.” What’s also apparent is that Roseanne no longer abhors Mark as her son-in-law, because the sharp-tongued-biker becomes a kinder, goofier husband. In other words, he’d become Dan.
We saw again and again how the children are just like their parents, and vice versa. In a now classic episode, “A Stash from the Past”, the Connors express outrage that one of the kids left marijuana in the house, only to realize it was their own pot from long ago.
A key theme of the show is how confining life is for millions of working class Americans. It’s a vicious cycle, with parents—despite their frequent warnings and objections— watching helplessly as their children repeat the same mistakes they made.
We saw that story arc with Darlene and her boyfriend, David. They’re both wisecracking drifters who need to see the world outside Lanford, Illinois. While Darlene goes to art school in Chicago, David stays with the Connors and barely finishes high school. After graduation, David is uncertain about taking a trip to Europe, and Dan encourages him to go. “I’d really hate to see you pass this up, David. You’ve got the time. You’ve got the money. I’ve seen this before. If you don’t do this now, maybe you’ll never do it,” Dan says.
Having seen the show to its conclusion, we know that David never makes it to Europe. While Darlene prepares for a potentially successful career, an unexpected pregnancy precipitates her early marriage to David, and they decide to live right there in Roseanne and Dan’s Lanford home.
Watching their hopes and dreams dashed over nine seasons made the show highly relatable. Moreover, the economic issues are arguably even more salient in 2020 than they were in the 1990s. Senator Bernie Sanders’ obsession with income inequality made him a fringe member of Congress in those days, but a major presidential candidate during the past two election cycles.
And think of how many Americans stay near their childhood homes. People who speak of “getting out of [inset your native rural community] to move to New York” prove the exception and not the rule. A 2015 New York Times upshot analysis finds that the typical American lives 18 miles from their mother, while only 20 percent move more than a couple hours away from their parents. And a 2019 Brookings Institution study shows that, contrary to popular perception, Americans are actually becoming less mobile.
Limited economic prospects result in limited life options. In the true crime documentary Tiger King, we saw a similar example of the rut people find themselves in across Middle America. Why else would one stay employed at a private zoo where the proprietor appears more dangerous than the tigers?
During the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen this restriction of movement spread to wealthier suburbs and metropolitan spaces. It’s a sad irony that many of the same people who moved to big cities to be near art museums can no longer even leave their unaffordable apartments.
Towards the end of Roseanne’s original run, Dan describes his feeling of paralysis, and his frustration finally boils over. While taking a trip to California to care for his mother, he has an emotional but sexless affair with another woman. Trying to explain himself to Roseanne’s sister Jackie, he thunders, “You don’t know what it’s like! Things are different out there! Life is easier. People are 60 years old; they look 40. It’s 72 degrees and sunny all the time. It’s not like here!”
The reboot only hinted at these sentiments, and if most of the characters hadn’t escaped Lanford, the brave new world had come to them. D.J. is now in an interracial marriage. Darlene has a son who dresses in girls’ clothing, though he is not (yet) transgender. This set up might seem contrived, trying too hard to demonstrate “white people grappling with a changing America”, but there is still potential to create fresh and enlightening television. Ineed, the offshoot The Connors—which ABC salvaged from the ashes of the Barr scandal—still garners surprisingly solid ratings.
But this exploration would have to go on without Roseanne Barr. Like Trump, Barr deployed obfuscation and denial. She lashed out at Sara Gilbert for continuing the show without her. She maintained that she wasn’t being racist towards Jarrett, tellingly using Trumpian language about “low IQ” people who didn’t understand her tweet. She toured with Andrew Dice Clay for an anti-PC throwback. From a witty, creative person to a Fox News clone, Barr retreated to her closed-off world—a life choice all too familiar.