Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re discussing the single-season Roseanne revival (2018, ABC), which is currently available on Peacock.
Roseanne stars ROSEANNE BARR as Roseanne, JOHN GOODMAN as Dan, LAURIE METCALF as Jackie, SARA GILBERT as Darlene, LECY GORANSON as Becky, and MICHAEL FISHMAN as D.J. With EMMA KENNEY, AMES MCNAMARA, and JAYDEN RAY. And SARAH CHALKE, JAMES PICKENS JR., and ESTELLE PARSONS.
This brief nine-episode revival of Roseanne is often labeled “Season Ten,” since it is, technically, the tenth season of a sitcom with the name Roseanne, boasting the same basic cast and premise of the prior nine. However, as I expressed in my opening essay on the original series, the twenty-year break that literally disrupted continuity, not to mention the figurative disruption of continuity from the new show’s decision to “pick and choose” which aspects of the original run to keep — e.g., Dan’s not dead, and they never won the lottery; Jackie never had a kid, but Darlene had a baby named Harris — renders this a separate property. And similar to how we don’t count The New WKRP In Cincinnati as part of WKRP In Cincinnati despite shared regulars, just because this revival came back with its cast — and title — does not mean it’s fair to say this Roseanne has any bearing on the original. On the other hand, the original does have some bearing on this revival, which is why I’m going to share some quick thoughts on it here… Obviously, there have been times in the sitcom genre’s trajectory where remakes were a mini-trend — like in the early cable era — but the latter half of the 2010s saw a renaissance of this phenomenon, only now with shows that were popular in the ’90s and could still be revived with a lot of the original stars — making this not a remake, but more like… a “reboot.” From Full House to Will & Grace or Saved By The Bell to Mad About You, this era of the “niche buffet” found distributors of content looking for material with brand identification and an immediate draw — a title that viewers would actively seek to watch. Nostalgia is always a viable commercial motivator, but what made this period unique — and we’re still not totally out of it (the new Frasier is still forthcoming; God help us) — is that, at a time when the most critically lauded shows were single-camera and often dubiously comedic, the “rebooted” 1980s and ’90s sitcoms with a nostalgic appeal to Gen-Xers and older Millennials were indicative of their original eras: they were multi-cam live audience efforts, very committed to big laughs. Thus, this wasn’t just a wave of content catering only to certain properties, it was a wave of interest in resurrecting the multi-camera style, which, by this time, had developed its own sense of nostalgia.
But as I said before, I don’t hold whatever happens in these reboots against the original series, where it’s fair to talk about narrative decisions that are made in Season One versus, say, Six, because of the maintained continuity — so the fact that the inevitable difficulty of “recapturing old magic” or “going home again” after two decades renders most of these returning properties less enjoyable or critically recommendable is, well, to be expected. After all, if they each arose out of the time periods in which they first existed and were popular because they addressed the needs of the viewing audience at that time (remember: every frame of television is a period piece, a time capsule), then when they’re coming back to satisfy a specific crowd of nostalgia enthusiasts who have fond memories, the needs being met are inherently limited and therefore less dynamic. And while one could perhaps say that the nostalgia/reboot trend is itself a legitimate impetus for existence, in a “niche buffet” climate, nostalgia will forever be a possible draw, rendering it, quite frankly, less of a fad and more of an ongoing — and again, constrained — subcategory. Accordingly, several of these “rebooted” sitcoms have sought to find some contemporary dramatic relevance to justify their returns — a “why now?” And, actually, one of the common threads, particularly around 2017-2018 — which saw the network premieres of the rebooted Will & Grace on NBC, the rebooted Roseanne on ABC, and the rebooted Murphy Brown on CBS — is the great social and political changes suggested by the Trump presidency. Now, we’re not talking politics — or the beliefs of the people involved; we’re going to separate them as best we can — but we are talking about how these shows use politics. For instance, Will & Grace’s revival was sparked by a “Get Out The Vote” video its cast made in 2016. Oh, sure, as a series about LGBT characters, there was always a sociopolitical relevancy to the original run of Will & Grace, but the reason for its return was more pointed than ever about its belief in the culture’s need for these characters anew. Fortunately, that desire to justify itself via relevance burned off somewhat, and the revival merely devolved into a lesser version of what Will & Grace was in the ’00s. (We’ll talk more about it at a later date.)
In contrast, the ENTIRE premise of Murphy Brown’s return remained based on politics — the idea that her son is now an anchor at a conservative news network, while she is staunchly liberal and anti-Trump. When I first heard this, I knew the Murphy Brown reboot would be awful, for it was leaning into the part of this series’ initial identity that formed around Seasons Four and Five, and in my opinion, led to its artistic demise — prioritizing idea-led political ideology over the character-driven exploration of its leads, which, in an ensemble workplace structure, should have remained the focus. Consequently, it’s no surprise that of the four reboots for series we’ve discussed so far — Will & Grace, Roseanne, Murphy Brown, and Mad About You — Murphy Brown’s is, far and away, the worst. (More soon…) Roseanne’s return, meanwhile, similarly had a sociopolitical engine, but it was at least attached, like Will & Grace’s, to an intrinsic element of its initial identity: Roseanne Barr’s desire to depict the problems of the working-class. This reboot was conceived to do the same… only with a thesis that was more overtly political, charging that the Roseanne character, once quite liberal (as a handful of episodes on her original series illustrated), had become more conservative, and was in fact, a Trump voter. On principle, this is an idea-led premise that I don’t consider admiral justification to revisit these characters. (I much prefer Mad About You’s simple desire to check in on the central duo’s relationship now that they’re empty-nesters — that’s a character concern in line with the ’90s series’ goals.) However, the Roseanne revival was still going to examine true economic struggles for a segment of the population, commenting, interestingly, on — if not the ideological shift of the white working-class, then their partisan shift over the last 20 years. In other words, I think Roseanne actually was coming back with a premise that matched the aims of the original, and while the political Trump-era rhetoric was its gimmicky hook, it still had something sincere to say about the people Barr always endeavored to represent. The question that makes for a debate is… is this buyable? Does it jibe with our understanding of the Roseanne Conner character?
I’ve heard varying opinions on this matter — some folks believe it makes perfect sense for Roseanne to prioritize her family’s economic needs as the sole, determinative reason for her vote, while others point out that her oft-exhibited dedication to social issues (feminism, LGBT rights, racial tensions) makes her partisan switch seemingly opposed to the original conception of the character, and therefore this reboot’s whole reason for being is built on a huge disruption of continuity. I think it’s more nuanced — although it’s not buyable that the Roseanne character would vote solely on “jobs” and her own economic fortune, saying that she would is compatible with the show’s thesis, for it gives voice to so many people that Roseanne itself had strived to honestly reflect. And though it feels to some that Roseanne’s new political label undermines her earlier support for minority groups, I think the reboot actually maintains the same socially liberal perspective, and in fact, is louder in preaching love and acceptance. For instance, Roseanne has a grandchild who exhibits fluidity with gender presentation and a grandchild whose mother (Roseanne’s daughter-in-law) is Black and serving the country overseas, while one of the main arcs of the season involves artificial insemination — a topic heavily associated with female reproductive rights. In this regard, it seems like Roseanne — and her show — has not changed what it believes… all that’s changed is her character has switched political parties, like, to be fair, others in the white working-class of the Midwest… That said, if I find all of that basically consistent with the original series, I take some exception on behalf of the “working woman” ethos. That is, Barr was very big on championing the evolved depiction of women — she often over-credited her own influence in the genre — and so her absolute disdain for Hillary Clinton, more than her support for Donald Trump, is what feels more strained, specifically when it’s supposedly why Roseanne and Jackie haven’t spoken for over a year. While I get that the series is trying to suggest relatable family dysfunction, I neither believe Roseanne Conner was so against Clinton that she would talk Jackie out of voting for her or that this would cause these sisters to not speak. That’s a stretch — a use of politics for story not supported well by character.
Additionally, the tone of the reboot feels significantly different, and in a way that, I think, makes the changes to Roseanne’s character feel even bigger and less motivated than they might otherwise be. Now, this short nine-episode season has a terrific staff of scribes — led by Bruce Helford, who, along with Bruce Rasmussen, had only written for the original series in Season Five, when it was at its boldest with both comedy and topical, issue-related drama, making him seem like the right person for this job. However, there’s more of a caustic, sarcasm that, yes, creeped into Roseanne’s character in the latter half of the first run, but didn’t come to define how everyone speaks to each other, as it does here. (There are times when Roseanne and Dan feel more like Al and Peg Bundy!) And it’s far away from the initial Golden Age — Seasons Two, Three, and Four — which was gentler, simpler, and realer. To that point, this rebooted version of Roseanne is far jokier too, often going for easy comedy at the expense of the more literal realism that, for a long while, remained a chief concern of the original. More than anything, I think that’s what’s most different about the old Roseanne and the new Roseanne, for though the latter does make an effort to stay representative of its people, its overall aesthetic is not as truthful as first promised. This is coupled with a heavy over-reliance on story — there are multiple plots going at once, most of them semi-serialized (like the surrogate arc and Roseanne’s knee problem and pill addiction) — and while this too was a problem for the first series late in the run, it’s worse now, and not indicative of Roseanne at its best. It is also a reflection of what’s happened to the sitcom as an art form in the time since Roseanne, when shows like Friends and Seinfeld regularly offered three stories per week and the genre, both multi and single cams, adopted their idea-driven focus on plot, often pushing out character in favor of hasty narrative notions, connected by hit-and-miss jokes and some form of dramatic serialization. Yet I digress… for I think the Roseanne of 2018 is indeed “of” 2018, but it’s “of” 2018 in the sense that, like some contemporaries, it’s trying to make what was once successful, successful again. And the truth is — as with all of the other reboots — it’s simply not.
But it was popular. Over 18 million viewers tuned in for the premiere, and this nine-episode season got a quick renewal. Unfortunately, Roseanne Barr would not be joining the company going forward, following some shocking statements that met enough social backlash to make the network view her as more of a liability than an asset. Of course, the show would go on — in a move most familiar to Valerie Harper, when her ’80s sitcom went from Valerie to Valerie’s Family to eventually The Hogan Family — becoming The Conners, which is now heading into its fifth season. I’ve only kept up with the new series a bit — enough to know that Katey Sagal, who once played the matriarch of another rebellious blue-collar family comedy in the late ’80s and ’90s, has become Dan Conner’s second wife: a metatheatrical wink that, like the casting of Sarah Chalke as the woman for whom Becky might be a surrogate, caters directly to an audience whose intelligence is flattered by the allusion. From what I have seen, it looks like the new show has done a decent job of not cutting off its affiliation with Roseanne’s working-class ethos, but it’s also maintained a heavy emphasis on weekly story, where narrative beats are as important, if not more, than the characters within them, asking our nostalgically accrued investment to carry interest in all the plot maneuvers that seem to be ever-unfolding. But alas, rarely now are characters explored simply through low-concept, episodic story that’s driven by them specifically. Again though, I digress… I just wanted to share some thoughts on the brief “reboot” of this show called Roseanne, so we could discuss how it built on the original series that we have spent the last few months discussing. Whether you consider it a tragic postscript, or a worthy bonus, it’s an example of the late ’10s turning back to a former sitcom success in the hopes of reigniting, even temporarily, some past glory. With only nine episodes, it’s hard to say that it ever does recapture that past glory, but I have come up with three entries that I think best embody the tenor of this former classic’s abbreviated revival season.
01) Episode 3: “Roseanne Gets The Chair” (Aired: 04/03/18)
Dan installs a stair-lift chair for Roseanne, who struggles to discipline her granddaughter.
Written by Sid Youngers | Directed by John Pasquin
Although named after a running gag with Roseanne and a stair-lift, which helps reiterate the knee problems that will allow for an arc about her being addicted to opioids — a dramatic idea that is supposed to be relatable to the Conners’ demographic and is absolutely fuel for the family’s economic burden — the real meat of this episode is a battle between Roseanne and Darlene’s daughter, who’s not used to being disciplined, and definitely not in Roseanne’s way. There’s also a certain crassness to this teleplay — with a meta joke about TV programming that is in-keeping with what the original Roseanne offered near the end of its run, but in substance, is dramatically counterproductive — and any time Roseanne is physical with the kids, it feels forced, given what her father did to her… However, I can point to this script’s style as indicative of how these characters and their show has indeed changed for this reboot, while also reinforcing one of the things early Roseanne was great about providing: funny but relatable parenting plots.
02) Episode 5: “Darlene V. David” (Aired: 04/17/18)
David returns, while Bev is kicked out of her nursing home.
Written by Bruce Helford | Directed by Gail Mancuso
Nostalgia is the guiding value of this entry — credited to showrunner Bruce Helford, who again, only ran the original during its fifth season — as it boasts the returns of both David and Bev. David, played by Johnny Galecki (then starring on The Big Bang Theory — easily the most popular multi-camera sitcom of the 2010s), gets more of his interim whereabouts fleshed out here, as we learn of the difficulties in his relationship with Darlene — details that aren’t surprising, given how on-again/off-again they were at various points of the first run. This story is played a little more seriously than I like, but it makes sense for the characters and gives the viewers what they want: a genuine connection to the original. In that same vein, the great Estelle Parsons’ Bev is back, having been kicked out of her home for giving too many people gonorrhea — a naturally funny idea that is congruous with her depiction. (For instance, remember when she broke her pelvis having sex?) So, it’s amusing and logical for character.
03) Episode 7: “Go Cubs” (Aired: 05/08/18)
Dan’s business struggles while Roseanne must ask a favor of her Muslim neighbors.
Written by Dave Caplan | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
I highlight this excursion because it introduces the economic drama that will propel the storytelling in the year’s last few episodes — where Dan’s business is hit and the family’s misfortunes pile (Roseanne’s addiction, her need for surgery, and the flooding of the basement) — thereby developing themes that link the reboot with what the Roseanne series was initially designed to be. Also, it offers an example of the kind of socially liberal perspective that’s reminiscent of the original series’ and isn’t obscured now, despite the change in the central character’s politics. In other words, this story really leans into how unpleasantly prejudiced Roseanne is about her Muslim neighbors — and, as when the ’90s show dealt with social issues, this revival doesn’t shy away from making its lead wrong and in need of, well, empathy and understanding. Is it morally didactic, like a Norman Lear piece? Yes, but there are seeds of the original Roseanne in here, using elements of the character’s new situation — her more conservative values — within a framework that ultimately preaches the same ideology with which this show was always more affiliated, even in this “reboot” with a Trump-era hook.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Twenty Years To Life,” the premiere that predicates a lot of its laughs on the novelty of reintroducing these characters and presenting the changes in their lives, “Dress To Impress,” which, more than any other, reiterates the show’s socially liberal point-of-view (via a story about Roseanne’s grandson), and “No Country For Old Women,” which has some really terrific moments for Laurie Metcalf and Estelle Parsons.
I’ve not selected an MVE for this small list
Come back next week for my thoughts on the Mad About You reboot! And stay tuned tomorrow the new Murphy Brown!