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‘Roseanne’ the Show and ‘Roseanne’ the Controversy

The ABC reboot debuted to historic ratings—and a heated political discussion. Is it possible, or even worthwhile, to separate the show from the conversation around it?

ABC/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After a record-breaking premiere that took on the 2016 election, health care, and gender nonconformity, the second episode of the Roseanne revival went relatively light on politics. This being Roseanne, there was plenty else to argue about, mostly with the title character’s eldest grandchild, Harris (Emma Kenney). Dragged from Chicago to Lanford, Ohio, by her broke, single mom, Darlene (Sara Gilbert), Harris is lonely, resentful, and acting out her teen angst by butting heads with everyone around her, especially her irascible grandmother. Elsewhere in the Conner household, Becky (Lecy Goranson) auditions to be a surrogate and Dan (John Goodman) swipes a stair chair from a dead neighbor’s house to help with his wife’s bad knee.

“Roseanne Gets the Chair” (spoiler alert: Dan got her the chair) was one of three Roseanne episodes supplied to critics in the run-up to last Tuesday’s debut. It was also the least discussed in the advance coverage, almost certainly because it pivots away from capital-I Issues in favor of internal Conner clan dynamics. And in the days leading up to and since Roseanne’s dramatic return to ABC, Issues have dominated the conversation surrounding the show—sometimes threatening to eclipse the show itself.

A few days after the revival’s premiere telecast, The New York Times broke the story that Roseanne, along with fellow ABC retread American Idol, “was a direct result of [a] post–Election Day initiative to pursue an audience that the network had overlooked”: the middle American white working class. Though the Times report certainly supplied new details, the programming shift wasn’t quite breaking news. As early as late 2016, ABC entertainment president Channing Dungey, the first black woman to head a major broadcast television network, announced her intention to shift the channel’s focus away from “very well-to-do, well-educated people … living in extremely nice places.” That didn’t stop the story from igniting a minor firestorm, including accusations of cynical pandering and erasure of pre-existing ABC series like The Middle, the story of a middle-class Indiana family created by former Roseanne writers, and Fresh Off the Boat, which centers on Taiwanese immigrants striving for upward mobility in Orlando.

In a far more troubling development, Barr added fuel to the fire by publicly endorsing a far-right conspiracy theory linked to Pizzagate. An increased public profile has apparently done nothing to modulate Barr’s unabashed extremism, and ABC has given no indication that it plans to distance itself from its newly ultra-bankable star. Consequently, some viewers have announced their intentions to stay away from the new Roseanne episodes out of an inability to separate the art from the seriously compromised artist.

Though the creator-creation debate has had an unusually intense few months, the Roseanne debacle represents an especially tricky case. Often, the matter at hand is unclear to either side of the still-raging culture war. Is it Roseanne Barr’s right to do or say as she pleases, or is it Roseanne’s right to hash out intractable problems without the foregone conclusion of which side it’ll take? Roseanne and Roseanne will always be interconnected, but should they be, and by how much? Each has earned criticism over the past several weeks, and for largely valid reasons. But even the debut of Roseanne as a concrete object for viewers to evaluate and discuss has done little to erase Roseanne as a stand-in for its creator, or a shorthand for much larger debates about representation and who deserves it. If anything, it’s made the distinction more difficult.

Roseanne is technically the latest in a wave of shows resurrected wholesale from the more halcyon days of network TV omnipotence. Fuller House added a suffix, moved to streaming, and otherwise preserved its anodyne sense of family togetherness; Will & Grace resumed its shenanigans on NBC. But the original Roseanne, which ran for nine seasons from 1988 to 1997, was more foundational than these earlier do-overs: Writing for New York in 2011, star Roseanne Barr declared it “television’s first feminist and working-class family sitcom (also its last).” It was also exponentially more loaded than its peers in both content and context. What made Fuller House and Will & Grace so depressing to an observer of the larger culture was their fundamental blandness—a total absence of something to say, and therefore a reason for being. What made Roseanne so potentially dispiriting to the same audience was the certainty that it, and its namesake, did have something to say.

Roseanne Barr, the stand-up comedian who became massively successful in show business after traveling the Carson-to-sitcom pipeline, is not Roseanne Conner, the blue-collar Middle American she plays on TV. Given the autobiographical sales pitch of comedian-led series from The Dick Van Dyke Show to Maron, however, it’s not surprising that the two can become blurred in the public eye. And in the 21 years since Roseanne first left the air, it’s been Barr, not Conner, who’s kept the Roseanne name in the headlines with her increasing iconoclasm: running for president, making transphobic comments, and yes, endorsing our current commander-in-chief. At a January presentation to the Television Critics Association, Barr revealed that both she and her character voted for Trump. Barr framed the creative decision as a matter of realism. “It was working-class people who elected Trump,” she explained at TCA, and the Conners are the ur-working-class family. But if Trump support was a fact of life in Lanford, it was still up to Roseanne and Roseanne how they’d depict it and with what tone. “Will Old Roseanne Fans Actually Like the New Roseanne?” asked a characteristic headline from Vanity Fair.

The degree to which Roseanne is or is not an extension of Roseanne Barr is an issue as old as the show itself. Barr was famously furious when ABC installed a (male) creator to head, and profit from, a show built around her sensibility. When Roseanne became a hit, Barr used her newfound leverage to exert much more control over the writers’ room, for better or for worse. Even then, Barr had no script credits on the show until 1995, toward the end of its nearly decade-long initial run, and to this day, Roseanne’s opening attributions read “created by Matt Williams.” The woman on the posters comes after, under the peculiar billing “based on a character created by Roseanne Barr.”

Barr herself has downplayed her day-to-day creative oversight during the revival process. “I wanted somebody else to do the work that I wasn’t good at, and to let me do the work that I was good at,” she told The New York Times. “I was very protected and respected.” Instead, Sara Gilbert, the actress who plays Darlene, served as a hands-on executive producer, reflecting a fundamental on-screen shift: The Conners’ younger daughter, arguably the heart of the original series, is now Roseanne’s de facto protagonist. It’s Darlene who’s now navigating the challenges of being a working parent, bridging Roseanne’s three generations while delivering third-act monologues with that signature Conner blend of beaten-down pessimism and persistent resilience. And in the first half of the two-part premiere, it’s Darlene who serves as an intermediary between her mother and her aunt Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) in resolving their yearlong dispute over their respective votes in 2016.

To the viewer whose primary experience of the new Roseanne is all the public hand-wringing over its politics, it might come as a surprise to find that the 10th season is very clearly, at least to my eyes, the work of a left-leaning team of writers. (Barr is not credited on any of the revival episodes to date, ceding script duty to a room captained by executive producers Bruce Helford, a veteran of Roseanne’s fifth season, and stand-up Whitney Cummings, a relative newcomer.) For one thing, the president is never mentioned by name, a practice Gilbert has said will continue throughout the season in a bit that most strongly recalls, of all shows, Broad City—hardly the influence you’d expect for a piece of pro-Trump propaganda.

Roseanne is also the only member of the Conner family to express any support for the president, and even then her allegiance seems most enthusiastic when it’s a means to antagonize her sister. When Roseanne-the-character is actually articulating her beliefs, she comes across as more of a vague abstraction of a Trump voter than a mouthpiece for a real one; “he talked about jobs” does not a spirited defense make. Jackie, clad in a pussy hat and “Nasty Woman” T-shirt, gets more time to voice her objections to the current administration, and with more specificity. (In perhaps the truest representation of the American working class, who vote at significantly lower rates than higher-income citizens, the remaining Conners don’t express much of a political alignment at all.) Ultimately, the sibling divide has less to do with policy positions than their long-standing family dynamic. Roseanne is a bully who made Jackie doubt herself by constantly questioning her ability to make decisions. Jackie, now a life coach, is a perennial flake who let herself be pushed into voting for Jill Stein. Emotion, not ideology, rules the day, as befits a show that values character over messaging. The two resolve their differences by the halfway point of the premiere, and by Tuesday night’s episode, Jackie has been fully reintegrated into the Conner family fold, the partisan screaming matches dissipating along with the blood feud.

Contrary to ABC’s and Barr’s own spin, Roseanne is far from the only source of working-class, issue-driven stories on television. NBC’s dearly departed The Carmichael Show also had a character spark a family dispute by proclaiming their enthusiasm for making America great again. Superstore takes the deadening, hamster-wheel nature of hourly work as its central subject. An upcoming Roseanne subplot in which Darlene worries that taking a job as a waitress means giving up on her dreams as a writer is even identical to a recent story line on Jane the Virgin. These shows all exist in a world Roseanne made possible, yet they’ve also helped evolve TV beyond it. Fans interested in narratives about economic struggle and the people who endure it have plenty of less fraught places to find them.

Still, the Roseanne that exists separately from the discourse surrounding Roseanne—if it can exist separately—is a worthy, if imperfect, endeavor. I’ve heard criticisms of the show for failing to hold Roseanne Conner accountable for the implications of her politics or to sufficiently examine the contradictions of a woman who voted for a man pursuing a ban on transgender troops in the military while warmly supporting her gender-nonconforming grandson. To me, however, such myopia and inconsistencies feel true to life. Plenty of Americans simply don’t see how interpersonal empathy can be at odds with political cruelty, and most choose not to cut family members and loved ones out of their lives on account of their votes. Portraying that low-level hypocrisy doesn’t mean endorsing it, nor does showing sympathy for Roseanne Conner’s choice mean echoing the far more vociferously, and consistently, right-wing Roseanne Barr. Besides, Roseanne understands that for the Conners, politics isn’t the process of choosing between candidates so much as the background noise of their everyday lives. Roseanne’s preferred nominee may have won, but she still needs a chair for her knee.