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The ‘Roseanne’ Wars

Does a sitcom really deserve this much political capital? In the time of President Trump, the answer is unfortunately “yes.”

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Forget the characters, forget Roseanne Barr, forget Donald Trump’s endorsementRoseanne is reactionary by its very design. It’s an old show, recalling an old style, reuniting an old cast to evoke a simpler decade of television. Nearly 30 years after Roseanne premiered, TV viewers now live in an age of overabundance, and it seems like it should be easier than ever for Trump’s critics to ignore even the biggest network TV sitcom going, much as TV critics marginalized Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory. Still, Roseanne—and its massive ratings success after two weeks—is a bad sign. Less so because it presents two aging Trump voters as admirable parents, and more so because it represents the Cult of the Trump Voter, the media faction that rationalizes Trump’s hateful politics, his hateful supporters, and his selfish supporters, to the point of contrivance. Roseanne Barr did not invent this myth, nor did she found its cult. She’s just reaping the ratings as Trump watches along with the rest of us.

The first few, new episodes of Roseanneresurrected on ABC last week after 21 years in cryostasis—have provoked a discourse so polarized that Donald Trump has advocated in the TV show’s favor. On Friday, ABC renewed Roseanne for an 11th season, thus fulfilling the network’s post-election promise to spend more of prime time depicting “true realities of what life is like for everyday Americans.”

The meta-politics of Roseanne Barr are more layered and complicated than the show, alone, lets on. Roseanne Conner is an adorable dolt, her punch lines no more or less righteous or persuasive than her sister Jackie’s liberal counterpoints. In reality, Roseanne—the series creator, the star, the iconoclast—is a vicious troll. For years, she’s operated as a political eccentric. Most recently—as she’s identified with Trump’s outrageous political rise—Barr has antagonized Parkland survivor and gun control activist David Hogg, and publicized right-wing, post-Pizzagate conspiracy theories about child sex trafficking. As a person, Roseanne Barr contains the political aptitude of a chain email, and her public musings form a black and viscous stream of garbage.

It is Barr’s reactionary antics, and not her character Roseanne Conner’s frivolous conservatism, that have made the new Roseanne a critical flashpoint. “It can be very difficult to separate the art from the artist,” the author Roxane Gay writes for The New York Times. “In the case of Roseanne Barr and her critically acclaimed television show based on her life, it is nearly impossible.” Quickly, Roseanne has become not only the most watched prime-time show in America, but also the most hated. In its second night, Roseanne held its spot as the most-watched scripted show on American television.

In the latest episode, the Conner family’s general dysfunction has displaced the family’s explicit politics, but the show’s politicized premiere lingers as a permanent subtext. Roseanne and her husband, Dan, both embody the mythical Trump voter: they are old, white, frumpy, and broke, their political conservatism owing to a perceived ascendancy of people and principles unfamiliar to them. Their home is a closed set, and so even as Darlene and several other familiar members spout rude liberalism at the dinner table, the Conner household stands in the viewer’s imagination as a Trump stronghold. If anything, the fact Roseanne and Dan are otherwise besieged by liberal condescension makes the fantasy far more appealing among self-victimizing conservatives, and more true to their grievances about marginalization, than if the Conner household were indeed full of Republicans. Still, the Conner household’s conservatism is pretty whimsical. Roseanne Conner votes for Trump because Trump promises to resemble Roseanne Conner. She spars with Darlene and Jackie because the character dynamics and the rhythm of punch lines requires it.

Worse yet, Roseanne has become a political flashpoint at the presidential level. In the two days after the show’s record-breaking premiere, Trump congratulated Barr via phone and then cited her success at an Ohio rally as a milestone for white identity politics. “Look at her ratings. They were unbelievable,” Trump told the crowd. “And it was about us.” It’s that last bit that summarizes the real trouble of Roseanne: conservatives and liberals, alike, have sold themselves on the idea that Roseanne is “about” Trump voters, never mind the show really being about a white family defined by a rather fractured politics. The nuances and contradictions of the Conner family are quite possibly lost on Trump, who may not even watch the show closely enough to confront its more challenging messages about health care costs or gender fluidity. The president simply views Roseanne as a favorable political cudgel. So, too, do many of the show’s proponents and opponents.

Beyond discussion of this particular TV show, Trump’s critics have long challenged the president’s exclusionary conception of “us.” The characters Roseanne Conner and her husband, Dan, just so happen to be the tidiest, most telegenic representations of the sort of person Trump means to flatter by celebrating Roseanne. So the sitcom becomes a political trap. If Roseanne does become the popular face of Trump voters—the second-night ratings, while slightly down from the premiere, suggest that the show’s prime-time dominance will hold—then it serves a treacherous political end. It further obscures the more unsympathetic factions—the neo-Nazi cosplayers, the middle class bigots, and the classic Republican billionaires—who comprise Trump’s base. The show’s mythology is annoying, but what’s truly frightening is the popular inclination to take its mythology so seriously, as if it were the subject of three debate moderators and a fact-checking department. Looking to a network TV sitcom for absolute verisimilitude is precisely the problem with the American brain, which succumbs to a conflation of entertainment value and political credibility. To posture, one way or another, about the politics of Roseanne has become an urgent political imperative, with one’s disposition toward the show amounting to a determination about Trump voters in general.

For many observers, including Trump, it is not enough to evaluate whether Roseanne is entertaining. As a matter of American politics, one must decide whether the model demographic deserves these characterizations and this exceptional level of success. The question, then, is whether Roseanne is true. It is, to my mind, a bizarre question to be asking about a network TV sitcom; the question’s silliness is revealed by the fact Trump went out of his way to answer. In general, the conflation of entertainment and politics is more useful to Trump than anything Roseanne Barr has ever said or achieved. So even the liberal backlash to Roseanne seems to fuel his dystopian moment, so defined by addiction to television, and a refusal to change the channel.