In the Roseanne Revival, the Political Becomes the Personal

5 minute read

Roseanne Conner is a Trump voter, and it makes sense. The sitcom mom played by Roseanne Barr lives in one of the Rust Belt towns that broke heavily against Hillary Clinton–though, in Illinois, she’s technically a blue stater. She’s provocative and likes to speak frankly. And, in the first episode of her sitcom revival (premiering March 27 on ABC), she’s newly attracted to one side of our ongoing culture war. Preparing to say grace before dinner, she makes a reference to recent NFL protests, asking her liberal sister (Laurie Metcalf), “Would you like to take a knee?” Roseanne has always been an insult comic, so it’s no surprise that she’s drawn to a President whose power comes in part from his punch lines.

In its first run, Roseanne was political, but more implicitly than explicitly. The show dealt less with debates happening on the national stage and more with ones happening at kitchen tables, with the frayed purse strings of two working-class parents, and the even more frayed sanity that came with their trying to raise three kids in the midst of the 1990s’ evolving cultural mores. Returning after 20 years off the air, though, Roseanne enters a world in which kitchen-table debate has become dominated by the cultural chaos that created and is stoked by the President. It’s among a group of sitcoms doing crisp and effective work taking on social issues–territory that mainstream TV drama has all but left behind.

This new iteration of Roseanne makes a statement by kicking off with a brutally real, lengthy debate between sisters Roseanne and Jackie over their divided allegiances. The political is personal–the pair still haven’t recovered from wounds inflicted in late 2016–and the personal swerves back around to political too. “You just can’t stand for anybody to have their own opinions about anything, can you?” asks Jackie. “So you tell them how stupid they are all the time.”

It’s a layered depiction of the ways in which politics divide families–not just by disagreement, but by a divisive rhetorical style that’s become ubiquitous in American life. Roseanne–both the comic and the character–was always gifted at mean jokes, but she’s grown crueler; so have the times in which she lives. Recognizing that change is funny and sad in equal measure. It’s a balance that the contemporary family sitcom is uniquely equipped to pull off.

And thank goodness, because dramas, at present, can’t or won’t. Human-scale stories like Friday Night Lights or Six Feet Under, which assessed how contemporary culture alters the home and family lives of quotidian Americans, have gone out of style. On network TV, the procedural reigns supreme. (The secret of NBC’s This Is Us, notionally a family drama, is that it’s effectively a procedural that re-examines the same death every week.) And on cable and streaming, attempts to look at politics’ impact on families–like Alan Ball’s flawed but promising Here and Now, currently airing on HBO–can’t help but be overshadowed by fire (from Game of Thrones‘ dragons) and fury (from the endless stream of antiheroes that keep cropping up in premium dramas). Politics as will be practiced by Robin Wright in the upcoming final season of House of Cards is glamorous enough for prestige drama, but politics as it affects lunch-pail Americans is reserved for comedy.

That’s all the better, given how much good comedies have been doing with it. On Netflix’s One Day at a Time, complexities of gender and Latinx identity are parsed with élan. The show, which depicts the lives of a Cuban-American family in Los Angeles, places real pain in their path–homophobia, racism, misogyny, struggles with mental illness. And yet the show is more than the sum of its problems. It gives its stories heft and a dollop of genuine warmth; its debates are infused with the sense that each participant is aware that they’re stuck with their conversation partner for life. Meanwhile, on Roseanne‘s network home, ABC, families both like and unlike the Conners have been debating tough topics for years. On Speechless, a superb show about a family whose eldest son (Micah Fowler) has a disability, the struggle to obtain resources on a recognizably tight budget and to balance the needs of all three children has enough juice and tension to roll on for years to come.

And on TV’s current reigning family sitcom, black-ish, the arguments have only grown sharper in the Trump era. News broke this month that ABC had shelved an episode of the series that dealt with the debate over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. Why the episode didn’t make it to air isn’t known, but it seemed like a missed opportunity for the network to address a topic that’s been widely discussed and that has meaning beyond itself–as Roseanne, with her barbed comment about the protests, knows well. Hers shouldn’t be the only take allowed to exist on the air. After all, debates give both sides their time.

What Roseanne coming to ABC should represent is continued engagement with new points of view in America’s endless debate. What it might too easily become, even at a time of openness to all kinds of TV families, is the loudest voice in the room.

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