Roseanne Barr Meets the New World

5 minute read

When Roseanne returned to prime-time television in March, it was only natural that the title character would be a Trump voter. The Republican won the presidency on the hopes of the small towns and working-class families the iconic ABC series brought to such warm and funny life through nine seasons that ended, the first time, in 1997. A straight talker like Roseanne Conner almost prefigured the candidate who used his very first presidential debate to distinguish himself from ordinary politicians: “When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me.”

There was even talk that Roseanne’s revival could bridge the chasms that opened in society in the two decades it was off the air. That was the stated hope of ABC, and the cast. “I think the uniqueness is, television has become splintered and fractured a little bit like our country has,” said Michael Fishman, who played Roseanne’s son D.J., in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “There’s something in the show for everybody.”

Not quite. When the end came this time, on May 29, it was because its namesake drove a spike into the body politic. A Trump supporter in real life, Barr posted a blatantly racist tweet likening Valerie Jarrett, an African-American senior adviser to former President Obama, to an ape. Within hours, ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey delivered the network’s verdict in a single, stinging line: “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show.”

That Trump’s supporters include racists is hardly news. His candidacy was embraced by fringe elements ranging from former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke to the white supremacists who call themselves “alt right.” Before running, Trump prepared the ground by championing the “birther” issue; speciously questioning Obama’s American birth was widely understood as a dog whistle intended to undermine the legitimacy of the country’s first African-American President.

For those who understand Trump’s upset election as a reaction to Obama’s presidency, racism is part of the explanation. Among the studies detecting racial bias in Trump’s base was a pre-election Reuters poll that found Trump supporters more likely than supporters of other candidates to describe blacks as “violent” or “lazy.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study in April crediting Trump’s victory not to pocketbook concerns–the sort Barr cited in interviews–but, rather, to “issues that threaten white Americans’ sense of dominant group status.”

None of which means any given Trump supporter is racist, or associates any previous greatness of America with the ignoble elements that nostalgia glosses over. But Barr sure filled the bill. Perhaps in the 1990s her provocations could be read as ferocious ownership of a persona (see: grabbing her crotch and spitting on the ground after boos answered her butchering of the national anthem before a baseball game). But by the time ABC greenlighted the show last year, Barr’s Twitter feed was a minefield of crank theories and overt racism. In a 2013 post she later deleted, Barr called Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice “a man with big swinging ape balls.” A Hillary Clinton aide was “a filthy nazi whore.”

The revival of Roseanne, however, was a massive hit, and ABC ordered a second season after the first episode. Trump claimed it as a victory. “I called her yesterday. Look at her ratings!” the President crowed at an Ohio rally after the premiere. “Over 18 million people, and it was about us!”

But if social media lets everyone sound off, it also makes it much easier to circle the wagons in response. Barr posted her Jarrett slur the same day that Starbucks closed its U.S. stores for mandatory racial-bias training. In the 21 years between seasons 9 and 10, major corporations emerged as enforcers of inclusion, punishing states for excluding transgender teens from public toilets or failing to support same-sex marriages. It’s not only fear of boycotts driving the progressive stands, it’s also the imperative of recruiting: highly skilled, creative employees can choose where they work. How much more attractive an employer is Sanofi after answering Barr’s post blaming Ambien for her rants with a post of its own: “racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication”?

ABC was on track to pocket perhaps $60 million next year off the revival, but at what cost? The network now competes not with two main rival networks but a dozen streaming services for the writers and showrunners who can put together a series that stands apart the way Roseanne did, especially the first time around. But by the evening of May 29, the revival was utterly and completely banished from every platform: YouTube, ABC Go, the works. On PlayStation Vue, one of the ways to watch live TV in our splintered new world, the only evidence that remained was a vestigial listing on the digitized prime-time grid for 8 p.m. E.T.: “Season 10, Episode 3: Roseanne Gets the Chair.”

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