When ABC brought Roseanne back to life on March 27 it attracted more than 25 million viewers to its initial episode—and an additional 5-10 million caught the second airing or streamed it online. In today’s media ecosystem these numbers are staggering; only live sporting events get these kinds of numbers, typically, since most television viewers stream their TV rather than watching it in real-time. A recent study found that 60% of young adults, for example, watch TV exclusively via their computers and smart phones.
Roseanne’s ratings stunned everyone in the entertainment industry, including ABC. But the network should have anticipated this success. Roseanne emerged as part of an explicit new direction for ABC, called the Heartland Strategy, that was conceived the day after Trump won the presidential election. That morning ABC executives met at their headquarters to understand what Trump’s election signified for their own brand. As the New York Times reported, “They began asking themselves which audiences they were not serving well and what they could do to better live up to the company name—the American Broadcast Company.”
Ironically, perhaps, the person who first conceived of a reboot of Roseanne for ABC’s heartland strategy was Sara Gilbert, the actress who plays daughter Darlene Connor. Sara Gilbert is an LA-raised, Yale graduate, and out lesbian—certainly not a member of the heartland audience that ABC is trying to woo. But since playing Darlene Connor in the 1990s, Gilbert has become more interested in the heartland audience as the Emmy-winning co-host of The Talk, which has been on CBS since 2010. In looking to revive Roseanne, Gilbert did her homework: “‘It was very important to me [to show that the Connors] were still struggling,’ she says. ‘We did a lot of research, and it showed that people who were in their income bracket then were actually often making less now, not even factoring in inflation.’”
Gilbert got everyone in the cast to agree to come back to the show except for its title start: Roseanne Barr. Finally, Gilbert promised Roseanne that she would do battle with ABC for the right to produce the kind of show they could be proud of—and she promised ABC that she would keep Barr in check. Whitney Cummings, creator of the successful working-class sitcom Two Broke Girls, signed on to become a producer and writer for Roseanne, and Wanda Sykes, the African-American comedienne, was hired to be the head writer.
The rebooted Roseanne has received cheers and boos from all corners—much like the original. Those who love it say that Roseanne is funny, just as funny if not more so than the original, and that the Connors are a realistic working-class family—the kind of family that almost never appears in a positive way on network television or anywhere else in the mainstream media.
The Connor home looks almost exactly the same as it did in 1997, including the same tattered couch in the center of the living room, covered with the same crocheted granny square blanket. When Darlene’s estranged husband returns to the Connor house, and he remarks no one has redecorated Darlene’s old room, Darlene quips, “It’s a decorating choice called poverty.”
The first four episodes use humor to deal with a range of issues that affect poor and working-class families, starting with bad health and expensive, insufficient health coverage. In the first episode, Dan and Roseanne have a trading session with each others’ prescription pills so that they can each get a bit more of what they need. Their younger daughter, Darlene, moves back home with her two children because she has lost her job, and everyone in the family endures the daily struggle to make ends meet. Becky tries to become a surrogate mother to make what she thinks will be a quick and easy $50,000—only to discover that at age 43 her eggs are of such poor quality she probably can’t conceive a child through in vitro fertilization or by any other means. The show also highlights the cost and challenges of elder care when Roseanne and Jackie’s mom gets kicked out of her nursing home threatens to move in with Roseanne.
For every reviewer praising Roseanne, at least as many slam it. Many argue that the new Roseanne is not funny, and that it offers a narrow portrayal of working-class life—a crude, cartoonish, and insulting portrait that diminishes the diversity within the working class. But the harshest criticisms are targeted at Roseanne Barr herself. During the first run of her show, Barr was seen as a working-class feminist who forced the networks to address taboo subjects including racism, homophobia, money woes, infidelity, domestic violence, and teen sex. In 2012, she sought the Green Party nomination for president, losing out to Jill Stein. In a bizarre evolution, today Barr openly supports Donald Trump, endorses conspiracy theories like Pizzagate, and bashes the Parkland students, Muslims, and trans people on Twitter. Many claim that to support Roseanne is to sanction Roseanne Barr and her hateful, if oftentimes incoherent, tweets, and public statements.
Some Roseanne detractors admit the show is funny. The African-American critic and memoirist, Roxane Gay, found herself laughing at some of the jokes. But she couldn’t accept that the Connors had voted for Trump, as Roseanne Barr claimed to have done also, in real life.
I could not set aside what I know of Roseanne Barr and how toxic and dangerous her current public persona is. I could not overlook how the Conner family came together to support Mark as he was bullied at school for his gender presentation, after voting for a president who actively works against the transgender community. They voted for a president who doesn’t think the black life of their granddaughter matters. They act as if love can protect the most vulnerable members of their family from the repercussions of their political choices. It cannot.
Gay’s argument is entirely logical, but political ideologies are not. In my own extended family I know dozens of Trump voters who have black, brown, and gay children and grandchildren whom they love as fiercely as they support Donald Trump—whose policies and racist/homophobic hate mongering threaten the very lives of these same children and grandchildren.
After the first episode Roseanne’s ratings slipped down from the jaw-dropping number of 35 million, but the subsequent episodes still drew enough viewers to make all of the other networks jealous. That so many viewers are watching Roseanne suggests that the mass audience is hungry for representations of working-class people—which—if we follow Michael Zweig, is a majority of the American people. On Roseanne, and in real life, the working class includes people who can’t afford their prescription drugs, who have chronic health problems, who have close family members in the military, who can’t afford to redecorate, and who take in family members who can’t afford to pay rent on their own.
Roseanne also reminds us of that some working-class people voted for Trump, though most—like Roseanne’s sister Jackie on the series—voted for Clinton. One analysis of voter data found that “economic hardship among white working-class Americans actually predicted more support for Hillary Clinton, not Trump.”
Indeed, part of the cognitive dissonance of watching Roseanne is knowing that however down on their luck the Connors are, Roseanne Barr is one of the richest women in the US, worth more than 80 million dollars. Roseanne Barr, not Roseanne Connor, is more typical of the loopy super rich who have flocked to Trump’s cause, from the millionaire Congressional reps who used Trump to get their tax cut, to the one-percenters who feed Trump’s ego at Mar-a-Lago. Trump called Roseanne Barr to congratulate her after Roseanne debuted because if there is one thing Trump loves, it is high television ratings.
Watching Roseanne, I am prompted to wonder just how bad things are for working-class people in the US. One study tells us that more than 30% of Americans have no wealth. Most African-American families have seen stagnation and/or a reversal in income and wealth gains over the last 40 years. The United Nations is even investigating poverty in the US because the situation here is just as bad, if not worse, than poverty in some third world countries.
The Connors have been left behind by both political parties, no matter who they voted for. They deserve universal health care, good jobs, living wages, and affordable housing—as well as a president who doesn’t threaten the personhood of Roseanne Connor’s gender fluid grandson and her African American granddaughter.
My final thought after watching Roseanne concerns the Democrats, rather than the Republicans. As long as the Democratic Party gets its money and its policies from the 1%, it will never be a party of the working-class, immigrant, black, brown, and other marginalized peoples represented, at least partially, by the Connors. The Democrats need a heartland strategy, or, at the very least, a heart, to radically change the laws, tax codes and policies that have created the greatest levels of inequality and poverty in American history. Now that’s a program I would definitely watch.
Kathy M. Newman