Life expectancy for Americans has fallen to an average of 78.6 years. This is a drop from the most recent estimates—indicating a downward trend that is virtually unheard of in Western countries. A report just released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls this “a disturbing result not seen in the US…since 1915 through 1918, which included World War I and a flu pandemic.” The report blames the downward trend on increases in opioid abuse, suicide, and diabetes.
So perhaps it is fitting that when ABC debuted The Conners, a spinoff from last year’s canceled Roseanne, the writers decided to kill off Roseanne Conner by having her succumb to an opioid addiction—an addiction so secret that even her husband, Dan (John Goodman) was shocked when his daughters started unearthing random bottles of pain pills around the house after Roseanne’s death.
The real life Roseanne Barr is still very much alive, as she reminded her fans when The Connors debuted in mid-October, tweeting, “I’m not dead, b*&%#es.” But it was a tweet last May that killed Barr’s tenure at ABC. She tweeted about President Obama’s close advisor, Valerie Jarrett: “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj.” At first Barr blamed the tweet on the sleep aid, Ambien, and then she claimed that didn’t know Jarrett was African American. Finally, she apologized: “to Valerie Jarrett and to all Americans. I am truly sorry for making a bad joke about her politics and her looks. I should have known better. Forgive me—my joke was in bad taste.” But the damage was done. ABC promptly canceled Roseanne, calling Barr’s tweet “abhorrent, repugnant, and inconsistent with our values.”
Sara Gilbert, who plays Roseanne’s daughter Darlene, and Goodman scrambled to find a way to keep the show alive. Indeed, the Roseanne reboot was Gilbert’s idea in the first place. They were also concerned about the ability of the hundreds of people employed by the sitcom, in front of and behind the camera, to keep their jobs.
Ironically, perhaps, some have argued that The Conners is just as good—and maybe even better—than Roseanne. The show was always an ensemble piece, and every actor associated with the reboot has remained. Even better, D.J.’s (Michal Fishman) African American wife, who last spring was off camera fighting in Afghanistan, is now back from the war (Maya Lynne Robinson), and there are delightful cameos by Johnny Galecki as Darlene’s ex-husband, Matthew Broderick as Jackie’s pompous Halloween date, and Jay R. Ferguson (Peggy’s bearded coworker from Mad Men!) as Darlene’s new boss at a tabloid newspaper.
Michael Schneider writing for Indiewire suggests that without the distraction of Roseanne Barr’s politics the show can go back to doing what it did so well in the 1990s: chronicling the woes of the working class. The Conners struggle with many problems familiar to working-class families: the grief from losing someone to opioid addiction, the additional loss of Roseanne’s income, alcoholism, being fired, being underemployed, being forced to work in crappy service industry jobs because nothing else is available, blue collar jobs that suck, dicey sexual situations in the workplace, and a threadbare house that is falling apart and which has to hold several generations because of finances. The Conners also face less class-specific problems of tween sexuality, teenage sex, divorce, religion, politics, and a multi-racial family.
One of the most interesting consequences of the Roseanne reboot, its subsequent cancellation, and its rebirth as The Conners is that television critics are talking about class on television. These discussions fall into two oddly contradictory threads. Some argue that television has never properly addressed class, arguing, as Pepi Lesteinya did in Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class, that television has either long ignored, mocked, or derided the working class in its portrayals. The other thread, which seems to belie the first, is that in the good old days television represented the working class with love, but that now those days are gone.
The truth is more complicated than either of these claims.
First, working-class people have always been featured on network television in greater numbers than we have been able to see as scholars, in part because there are simply too many hours to count, watch, and apprehend. From my own research, I can assert that 1950s television was weird, heterogeneous, ethnically and racially diverse, full of working-class characters and themes, and ideologically diverse as well. While this is not a view in the scholarly mainstream, I have allies for this argument in the scholars who contributed to The Other Fifties: Interrogating Mid Century Icons, and, especially, Horace Newcomb’s chapter, “Meaningful Difference in 50s Television.”
Despite the seeming scarcity of working-class themed television comedies, many such shows have been at the center of a canon of the most watched and re-watched series in television history. The 1950s offered The Honeymooners and The Life of Riley, game shows like Queen for a Day, and variety shows featuring diverse casts such as The Milton Berle Show and The Red Skelton Show. The 1960s and 70s brought dozens of television series about public sector workers (nurses, teachers, cops, and fire fighters) and classics like All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude, and Laverne and Shirley. Don’t forget the longest running TV series in history, The Simpsons or more recent series such as Two Broke Girls and Superstore. Across these eras, working-class characters, working-class writers, and actors from working-class backgrounds have always been a core staple of the small screen. A quick visual for this comes from Vulture’s timeline of working class sitcoms on network television.
Despite all this attention to the working class, one thing is for sure: television is bad at class struggle. On rare occasions, such as with the 1990s drama WWII era Homefront (1991-1993), unions are portrayed with dignity and realism, but for the most part television either ignores or distorts class conflict. On the other hand, the most consistent theme of most working-class sitcoms, including The Conners, is that it is a struggle to be working class.
In an op-ed last week David Brooks mused about the decline in life expectancy for Americans, concluding that since the economy is currently going gangbusters, that the only thing that can explain the uptick in opioid deaths and suicides among working-class Americans is some strange brew of economics, philosophical rot, and moral decay. But Brooks is wrong. Whatever the GDP might indicate, the American economy has been in decline for working people for a long time—even more so since the financial collapse of 2008. There is no single state in the US in which a minimum wage job can afford a worker a two-bedroom apartment. Inequality is more pronounced than in any time in US history. African American poverty in the South is considered by the UN to be some of the worst anywhere in the world. And as Forbes magazine reported in August, the real economy isn’t booming.
For now The Conners remain on the air, with their lives and their dignity intact, if only just barely. I hope that ABC and its viewers will keep the show on the air long enough for us to keep talking about class and culture—and about class struggle. The struggle is real.
Kathy M. Newman
Kathy M. Newman is an Associate Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University and author of Radio-Active: Advertising and Activism 1935-1947.