Donald Clarke: ‘Roseanne’ is the latest cudgel in the brutal culture wars
Reaction to the sitcom’s 10th series highlights the yawning chasm of US politics
Polarised sisters: Roseanne Barr and Laurie Metcalfe in ‘Roseanne’
The last week would been have quieter if the 10th series of Roseanne had been useless. After all, no op-ed pages worried about that brain-withering Matt Perry reboot of The Odd Couple.
Emerging on ABC 20 years after the famously appalling ninth season, the new Roseanne could not be so quickly dismissed. Early reviews were positive. The revival went on to secure the type of ratings sitcoms managed in the days when people actually watched television. More than 18 million Americans sat through the first episode; most came back for the second.
Despite reviving Dan, patriarch of all the Conners, from the grave, season 10 manages to be unsettlingly the same. If you had it on in the background while preparing for your local NRA meeting, you could easily mistake it for the version that ended in the late Clinton era.
As that cheap (ahem) shot confirms, what has really changed is the politics of the show and the politics around the show. In recent years, Roseanne Barr has mutated into an unapologetically illiberal supporter of Donald Trump. “She tweets conspiracy theories, rails against feminism and shares Islamophobic opinions,” Roxane Gay writes in the New York Times.
Roseanne Conner is also a Trump supporter. As the show begins, the Illinois bellower is estranged from her sister, Jackie, who, initially a Hillary fan, switched to Jill Stein of the Green Party at the last moment. Roseanne’s smart younger daughter, Darlene, has moved back with two children after losing her job. Becky, the older sister, considers acting as a surrogate mother to somebody who looks a bit like her.
Roseanne Conner’s politics give her one more reason to bicker with the clan. Watching the first episode, I scribbled the words “Till Death Us Do Part” – referencing Johnny Speight’s series about an East End right-winger at odds with his own family – and then remembered the US translation All in the Family. There are differences. Unlike the anti-heroes of those shows, Roseanne Conner is not a racist. Her views are not so easily demonised. But the new Roseanne does seem to offer similar opportunities for dramatised debate on a nation’s fiercest divisions.
The American commentariat saw it differently. In the days after the premiere, a swathe of jeremiads – ranging from the reasoned to the unhinged – denounced the show in ringing terms. Gay’s piece was thoughtful. Under the headline “The Roseanne reboot is funny. I’m not going to keep watching”, she admitted the show’s virtues, but worried about it “normalising Trump and his warped, harmful political ideologies”.
Jeff Jarvis at Buzzmachine was running at a higher temperature. Like Gay, the former TV critic was unsure about the treatment of Roseanne’s black granddaughter. “An innocent, young, African-American actor is hired … even if, in real life, Roseanne Barr is not above attacking the children of Parkland,” he writes. But that’s not Barr in the scene. That’s Conner. “Then, of course, there is the child of fluid gender definition who is also tolerated by the Conner family, nevermind [sic] that their hero, Trump, keeps trying to kick transgender patriots out of the US military,” he continues. But hang on another moment. Trump is not the hero of “the Conner family”. He is a hero of Roseanne alone. The boy’s mother, Darlene, is played by the eminently sensible Sara Gilbert. Why aren’t we discussing her politics?
There was a lot more where that came from. A number of commentators wondered why, at a dinner table accommodating a Trump supporter, more toxic views on race and sexuality were not forwarded. Because that sometimes happens, I guess. In an odd piece for the Washington Post, Eugene Scott (who seems to think legal drama The Good Wife is a “sitcom”) noted that a significant number of Trump supporters were better off than the Conners. Must any sitcom character who expresses a political view now conform to a demographic median? That seems to be the implication.
Within a few days after receiving good reviews from many liberal publications, the new Roseanne had been properly weaponised. Trump phoned up Barr to congratulate her on the success and went on (surprise, surprise) to take some credit. This is a show whose second episode pressed home a boy’s right to go to school in women’s clothing. Still, any cudgel will do in the increasingly brutal culture wars.
As the debate burbled, Gilbert, an executive producer on the show, attempted to steady the ship. “It’s not about anyone’s position or a policy,” she said. “It’s really about what happens to a family when there’s a political divide, which is something that I think the entire country can relate to.”
Good luck making that defence heard over the food fight continuing at the nation’s dinner table. Could everyone just calm down and listen?