Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Fake Blues: ABC's Roseanne

Roseanne Barr as Roseanne Conner in ABC's revival of Roseanne. (Photo: Adam Rose)

One of the truest and weirdest signs of the changing attitudes towards television is the central role that “reboots” of classic shows have taken on in critical discussions of the state of the art. (Everyone is a pop-culture critic now, and that’s truer for TV than it is for most things.) Most of the reboots that have attracted the most attention are of shows from the 1990s, such as The X-Files, Twin Peaks, Full House, and now Roseanne. It’s easy to see why: they’ve been gone long enough to inspire feelings of nostalgia, but are still recent enough that most of the key members of the casts can be tracked down and put back to work without the aid of walkers or jumper cables. (Netflix’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 should probably be counted a remake, like the current version of Hawaii Five-O, because its main cast is new, but players from the original version, notably show creator and star Joel Hodgson, have turned up in cameos to give their blessing to the new kids on the block.)

Reboots are nothing new, but in the old days of classic TV, they tended to be less critically respectable. In truth, they were kind of sad. When Gordon Jump, Richard Sanders, and Frank Bonner appeared in the syndicated The New WKRP in Cincinnati for a couple of seasons in the early ‘90s, nobody thought they’d dropped a bunch of sizzling-hot opportunities because they thought there was so much more left to be said through these second-string sitcom characters. If they felt any embarrassment at being back at their old jobs ten years later, at least they had the comfort of knowing that not that many sober people were watching. Today’s high-profile A-list reboots are subjected to arduous critical analysis aimed at determining, say, whether the Art Bell-flavored paranoia of The X-Files translates to the Fox News paranoia of our contemporary landscape. 

And, brought out of cold storage and exposed to the light of day and coverage at Buzzfeed and Vox, is the show really good enough to pass muster in the age of peak TV or was it always really just a . . . TV show? A lot of this is silly, to say the least. The X-Files was always just a TV show — except that it was a really good TV show, maybe one of the two or three best network shows of the ‘90s. Its two new seasons were uneven, the new conspiracy through-line was a nonstarter, and David Duchovny, once perhaps the most fulsomely praised leading man on series TV, appears in dire need of a hug, but they were worth doing just for the two new episodes from geek god and Mulder-and-Scully savant Darin Morgan, a man whose career, to adapt a line from Greil Marcus about Lester Bangs, raises the question of whether the best writer in Hollywood could be a man who can write nothing but X-Files episodes. Further analysis might have to wait until enough smoke and hype blow over for TV critics to acknowledge that The Sopranos and Breaking Bad are always just (really good) TV shows.

Roseanne, the biggest domestic sitcom of its era, was also a really good show. In fact, at its peak — which I’d say was roughly from the second through the sixth of its nine seasons — it was probably one of the other two or three best network shows of the ‘90s. It started out as an uninspired situation comedy with an amazing supporting cast surrounding a talk-show celebrity: Roseanne Barr, a thirty-five-year-old stand-up comic who had begun her career performing in Colorado and enjoyed a meteoric rise in show business after she began appearing on TV in the mid-1980s. Overweight, stolid and smirking, Barr’s act was virtually all attitude: she called herself a “domestic goddess” and talked sarcastically about the hassles of being a wife and mother and the constant insults that she, as a smart woman from a blue-collar background, constantly endured at the hands of TV commercials, magazines, and other emissaries of the consumer society. ABC assigned career producers to transform Barr into “Roseanne Conner,” working wife and mother in Lanford, Illinois, and construct a show around that attitude. 

Roseanne Barr and John Goodman in Roseanne. (Photo: Adam Rose)

Roseanne was a hit from the start, but it didn’t begin to click as a show with some buzziness and a potential long shelf-life until Barr wrestled control from the network suits and turned Roseanne Conner into a lived-in character. She didn’t have the acting chops of her co-stars — John Goodman as her husband, Dan; Laurie Metcalf as her sister, Jackie; and Sara Gilbert as her daughter Darlene, an aspiring writer and thrift-store Goth-in-training — but she had an idea of what an intelligent, acidic woman stuck at the lower-middle rungs of the economic ladder might be going through if she didn’t have stand-up as a creative outlet and possible ticket out, and she rode that idea to the bank. The Conners were a loving, mutually supportive family — this wasn’t Married . . . with Children, a show that Roseanne had turned down — but both Roseanne and Dan had dreams that couldn’t be pursued and fulfilled because of their family responsibilities, and they had nightmares of their kids following in their footsteps. (The older daughter, Becky, played by Lecy Goranson, dropped out of high school and ran off with her boyfriend to get pregnant.) And though they managed to keep a roof over their heads, they skirted with real hardships in a way that made viewers aware of the precariousness of economic status. When Dan, making one last desperate stab at being his own boss, opens a doomed bike shop and the family’s bank balance becomes iffy enough that their lights are turned off, Roseanne says, with an unusually cheery grin, “Middle class was fun!”

Part of Roseanne’s appeal at that stage was that, coming out of the Reagan-Bush era represented by hits like The Cosby Show, its jaundiced take on the American family, like that of The Simpsons, seemed political. It was political in a way that didn’t feel programmed or preachy; its politics were an implicit part of its efforts to freshen up a rotted-out TV format by showing sides of contemporary life that had been shut out of ‘80s programs like Cosby and its many imitators. It was also implicitly progressive. Reigning the airwaves after an extended drought for TV entertainment that successfully thumbed its nose at the zeitgeist of the Reagan-Bush years, Roseanne Barr was held up as a genius and a role model. (She also got very rich, and at the same time she was taking bows for playing a de-glamorized ordinary working woman on TV, had so much plastic surgery that the show, which finally had to find a way to acknowledge the drastic changes in its star’s appearance, made a joke out of it in the opening credits.) So there’s been an element of betrayal in some of the response to the new Roseanne, in which Roseanne Conner has become a Trump voter. 

In the current, eight-episode “tenth season” of Roseanne, neither Donald Trump’s nor Hillary Clinton’s names are spoken, but at the start of the series, Roseanne and Jackie haven’t spoken to each other in a year because of the presidential election, and it’s clear what each of them is angry about. When Jackie is finally coaxed to come over for dinner, she shows up wearing a pink pussy hat and makes a big show of having brought a bottle of Russian dressing. (This is political satire à la Neil Simon.) When the two of them hash it out, Roseanne, who seems to be the more reasonable of the two, says only that the candidate she voted for “talked about jobs” and calls his opponent a serial liar and the worst person in the world. Flustered, Jackie blurts out that she’s ashamed of herself, because Roseanne got so deep in her head by Election Day that she herself panicked and voted for Jill Stein. That’s an in-joke: Barr herself campaigned for the presidential nomination of the Green Party in 2012 but lost to Stein. Fans of the classic Roseanne will recall that when the show turned blue and began to stink — and it was bad enough to clear a convention hall by its final season — the coroner’s report listed the cause of death as “Choked on Its Own In-Jokes.”

In the promotion leading up to the reboot’s premiere, Barr has talked a great deal about how politics has divided American families; she’s made it sound as if she tore herself away from whatever she was doing because she was excited about the chance to use her venerable old vehicle to comment on this phenomenon and maybe bring the country to its senses. After the show premiered to blockbuster ratings, excitable network executives joined in, issuing statements about how Roseanne is the beginning of a new wave of greater “diversity” in their programming — by which they mean more shows geared to conservative blue-collar audiences. If Tim Allen gets back on the air, we’ll have Roseanne to thank. (By “thank,” I of course mean “stone to death in the town square.”) 

This talk of diversity sounded a bit like a sick joke even before the third episode, when Roseanne takes a shot at two of the other comedies that air on ABC the same night as hers, Blackish and Fresh Off the Boat. Waking up on the couch after nodding off watching TV, Dan grunts that he’s missed all the shows about black and Asian-American families. Roseanne offers to catch him up on them in one sentence: “They’re just like us.” This is a terrific example of a joke that might seem like just a joke in any other context but feels like a message from the fiery bowels of Western Union when delivered in the context of a show that’s stated mission is to “humanize” President Birther Von Build-a-Wall and all those nice folks who voted for him, to the snarky bewilderment of their intolerant, pussy-hat-wearing family members. 

L-R: Michael Fishman, Roseanne Barr, Ames McNamara, Jayden Ray, and Laurie Metcalf. (Photo: Adam Rose)

It seems likely that this was not the original idea at all. The real mover and shaker behind the new Roseanne wasn’t Barr, who burned off her cultural and box-office capital a long time ago 
 it was Sara Gilbert, who reportedly had the idea after retiming with Goodman on her own TV talk show and ran the gauntlet with the network to get it made. (Among other chores, she reportedly had to convince Metcalf, who was reluctant to return to the old homestead and who, like Gilbert and Goodman and unlike Barr, has not exactly been hurting for lack of work.) In the new show, Gilbert’s character has moved back into the house as an unemployed single mother of two — a bitchy teenage girl named Harris (Emma Kenney), who puts her through the kind of hell that Darlene used to put Roseanne through, and Mark (Ames McNamara), a smiling, sweet-natured little boy who likes to dress like a girl. 

Becky is also around, working as a waitress, and hoping — rather pitiably — to cut a lucrative deal with a rich woman to serve as her surrogate mother. (In a cute, all-in-the-family touch, the rich woman is played by Sarah Chalke, who filled in for Goranson when she went AWOL from the role of Becky for a couple of seasons.) And the Conners’ son D.J. (Michael Fishman) is back from serving overseas, with a little daughter (Jayden Rey) whose unseen mother, still in the military, is African-American. Metcalf slips easily into the shifting rhythms of Jackie’s self-defeating neuroses; she’s funny, and it’s not her fault if the character, still single and rudderless twenty years later and running out of time to snap out of it, now seems so pathetic that it feels mean to laugh at her. Goodman, who midway through this season hasn’t had a lot to do, has a going-through-the-motions quality, but at the very least he’s always dependably good company. Goranson, who’s had little acting career to speak of since Roseanne went off the air, is so clearly overjoyed to be on TV again that her enthusiasm is very winning — especially in contrast to Michael Fishman, who was quite the white-trash pixie as a child actor and who now looks a little embarrassed to be seen looking this big. 

In terms of talent and focus, Roseanne is Sara Gilbert’s show now, just as it’s her show behind the scenes. Gilbert gives by far the most committed performance, and it’s easy to see how she could have imagined that this would be a great way to weigh in on issues that are important to her and also explore what people her age, the literal heirs to Roseanne and Dan’s world, are doing to seek fulfillment and stay above water in the post-industrial gig economy. But at the end of the day, Roseanne is Roseanne’s show, even if she left it to Gilbert to get it on the air and even if she may be happy to leave it to Gilbert to do the battling with the network (while the network pats Barr on the back in public and congratulates her, and itself, for all the great work they’re doing reaching out to the under-served audience of white racists who vote.) Roseanne is here not because there was a perceived lust among the public to see her again or because anyone who worked on the old show was dying to have to deal with her again, but because you can’t have Roseanne without Roseanne. And Roseanne Conner voted for Donald Trump not for any reasons that match up in any coherent way with the character she used to be but because Roseanne Barr, as she demonstrated in her brief attempt to sustain some kind of acting career outside the confines of her sitcom, can only play a character she thinks of as herself.

That’s nothing new, and neither is Barr’s claim to speak for a blue-collar audience that she connects to out of shared experience, which comes across as self-serving celebrity bullshit. No doubt she believes it; at one point, it was probably true. But it wasn’t true by the later stages of Roseanne’s original run, after she had become spectacularly rich and sought-after and had grown accustomed to journalists and talk-show hosts blowing smoke up her ass. By the time Roseanne had maxed out on distracting celebrity cameos — who can forget Sharon Stone’s Emmy-worthy performance as Trailer Park Bitch? — and characters and story points torn from the tabloid headlines about the star herself, it was clear that Barr sees everything through the prism of her own narcissism, and that she had lost whatever self-knowledge or self-control had once made this a useful quality for a popular entertainer. 

Roseanne Barr in Roseanne. (Photo: Adam Rose)

She thinks that, whatever crazy thing Roseanne Conner does, she has a special resonance as a representative of the American working class, just because she is Roseanne Conner, and she herself has a special resonance as the straight-shooting, trash-talking representative voice of the American working class. For much of the past twenty years, she’s probably had about as much first-hand understanding of what American workers are going through as Donald Trump — who also sees himself as having a special connection to the working class, apparently because they feel slighted by the same group of straw people, the persnickety elites who think there’s something wrong with relying on your gut when you don’t know what you’re talking about or questioning the citizenship of the President of the United States just because — well, because you can, what the hell, right? 

I suspect that, deep down, Barr’s worship of Trump — she didn’t just vote for him because “he talked about jobs,” she’s deep in the cult — is based on seeing him as someone who’s like her, a star whom the elites don’t respect because they think he’s vulgar and trashy. In 1991, when Roseanne was at the peak of her stardom and victimization narratives about childhood sexual abuse were all the tabloid rage, she declared that she was a survivor of incest who had been molested by both her parents. Twenty years later, on yet another talk show, she said that her accusations had been based on her having “totally lost touch with reality” so that she “didn’t know what the truth was,” finally saying that she had “just wanted to drop a bomb on my family.” She and Donald Trump were made for each other.

A lot of talented people — including a writing crew that included Joss Whedon and Amy Sherman-Palladino — helped shape the original Roseanne. A lot of people are working at it this time, too. And Roseanne is there to serve as its center, spitting out one-liners and delivering speeches to a room full of children, warning them that they’d better be tolerant of her grandson’s fashion choices, in one of many moments that make it look as if the children who now represent the Conners’ extended family are there to show that Trump voters love black kids and little boys with fluid gender identities. That may not have been the original intent, but it’s what Roseanne’s Trumpiness inevitably turns the show into. It’s not as if a sympathetic portrait of a Trump voter is an inherently unworkable idea, either. It might even have been possible to chart an evolution whereby Roseanne Conner wound up voting for Trump and it made sense, but it would have to be a lot more detailed than “He talked about jobs.” Hillary Clinton, like every other politician before her, also talked about jobs; the only people who act as if she didn’t are those who don’t care what she did or said about anything, because they think she’s the devil. 

Roseanne Conner seems to think this, but it’s not clear why; Roseanne Barr thinks it because she believes Pizzagate was a real thing, which is why she’s tweeted endlessly about how Democrats in general and Donald Trump’s enemies are all members of a pedophile ring. Barr can’t shut up about pro-Trump conspiracy theories on Twitter, the more deranged and baseless the better, which makes it appear that her support for Donald Trump, like the support of so many people who’ve shared their pro-Trump views with reporters in articles that purported to be sympathetic to their cause, has less to do with anything real than with the fact that she’s actually pretty stupid. (If that seems like a harsh choice of word, read her Twitter feed before she deletes it again, and get back to me.) What it comes down to is that the Roseanne Conner on the new show might say she supports Trump, by remaining a figure of smart-assed good sense to account for her support. She can’t believably offer any legitimate, sane good reasons for her support, because the woman playing her doesn’t have any. This paradox leaves the new Roseanne hobbled by its own bad faith.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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