The twang of a harmonica, the blare of a saxophone, that grating laugh.
Last week, ABC continued the pop culture wave of ‘90s nostalgia by airing the premiere of its much buzzed-about “Roseanne” revival. The original was never afraid to take an unflinching and unapologetic look at working-class life in America or serve as a showcase for its brash and controversial star, Roseanne Barr. True to form, “Roseanne’s” reboot debut proved the show would be just as bracing and willing to tackle controversial issues head-on through its distinct blend of biting humor and tough love.
It’s off to a gangbusters start with its first new episode in 20 years on March 27 drawing 25 million viewers and a massive 73 rating among adults 18-49. With 6.6 million viewers watching it later, it set a time-shifting record, the Hollywood Reporter notes. Another 4.3 million watched an encore broadcast Sunday night. Hulu and ABC streaming will only add to those numbers. It has the best numbers of a any “new” show since the 2014 premiere of “how to Get Away with Murder.” It’s already been renewed for a second season.
Reassuringly, the revival begins with Roseanne and husband Dan waking up in their old bed. Roseanne says she thought he’d died (cue Dan’s deadpan reply, “Why does everyone always think I’m dead?”), expediently erasing the divisive last season, which revealed the show was a story written by Roseanne, Dan had died and the family never won the lottery (don’t ask).
The rest of the Connor family is reintroduced, including Aunt Jackie, whose conflict with big sister Roseanne anchors the premiere. The two have barely spoken since the 2016 election. Roseanne is pro-Trump (mirroring the actor’s real-life support of the president), and Jackie, sporting a Nasty Woman shirt that would have looked appropriate on her 20 years ago, is ardently not.
Much has been made of Roseanne incorporating its star’s pro-Trump views and I was admittedly hesitant about watching the show and possibly liking it. Would my viewership (and potential enjoyment) tacitly endorse Roseanne’s views and those of her pro-Trump fans? Roseanne has rightfully been praised as a realistic depiction of working-class life in America, and although I may disagree with its star and vast numbers of the show’s viewers, there is no escaping the fact that Trump struck a chord with them for a reason that should not be ignored.
Roseanne saying she voted for Trump because “he talked about jobs” may have been played for a laugh, but she was speaking for a lot of people like the Connors. Although a sitcom isn’t going to resolve the political rift in the country, it can promote real discourse. The tension between Roseanne and Jackie was effective because not only was it true to the characters, it was also real. You could see families like this having these kinds of conversations and therein lies the strength of this show for much of its audience: relatability.
“Roseanne” also focused on middle daughter Darlene’s 9-year-old son, Mark, a happy boy who enjoys doing things like wearing skirts and painting his nails. Darlene supports his self-expression and doesn’t want the family to make him feel self-conscious because of it. Although they don’t understand why a boy would “dress like a girl,” the family embraces Mark. When Dan affirms that Mark shouldn’t go school like that, it isn’t because he’s ashamed, but because he fears Mark will be bullied.
I didn’t expect the show to deal with gender identity and expression so matter-of-factly. That Mark was portrayed as a fully formed person rather than a stereotype, and that the family rallied around him, was an explicit argument that we can all get behind: we should be proud of who we are and able to express that fully without fear of judgment or reprisal.
Mark puts an exclamation point on this idea (and shows that he truly is a Connor) by asserting that he’s going to keep dressing like he wants because he’s not ashamed of who he is. When Dan says, “That’s one tough kid,” how could you not stand up and cheer? I doubt the average Trump supporter is ready to acknowledge (let alone accept) gender non-conformance, but I’m grateful that a show aimed at them is saying it should be celebrated instead of feared.
I understand the concerns over normalizing Trump and certain segments of his base, because a show like “Roseanne” could potentially justify their views. Indeed, this has been a sticking point for many potential fans, especially gays. I’ve heard valid arguments that say the dichotomy of the show’s central character supporting Trump (who curries favor with hate groups) while sticking up for her gender non-conforming grandson is offensive at best, dangerous at worst, because this kind of line straddling could allow and encourage such attitudes to persist.
Nuances like these should not be compartmentalized and “Roseanne” would do well to address this potentially negative duality in future episodes. Although there are no easy answers to these questions, the “resist,” anti-Trump, left-leaning crowd ignores the Roseannes of the world at its own peril. If this show can bridge some divides, provide a glimpse into what “middle America” thinks while also demonstrating that the rest of us aren’t the demons we’re made out to be by many on team Trump, then maybe there’s room for an actual conversation. The jury won’t be in anytime soon, but maybe a show like “Roseanne” can counter or even diffuse the hornet nests of social media and angry op-eds cannot which, let’s face it, mostly just preach to their respective choirs.
At its core, “Roseanne” is a show about family, and while there’s certainly room for improvement (more Jackie!), this is a family worth spending some more time with.