Roseanne returns March 27 to ABC.
In the words of its star and guiding spirit, the groundbreaking 1980s/’90s sitcom Roseanne, about a blue-collar family loudly making ends meet in the fictional town of Lanford, Illinois, was “television’s first feminist and working-class family sitcom.” But in recent years, Roseanne Barr has — as is her tendency — gone down a strange and winding path, one that’s taken her from starring in a reality show about living on a Hawaiian nut farm to loudly shilling for Donald Trump and spreading Seth Rich conspiracy theories on Twitter. She has gone full MAGA. As her signature series is set to return, this prompts the question: Can you love Roseanne and hate Roseanne?
As we’ve seen again and again in the past year, it’s not so easy these days to separate artists’ personal beliefs from their artistic output. That’s especially true when the artist has made her name playing a character based on herself and her experiences. That conversation has mostly concerned men who harass or abuse women and then ruin their careers, like Louis C.K., another comedian whose material is closely entwined with his personal life. The case of Roseanne is different, of course; Barr’s behavior doesn’t fit into a pattern of abuse that has shaped the entertainment industry.
But her mind, like Woody Allen’s heart, wants what it wants, which may make it difficult for some fans of the original series to get on board with the reboot. The first of Roseanne’s nine new episodes will air on March 27, but already the show’s producers have revealed, perhaps unsurprisingly, that Roseanne and Dan Conner (Barr and John Goodman) voted for Trump, which has created a rift between Roseanne and her sister, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf). Some fans have balked at that choice, but in terms of geography and socioeconomic status, it’s of course quite likely that Roseanne and Dan would be Trump voters.
In interviews and promotional events, however, Barr seems intent on collapsing the distance between her and her character. Speaking to the Hollywood Reporter — she appears on the cover of that week’s issue — Barr said she demanded the writers include a Hillary Clinton “slam” in the first episode, because, she explained, “I wanted to represent the country and how divided we are.” Fair enough, except anyone who’s been paying attention to Barr’s public remarks in the past couple of years knows she despises Hillary Clinton, which makes it difficult for me to hear that Hillary joke (I’ve seen the episode) coming from the character rather than the woman who plays her.
Of course, Roseanne Barr and Roseanne Conner have always been two different entities. But in the decades since the show’s 1988 premiere, Barr’s life has veered pretty far from that of a Midwestern waitress and mother of three. She’s never been out of the spotlight — or off the air — for too long, which is why I take her political opinions with a whole pile of salt. The Trump era seems to suit Barr’s contrarian spirit: Reading her interviews and tweets, I get the sense that she’s driven less by ideology than a juvenile impulse to throw sand in the gears, to “shake things up,” to set herself apart from the rest of the Hollywood sheep lockstepping to the beat of the #resistance. After all, this is a woman who in 2009 posed as Hitler in a magazine photo spread titled “That Oven Feelin’.”
Sure, she’ll tweet out her Hollywood Reporter cover, but she’ll also tweet a celebratory piece on the Roseanne reboot from the far-right blog LifeZette, or an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post calling her “a moral giant” for giving a speech critical of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. (Barr, for the record, used to refer to Israel as a “Nazi state.”) The op-ed writer marvels that Barr spoke with “such moral outrage, truth and clarity that could have ruined her career and standing within the radical-left-controlled kingdom of Hollywood.” Like many media figures who support Trump, Barr seems to see herself as a courageous truth-teller in a sea of pansy-ass liberal conformists.
Barr is certainly not the first celebrity to give over her platform to dumb ideas and dangerously uninformed people. I’m sure she’d agree with that LifeZette writer’s contention that left-leaning viewers simply “hate any sort of sympathy for Trump voters.” But beyond the maddening logic of this persistent argument — if that were true, would the New York Times still be running weekly stories on Joe Trump Voter at the diner in Idaho? — it’s an argument based on the assumption that what’s offensive to liberal viewers is the fact that a fictional character on a beloved show, and not Barr herself, voted for an unhinged con man who wants to rid the country of Muslims and immigrants.
So what are the non-deplorables among us to make of ABC’s reboot, and the fact that a woman who has spewed such inflammatory garbage over the past few years is back playing a paragon of blue-collar common sense? Roseanne’s politics have always been progressive, and Roseanne the character has always been a humanist. That’s true of the new episodes, at least the first two that I’ve seen; the show’s politics are still pretty liberal.
From the perspective of 2018, the old Roseanne is a relic of a time before conservative politics became all about resentments and enemies. In one episode from 1994, in which both Roseanne and Dan confront their own bigoted impulses, Roseanne says white folks who think they’re above black people are “just a bunch of banjo-pickin’, cousin-datin’, barefoot embarrassments to respectable white trash like us!” What defined the Conners politically wasn’t their tribal identity, but their economic reality.
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In the new season, money is still tight as ever, but the writers have filled the show with liberal signposts. Darlene (Sara Gilbert) has a middle-school-aged son who identifies as a boy but likes to wear sequins and skirts, and D.J. (Michael Fishman) has a biracial daughter. The price of Roseanne and Dan’s medication has skyrocketed, and Jackie snickers about “the new health care all you suckers got promised.” Roseanne Conner may have voted for Trump, but she also sticks up for her grandson when the kids at school laugh at his clothes. The Conners appear to be that quasi-mythical family who really did vote for Trump because of “economic anxiety” and nothing else.
The politics of the new Roseanne speak to a kind of doublethink among a segment of white Trump supporters, who may love their one black co-worker but still feel comfortable explaining why black Americans have poor leadership that’s been holding them back all these years. Maybe the Conners, like so many subjects of those Times articles, truly believed Trump would bring back jobs and even entire industries. But that means they’d either have to believe in his demonizing of immigrants and minorities or be willing to overlook it — which maybe amounts to the same thing. There’s no such thing as a conditional vote. The Roseanne reboot is a rare Trump-era cultural product that epitomizes this contradiction and, from what I’ve seen, doesn’t try to soften or smooth it out. It may shock Barr to hear a liberal say this, but I think that makes for great TV. That doesn’t mean I would avoid trading this reboot for a Hillary presidency any day of the week.
It’s ironic, but entirely unsurprising, that Barr sees Trump’s supporters as a persecuted minority. Trump appeals to the pettiness in his followers, the perception that they’ve been oppressed. (I’m not sure what those followers would think of Barr referring to the time Roseanne dipped in the ratings and she could no longer get a last-minute table at the Palm as “a gut shot with a sawed-off scattershot, buckshot-loaded pellet gun.”) Barr doesn’t appear quite as concerned about the actual minorities who have been and will be targeted by Trump’s presidency, and that’s the noisy intersection at which Roseanne crashes into Roseanne.
During the Roseanne panel at the Television Critics Association Press Tour in January, one reporter, who is black, pressed Barr on her political opinions and expressed how disappointed she was to hear them, since the series — and Roseanne Conner’s forceful rejection of racism on it — meant so much to her growing up. The reporter pointed to a particular scene that appeared in a sizzle reel of old Roseanne clips before the stars and creators were brought on stage to answer questions. In the scene, from an episode called “White Men Can’t Kiss,” D.J. is supposed to kiss a girl in a school play, but he refuses, and his parents think they know why. “Is it because she’s black?” Dan asks. “You’ll be mad if I say yes,” D.J. replies. “No, we won’t,” Dan says. “Yes, we will!” Roseanne shoots back, to much laughter. “I didn’t raise you to be some little bigot!” Maybe not. But sometimes people surprise you.