What Roseanne can teach us
Roseanne Barr is back again, this time with a reboot of her iconic, eponymous television show “Roseanne.” It is 2018, so everything that has ever held any kind of cultural significance is being rebooted in a desperate attempt to cash in on the ever growing nostalgia industry.
Unlike most reboots, though, Roseanne’s is worthy of the attention it is getting.
The premiere episode of the new season produced unexpected, eye-popping ratings that amounted to an average of 18.1 million viewers.
If you don’t understand television ratings, let me just put it to you this way — the last episode of the last season of “Game of Thrones,” the most culturally dominant show in existence today, was watched by a hair under 12.1 million people.
But ratings don’t justify attention, as Kim Kardashian seems almost single-mindedly intent on proving. So why am I writing about Roseanne now?
To answer that, we have to go back in time a little bit and remind ourselves why her original show was so important.
Widely considered by many to be among the greatest sitcoms — and even greatest shows — of all time (it was ranked number 32 all time by TV Guide in 2013), the show broke ground for its portrayal of a more realistic, flawed working-class American family in Illinois.
The Connors, particularly Roseanne and her husband, Dan, played by national treasure John Goodman, were crude, and imperfect in so many ways it is difficult to quantify. They yelled. They were impatient. They had complex problems. They couldn’t pay the bills. They struggled to fit in. Roseanne often made dinner out of a can, or the family would sit in front of the TV and have a microwaveable meal.
They had two daughters, one of whom dated somebody they despised and who struggled with violence and alcohol. The other dated his brother, who left home to live with the Connors when his alcoholic mother went too far.
The protagonists on the show were so groundbreaking in the late 1980s and early 1990s because, unlike “perfect” sitcom families like the Cosbys, they felt like a more authentic reflection of the lives and sensibilities of ordinary blue collar American families.
It also was a show that reflected Roseanne’s worldview, though in a subtle way. She wanted to craft a family that featured a very strong mother with working-class roots. But she was a feminist, and in many ways a progressive.
Figuring out her politics was never easy. I remember watching an episode of the show where a candidate for Congress came by and she shut the door in his face after lecturing him about hating unions and shipping good-paying working-class jobs overseas. She was very clearly pro-gay rights. She seemed to be entirely fine with legalizing marijuana, though didn’t want her kids caught up in substance abuse.
That’s the real her, of course. Roseanne has been, over the years, extremely liberal on a lot of issues, but has also sounded very much like Donald Trump on things like trade and economic policy.
Which brings us to the rebooted show’s relevance.
Roseanne herself was a Trump supporter in real life, and her character apparently is on the show as well. In the first episode after a bit of an estrangement, her sister Jackie comes to visit wearing a “nasty woman” T-shirt and wearing a certain pink hat you see at left-wing rallies, and refers to Roseanne as a “deplorable.” Roseanne responds in kind.
It is in this portrayal of a working-class family, featuring a Trump-supporting protagonist that makes the show so unique, and frankly so brave. But this by itself would only have made it a noteworthy oddity.
Instead, it once again portrays America precisely as it stands today — deeply divided. The family is split, and politics has caused conflict. Relations of blood are strained by the state of our civic life. And, most important, the mostly apolitical lives and motivations of working-class families are translating into a variety of experiences and perspectives that don’t all line up with each other.
The show isn’t about politics, and the Trump and Hillary Clinton jokes give way to the everyday problems — like paying for medical care — that real people struggle with in the real world.
That was always the power of the show before, and in the plastic, overly produced world of entertainment 30 years after the show originally aired, there is a lot of room for it today. Maybe we might just learn to understand ourselves a little bit better by watching.
Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.