'Roseanne' Returns! But How Political Does the Revival Premiere Get?
By Emily Krauser
Roseanne is back! But the real question is, how happy are we about it?
Well, as far as this fan is concerned, very. In its original run, which lasted nine seasons from 1988 through 1997, Roseanne was a groundbreaking show. Yes, we had seen plenty of family sitcoms just on ABC -- where the series originated and now returns -- including TGIF-era staples Full House, Family Matters and Step by Step. The biggest difference with Roseanne, however, was that we were seeing a blue-collar family truly struggling with day-to-day life, using language that is heard in most households, and not always finishing with a sitcom-lesson moment at the end of 30 minutes.
We now live in a world of Netflix and Hulu and YouTube, where even in our laser-focused social media feeds we still manage to see up-to-the-minute news reports from outside our bubbles (though, let’s be honest, we’re very in our bubbles) and our president is Donald Trump. In this uncharted but heavily saturated territory, it’s unrealistic to expect this new Roseanne to be as revolutionary as the original. What the revival does extremely successfully, however, is show what life is like in today’s America. Unlike many other sitcoms, talking politics, namely talking Trump, is not shied away from but embraced, yet, somehow, most people will not walk away from the premiere feeling like they were hit over the head with a red, white and blue MAGA mallet.
Despite Roseanne Barr’s off-screen politics -- she is an adamant Trump supporter, while the majority of cast and writers skew left -- we aren’t being thrown into a pro-Trump world. Instead, we get a nuanced portrayal of what it’s like to be in the heart of Trump’s America, where onscreen, Roseanne (Barr) is just as concerned with her family’s well-being as she was 21 years ago, but now she also has to contend with aging and being a grandparent to tweens.
As Roseanne always did, the social commentary comes at us hard and fast in the hour-long premiere. The first scene in the kitchen shows Dan (John Goodman) bringing home “candy” -- aka their prescription pills that are now “half the drugs for twice the price” because their insurance doesn’t cover what it used to. (It actually makes that time they found their old stash of marijuana and Jackie got too high and hid in a bathtub look quaint and, honestly, less depressing.) Their daughter, Darlene (Sara Gilbert), is back in Lanford, Illinois, and though she claims she’s quit her job in order to help take care of her aging parents, we learn later in the episode that she’s returned home because she lost her job. It’s so realistic to life in 2018, it almost hurts.
As for those politics, they come up quickly as well. Roseanne has been in a feud with her sister, Jackie Harris (Laurie Metcalf) since the 2016 election because she believes Jackie voted for “the worst person on Earth” and that “she was a real jerk about it too.” The feud is actually pretty spectacular and spot-on for the characters. Roseanne has made a shrine and written an obituary to Jackie, whom she claims is “dead to me." Jackie, meanwhile, comes over to the house to drive Darlene to a job interview wearing a pink pussy hat and “Nasty Woman” T-shirt, greeting her sister, “What’s up, Deplorable?” They hurl insults at each other, including “snowflake” and Jackie contending that “every one of you [wrap] yourselves up in the flag and [cling] to your guns before Dan runs to the garage to figure where his guns are hidden now that there are kids in the house."
Darlene isn’t willing to give up without a fight and invites her aunt to the house for dinner. There are plenty of verbal jabs between Roseanne and Jackie before the meal even begins, but the feud comes to a head when Roseanne asks Jackie if she would “like to take a knee” as they say grace before ending her table prayer with “most of all, Lord, thank you for making America great again!”
It turns out that despite the pink gear Jackie is wearing, she didn’t vote for Clinton. A post-dinner argument that starts off being about Roseanne and Dan’s daughter, Becky (more on that later), quickly shifts to Jackie’s frustrations with her stubborn sister.
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“You just can’t stand for anybody to have their own opinions about anything, can you?” Jackie asks Roseanne. “So you tell them how stupid they are all the time and you get them to question what they believe in their heart is the right thing to do until they make some enormous mistake that tears America apart and brings the world to the brink of nuclear apocalypse.”
“You kept saying what a disaster it would be if she got elected and how I wasn’t seeing the big picture and how everything was rigged,” she continues, “and then I go into the booth and I voted for Jill Stein!”
“Who’s Jill Stein?” Roseanne replies. (In real life, Barr campaigned to be the Green Party’s presidential nominee in 2012, but the nod eventually went to Stein).
“Some doctor!” Jackie exclaimed. “You did such a good job of making me doubt myself and make me feel so stupid that I choked, which helped get him elected.”
In the end, the two finally make up, and it’s actually a hopeful look into how people with two very different political beliefs can learn to live together. After all, Jackie just wants to spend time with her family after more than a year away from them, so long as Roseanne doesn’t bully her out of her opinions and call her stupid. And while they can’t see eye to eye on why the other voted the way they did, Roseanne does say she forgives Jackie, which we all know was a small miracle.
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We get quite a few more reminders that we’re not in the ‘90s anymore, and it’s not just Uber jokes. Darlene’s son, Mark, appears to be gender-fluid, which Roseanne and Dan are clearly struggling with. Her daughter, Harris (Emma Kenney), however, is truly a mini Darlene, which will be a fun dynamic to watch play out again. Even Dan is along for the ride. “I haven’t seen that movie in 20 years,” he quips about Harris’ morning spat, where she tells her mom and grandparents that “they all suck” after she’s forced to babysit Mark. “Classics really do hold up.”
As for Roseanne and Dan’s other kids, son D.J. (Michael Fishman), also came over for dinner. We meet his bi-racial daughter, Mary (Jayden Ray) and learn that he has just come back from serving in the armed forces in Syria, but his wife, Gina, is still overseas. Roseanne’s grace is actually a kind prayer thanking not just D.J. and Gina, but all the troops for their service, and we also discover that the Conners’ youngest son, Jerry, who honestly most of us forgot existed, is on a fishing boat.
The weirdest part about the episode wasn’t all of the politics, however, but how we were reintroduced to Becky (Alicia Goranson -- aka Becky No. 1). Roseanne and Dan’s oldest, who has recently lost her husband, just pops up in the kitchen during dinner to announce that she’s going to become a surrogate at 43. Sure, family members appeared in the kitchen all the time in the original, but in the first 12 minutes, there was no mention of Becky’s name nor a reference to her, so her sudden appearance was oddly more jarring than the Who’s More Evil: Trump or Clinton? debate. Everything else about the scene, however, felt less haphazard and much more in the Roseanne canon, especially with Dan reacting poorly to Becky’s news and huffing off to the garage to drink beer.
Let’s not forget that the original Roseanne was a tale of two Beckys, and we’re getting them both in the revival. Though Goranson is reprising the role of Becky, Sarah Chalke, who played the character after Goranson’s mid-series departure, now plays Andrea, the woman who wants Becky to be her surrogate, and we meet her towards the end of the premiere, when she goes to visit Becky at the Mexican restaurant she bartends at. “I can see why you picked me! I mean, look at us. We could be the same person,” Becky says.
Though the premiere was heavy on politics and getting the obvious revival jokes out of the way, there’s an inherent underlying feeling that the entire series will not be focused on such matters. Will there be Trump mentions? Probably -- this is still a show written by Barr with her name right in the title, as it always was, and both Barr and Goodman told ET earlier this month that they won't be shying away from difficult topics. Despite all the buildup to Tuesday’s premiere, it seems we’re getting the Conners as we’ve come to know and love them, just with the pains that come with two decades of time passing.
Roseanne and Dan have the same chemistry, parenting style and sarcastic digs since the last time we saw them, but now they’re doing it with buckets of pain pills after a lifetime of heavy labor. Becky, Darlene and D.J. are all back in or near Lanford (sorry, you’ve been cast to sea, Jerry), with Darlene especially struggling with not being the success she had once expected to be. Jackie, a retired police officer, is now a life coach, which is, frankly, perfect.
The Conners represent families who are struggling, families who voted for Trump, families looking for a change but also just trying to get through life and deal with every day and larger societal battles. They may be more suited for our time now than when America was first introduced to them 30 years ago. They're fully back to navigating middle-class life with some semblance of an open mind, at least within their household, which makes this latest iteration nearly as progressive as the original. We're taking a peek into the lives of a blue-collar American family that’s struggling to maintain their place on a breaking economic ladder and somehow succeeding in not killing one another. In 2018, that may be groundbreaking enough in itself.