They wake in their creaky bed, as if thawed from cryogenic storage, and immediately begin telling jokes in a 2018 context. Mostly about age. He’s wearing a CPAP mask for sleep apnea. “I thought you were dead,” Roseanne Conner tells her husband, Dan.
“I’m sleeping,” he snorts. “Why does everyone always think I’m dead?” (They think that because when “Roseanne” signed off 21 years ago after nine seasons, Dan had died. That and other Conner family denouements turned out to be fantasy, imagined by the aspiring novelist in Roseanne.)
At their kitchen table, more reckoning: Her knee hurts, her blood sugar is whack. Health-care costs are so high that Roseanne and Dan divvy up prescription pills between them — statins, anti-inflammatories, blood-pressure meds, a handful of opioids.
And so, sporting a fresh layer of relevance, ABC’s groundbreaking sitcom “Roseanne” makes an engaging return to life next week with its superb original cast (Roseanne Barr, John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, Sarah Gilbert, Lecy Goranson and Michael Fishman) happily intact. They’re older and unhappier and, to a character, well acquainted with the demise of the American Dream.
“Roseanne” is back, in part, because everything else is back, because the 21st century turned out to be so thoroughly unappealing that our entertainment culture now regresses into old shows instead of finding new ones to love nearly as much. After “Roseanne’s” era, broadcast network comedies got faster and smarter but somehow shallower, mastering the art of snark while losing an ability to resonate with a broad audience.
This new/old “Roseanne,” however, is not just an opportunistic grab at nostalgia. Baked into its leftovers is an adroit and necessary reason for return: Our old friend Roseanne (both the fictional character and the resolute iconoclast who plays her) is a Trump voter.
It’s an easy and possibly cynical move — and a plot point that has already brought the show a ton of press attention — but it’s also kind of genius. “Roseanne” quickly asserts itself as the one sitcom that might stand a chance of humorously and empathetically portraying that bypassed half of the country that rallied in 2016 behind a candidate who broke the decency barrier (and the B.S. meter) and spoke directly to his constituents’ fears of immigrants, terrorists, socialists and special snowflakes conspiring against American superiority.
That Roseanne Conner is now a proud “deplorable” should come as no surprise, nor is it a surprise that some of Roseanne’s loved ones oppose her politics, just as Archie Bunker was hectored by his daughter and son-in-law during the Nixon years.
Roseanne and her sister, Jackie (Metcalf, donning her knitted pink hat and a “Nasty Woman” T-shirt), haven’t spoken since Election Night. After a détente family dinner brokered by Roseanne’s recently returned daughter Darlene (Gilbert), the sisters are at least able to hear one another’s frustrations.
“He talked about jobs, Jackie, he said to shake things up,” Roseanne says. “I know this may come as a shock to you, but we almost lost our house because of the way things were going.”
“Have you looked at the news?” Jackie snaps back. “Because now things are worse.”
“Not on the real news,” Roseanne replies.
And rather than laugh, the studio audience emits a noise somewhere between an “Oooh” and a gasp, a sound that indicates that neither Hollywood nor the audience (nor even critics) knows how to go on loving a character who is that far outside their bubble.
There is a strong sense — even a giddy anticipation — that “Roseanne” is the sitcom that will at long last go there.
Television, which is overloaded with late-night comedians making hay with White House meltdowns, is in desperate need of a modern-day Archie Bunker in its prime-time lineup, a fictional character through whom the country’s frustrations and opposing views are cathartically vented. Could Roseanne Conner fill that need?
It’s true that some network sitcoms have peppered their scripts with a Trump-related joke or two to keep things saucy, but they still tend to give politics a wide berth. Since 2016, they’ve also doubled down on their disinterest in red states.
Nearly all sitcoms take place in New York or Los Angeles, featuring characters who seem to be doing economically fine and dandy. After “Roseanne” debuts, ABC is premiering another bubbly yet instantly forgettable new sitcom, “Splitting Up Together,” about a couple named Lena and Martin (“The Office’s” Jenna Fischer and “Rules of Engagement’s” Oliver Hudson) who acknowledge the romantic death of their marriage and decide to divorce, yet remain in their lovely and enormous Craftsman home.
For the sake of the children, they each take turns living in the detached garage/guesthouse out back. I watched several episodes, chuckled a time or two, and kept waiting to discover what Lena and Martin do for a living, to be able to afford to coexist on the excruciatingly sunny side of the street. Aside from the mention of an unfavorably large mortgage, the show — executive-produced by that relentlessly spotless mind, Ellen DeGeneres — never tells us.
An oversupply of such cutesiness makes it an opportune time to return to fictional Lanford, Ill., and see how the Conners are faring.
When it premiered in October 1988, “Roseanne” was promoted as a long-overdue glimpse of life in a Reagan-era working-class family that barely got by amid factory closings, stagnant wages and other consequences of a trickle-down economy. The show was created for and built from the talents of Barr, who rose from the stand-up comedy circuit on a “domestic goddess” persona that celebrated and lampooned such class signifiers as trailer parks, junk food, government assistance and hourly wages.
Barely a decade had passed since Norman Lear and his colleagues brought viewers into the rowhouses and apartments of such memorable TV families as the Bunkers (“All in the Family”), the Evanses (“Good Times”) and the Romanos (“One Day at a Time”). Despite Lear’s example, television immediately filled that void with yuppified sitcoms in which characters lived inwardly, in apathetic bliss and enviable creature comforts.
Back then, “Roseanne” subliminally answered the aspirational success promoted in “The Cosby Show,” about a black family headed by an obstetrician father and an attorney mother who lived in a fine Brooklyn Heights brownstone. It wasn’t a race thing — “Roseanne” simply sought to remind the viewing audience that most of America wasn’t rich, or anything close to rich. Even then there was a sense, certainly to those of us watching TV in the Central and Mountain time zones, that a huge part of the country was overlooked by the arbiters of popular culture.
In its heyday, fights and personnel problems plagued the “Roseanne” set. Barr turned out to have a knack for a turbulent style of celebrityhood that was slightly ahead of its time — not only for what she did wrong (belting out an atrociously disrespectful rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a 1990 baseball game) but also for what she did right (asserting herself as a woman in charge of a show that bore her name as well as her comedic identity).
It’s no wonder, then, that the actor, who once ran for president herself, was drawn to support Trump’s presidency: They are similar, born of tabloid acrimony, insistent on their own versions of the truth. The years have not mellowed Barr’s disdain for media. When the “Roseanne” cast sat for a Q&A with critics and reporters in January, Barr was particularly evasive when questioned about her support for Trump and how that influenced the show.
Sara Gilbert, who is co-producing and co-starring in “Roseanne” while co-hosting a daily talk show on CBS, spoke about how the fictional Roseanne’s vote is a way to show families disagreeing yet still loving each other. “And what a great thing to bring to the country right now,” she said.
Impatiently, Barr finally pointed out the obvious: Working-class people voted for Trump. White women voted for Trump. That’s exactly who Roseanne is. The polarization of families deserves to be portrayed on TV, she said: “People actually hating other people for the way they voted, which I feel is not American.”
She went off from there — as her castmates and producers and network publicists braced themselves for disaster: “And speaking of racism, I’m just going to say it —”
“Um, are you sure?” Gilbert asked, causing the reporters to laugh.
“I appreciate your concern,” Barr said, “but I am going to say that a large part of why I couldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton is because [of] Haiti.”
“And we’re out of time,” an ABC publicist stood to announce.
This slightly unhinged, Fox News-fed Roseanne persona would make “Roseanne” even more interesting, but, for some reason, the show loosens its bite.
Three episodes shown to critics (there are nine in this new season) certainly do an entertaining job of updating the characters, like getting a long Christmas letter from family friends who fell out of touch. Darlene, frustrated by a failed writing career, has moved back home (ostensibly to care for her parents), bringing along her teenage daughter, Harris (Emma Kenney from Showtime’s “Shameless”), and 11-year-old son, Mark (Ames McNamara), who likes to wear pastels, skirts and nail polish. (“I like your nail color, Grandpa,” Mark tells Dan one morning. “What shade is it?” “Drywall,” Dan answers, disapprovingly.)
A gender-exploring grandson is one of several ways that the producers and writers (who include comedian and sitcom veteran Whitney Cummings) have checked off some current (and increasingly clichéd) boxes, so that “Roseanne” will not only look like a show in 2018, but also give Roseanne and Dan an opportunity to examine their beliefs. It’s “Granny Rose,” therefore, who accompanies Mark to the first day at school to warn potential bullies that she’s got her eyes on them.
Meanwhile, the Conners’ oldest daughter, Becky (Goranson), is a 43-year-old widow who waits tables at a Mexican restaurant — and has decided to offer her services as a surrogate mother. The show cleverly brings in Sarah Chalke, who played Becky for 1½ seasons when Goranson left the show, as the woman who wants to pay Becky $50,000 to carry a child.
Finally, sweet D.J. (Fishman) is back from military duty, caring for his daughter, Mary (Jayden Rey), while his wife continues to serve overseas. (Check two more boxes: military families and mixed-race families.) And where, one may ask, is the baby of the family, Jerry Garcia Conner? (You forgot Roseanne had a baby in season 8?) Off on a fishing boat, somewhere, and he never calls home.
These family matters and new additions are all well and good — proving there are many ways to take “Roseanne” from here, including a future story line that involves an opioid addiction for someone in the family. Still, once Jackie and Roseanne bury the hatchet, there’s a sinking feeling of lost promise.
“Roseanne” needs to do more than acknowledge that a Trump-voting grandmother can get along with her liberal-leaning sister and adore her sparkle-riffic grandson. It should courageously allow the Conner family to more tumultuously grapple with the idea that America is coming apart and changing profoundly.
“Roseanne” (one hour, two episodes) premieres March 27 at 7 p.m. MDT on ABC.