Why embrace of 'Roseanne' doesn't always extend to politics

The premiere drew more than 18 million viewers – and lots of cultural discussion. Nostalgia played no small part in the numbers, but culture experts say what's striking is its bid to represent both modern politics and blue-collar America in a way no sitcom has done in years.

Adam Rose/ABC/AP
Roseanne Barr and John Goodman appear in a scene from the reboot of "Roseanne." The Nielsen company said viewership for the show's premiere shot up to 25 million people when you count people who watched the three days after last Tuesday's premiere. Never before has a show gained that many viewers via time shifting within three days.

For Thorin Engeseth, the hit comedy series “Roseanne” always comes with a rush of memories.

The show takes him back to the family home in Grand Rapids, Mich., where his mother – “an outspoken and opinionated woman” – had kept a happy household despite working two jobs to clothe and feed him and his two sisters. “Money was tight at home, but … we had presents under the tree every Christmas,” Mr. Engeseth writes in an email from Germany, where he now lives with his wife. “When I watched ‘Roseanne,’ I saw that.”

On March 27, ABC revived the series, which catches up 21 years later with the blue-collar Conner family in fictional Lanford, Ill. Engeseth asked a friend in the US to set up a computer facing the television so he could see the first episode via Skype. He loved what he saw: a show that spoke to a new age, but reintroduced beloved characters who still captured the wit and cheer of the middle America he treasures.

“Sitcoms these days focus on wealthy families on the coasts,” he writes. “[The new] ‘Roseanne’ is a little reminder that the Midwest still has its own stories.”  

There are, it turns out, plenty of Thorin Engeseth’s, at least here in the US. More than 18 million people tuned in to the revival premiere, with another 6.6 million catching the telecast over the next three days. By Monday – just two episodes in – ABC had renewed the show for a second (or 11th) season.

Nostalgia played no small part in the numbers, pundits say. Like Engeseth, fans of the original “Roseanne” were drawn to the new show because they loved the old one. They were eager to stir up the memories it evoked and curious to see how the Conners had fared.

But what’s kept viewers and critics talking about the show more than a week after it aired is its bid to represent both modern politics and blue-collar America in a way no sitcom has done in years, much less post-2016. The first episode saw the Conners taking on health care, unemployment, gender fluidity, and surrogacy through characters whose politics and opinions often clashed. The titular Roseanne – played by real-life Donald Trump supporter Roseanne Barr – knocks heads with her Hillary Clinton-loving, pink hat-wearing sister, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), in a series of exchanges familiar to any American who’s lived through the past two years.

The plethora of headlines that followed suggests that, like it or not – and many do not – there may be a real audience for a program that portrays white, working-class Trump supporters as other than objects of fear, hatred, or ridicule.

“There are very few TV shows anymore that deal with blue-collar families. In a sense we haven’t had that since ‘Roseanne’ went off the air,” says Steven Ross, a history professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in Hollywood depictions of labor and politics. Less high-profile shows have staked out some ground for the heartland. There's "The Middle," about a middle-class family in Indiana, that's now in its ninth and final season. “The Drew Carey Show,” set in Cleveland, ran from 1995 to 2004. But the "Roseanne" revival, Professor Ross says, taps into affection for cherished shows to punctuate the return to the screen of the working-class American household – millions of whom, in 2018, live in Trump country and voted for the president. “I think that’s a big deal, period,” he says.

Cultural bellwether

“ ‘Roseanne’ is ringing cultural bells,” not least for viewers who’ve kept their conservative opinions in the closet, writes pollster and former Clinton adviser Mark Penn in an op-ed for The Hill. And it reminds citified, liberal Hollywood of audiences who live between the coasts and appreciate programming that speaks their truths. “The message is: We’re conscious enough of our differences to shut you down when you set yourselves against us (the Oscars) but we are ready to provide enthusiastic support for your efforts if you treat us with respect,” notes John Podhoretz in the New York Post.

But the revival touched a nerve for more than just conservative viewers and Trump supporters.

Engeseth, for instance, disagrees with Ms. Barr’s politics and disapproves of her tweeting conspiracy theories that put President Trump in a good light. Yet he hesitates to begrudge the actor her right to voice her opinions, both on and off the show. “I think that, though I oppose every move made by President Trump, there is a place for conservative politics alongside my own liberal ideals,” Engeseth writes. “There is value in showing two sides of a very important political divide that many viewers face.”

Stacy Carroll, who lives with her husband in Sandwich, Ill., is vehemently anti-Trump and says she will stop watching “Roseanne” should it ever become a mouthpiece for the president. She has also spent the past six years unemployed. Once a medical technologist, she developed post-traumatic stress disorder, disqualifying her from working in most industries. “No one will hire a 50+ year old with a college degree and no manual labor experience to do manual labor,” she writes in an email. Her husband was recently hired as a maintenance worker for a pool company and sometimes does construction. Money was so tight the couple had to move in with her mother, who died in January.

In the original “Roseanne,” Ms. Carroll saw a funny show set in a familiar locale, and a loving, if sometimes crude, family she wished was her own. In the revival, she sees her frustrations and anger beamed back at her, but in a way that still makes her laugh.

“The Conners do reflect my reality,” Carroll writes. “Darlene has gotten higher education, failed miserably, has not done as well as her parents and had to move back in with them (just like me). They live paycheck to paycheck like us. It's really nice to see on TV, but done with humor.”

“It’s not that everybody wants to see every aspect of their lives on TV,” says Patricia Phalen, associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. “But ‘Roseanne’ in particular taps into the working-class person who laughs at those jokes because it’s something they would say.”

Reserving judgment

Among the critiques, op-eds, and essays that have materialized about the revival are those that contend that it normalizes or sanitizes Mr. Trump’s divisive brand of politics (though some on the right have also grumbled that the show falsely recasts Trump voters as “social leftists”). They argue that the show misses crucial points about race and poverty, and supports the myth that blue-collar Americans are always white. That Trump himself called Barr to congratulate her on the success of the premiere was yet another turn-off.

Plenty of viewers say they are actively avoiding the program for all those reasons. Some who have tuned in – like retired high school English teacher Rhonda Powell – say they have mixed feelings, but will hold off deciding until more episodes have aired.

“It’s hard to see ‘Roseanne’ knowing what she’s said and done,” says Ms. Powell, who lives in Atlanta. “But I never discuss anything I haven’t read or watched. That comes from being an English teacher: Don’t condemn a book if you haven’t read it.”

For other viewers, a good show is a good show. “It’s the characters, and the comedy aspect of it,” says Andrea Smith, a registered nurse and native Midwesterner who lives in northwest Indiana with her partner and stepson. “I’ve always loved ‘Roseanne.’ And I like that it shows that you can disagree and all of that, but we’re family, and we can sit down and have a meal.”

“Every show has the potential to present a message and to give yet one more community a voice,” Engeseth points out. “ ‘Roseanne’ happened to give a voice to my own part of the country, and I appreciated that.

“And honestly, I’ll watch anything that has John Goodman.”

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