In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Americans appalled by Donald Trump’s victory started rethinking the rules of political engagement. Along with public debates over whether it was OK to punch Nazis, gut-wrenching questions arose about relationships between members of the newly minted Resistance and their relatives who supported Trump: Did you have a responsibility to cut ties with loving parents who wanted to “lock her up”? Was it better to skip Thanksgiving with your bigoted cousins or to show up and educate—or scream at—them?
In the meantime, plenty of TV shows have addressed the Trump presidency, but few have focused on the rifts it’s caused among people on opposite ends of the political spectrum who care deeply for each other. Promotional stills of the first new episode of ABC’s Roseanne since 1997 teased a faceoff between Trump super-fan Roseanne Barr’s alter ego, Roseanne Conner, and her pro-Hillary sister, Jackie Harris (Laurie Metcalf). Despite many good reasons to be wary of Barr, and of ’90s-nostalgia television, the suggestion that this conflict would not only reflect a painful reality that many Americans were living, but also illuminate the comedian’s own perplexing embrace of Trumpism, proved irresistible—more than 27 million viewers watched the premiere.
The showdown between the sisters dominated the first half of the hour-long premiere. At the urging of Roseanne’s daughter Darlene (Sara Gilbert)—now a single mom who’s just moved her two kids from Chicago back to her small, working-class hometown, the fictional Lanford, Illinois—Jackie appears at the Connerses door in a pink pussy hat and a “Nasty Woman” T-shirt. “What’s up, deplorable?” she greets Roseanne.
Later, at dinner, after a few weak jokes about pantsuits and “making America great again,” the conversation gets serious, and Roseanne explains her vote. “He talked about jobs, Jackie. He said he’d shake things up,” she says, referring to Trump only with pronouns—the show has made the purely symbolic decision to avoid using his name. “We almost lost our house the way things were going,” she continued. When Jackie points out that things are even worse in 2018, Roseanne accuses her of believing fake news. But by the midway point of the premiere, they’ve reconciled, hugged, and learned the lesson that family should always come before politics.
It’s a classic sitcom resolution, and a moment that will surely look familiar to some viewers. There is even truth to the show’s portrayal of the dysfunctional ways in which relatives with disparate political allegiances communicate these days—talking past each other, invoking stereotypes, and stanning for politicians as though they’re pop stars rather than avatars for particular viewpoints. But what’s disappointing is how much the Conners in particular have changed, in ways that have, so far, gone unexplained, in the 21 years since we last saw them. Where once they earnestly—and loudly—debated topics as divisive as abortion, race, and gay rights, grounding their beliefs in lived experience, now they skirt issues and contradict themselves.