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.
So far—five episodes into the 10th season—health care has loomed large. It’s clear that Roseanne and her husband, Dan (John Goodman), fear growing older and worry that they won’t be able to take care of themselves. There’s a gag where they trade some of their many prescription pills. She has a bad knee, so when a neighbor dies, Dan sneaks into the man’s house and steals her a stair chair they could never afford to buy. Roseanne should understand the necessity of universal health care. Yet, when she’s in MAGA mode, she teases Jackie, “You wanted the government to give everybody free health care because you’re a good-hearted person who can’t do simple math.”
The most contentious joke of the season to date was similarly confusing. In episode three, Roseanne and Dan accidentally fall asleep in front of the TV. “We missed all the shows about black and Asian families,” he realizes upon waking. “They’re just like us,” Roseanne quips. “There, now you’re all caught up.” In a New York Times essay, Kelvin Yu, a writer on the sitcom Bob’s Burgers and an actor on the comedy Master of None, declared it “galling that a show celebrating ostensibly marginalized Americans would consider shows about even more marginalized Americans a punch line.” There is another way to read the joke, as a poorly articulated celebration of inclusivity on television, but you can’t blame anyone who’s familiar with Barr’s history of bigotry for assuming the worst.
These incoherent scenes don’t just break with Roseanne’s legacy; they also contradict the stated aim of the reboot. “We never set out to be a show about politics. We set out to be a show about the Conners and how the current political climate affects the family,” co-showrunner Bruce Helford told The Hollywood Reporter. Unfortunately, the “current political climate” only seems to touch the Conners in superficial ways. They may be struggling as hard as ever to pay bills, but if the fact that they’ve been enduring the same financial woes since the Reagan years has influenced their worldviews, that doesn’t make it into the script.
More than halfway through the season, we also have no insight into how Roseanne reconciles her embrace of the unnamed demagogue in the White House with her fierce love for her black granddaughter, Mary (Jayden Rey), and her gender-nonconforming grandson, Mark (Ames McNamara). Lines like Roseanne’s complaint that her children’s generation is “too PC” allude to current debates without entering them. Inherently political aspects of characters’ arcs, such as Darlene’s ex-husband David’s (Johnny Galecki) relief work abroad, are treated as mere quirks.
The show’s comeback is often framed as controversial, but, so far, that reputation has more to do with the alt-right conspiracy theories Barr spouts on Twitter than with any actual storylines. In fact, by pushing characters’ political allegiances to the foreground but refusing to tease out the implications of those beliefs, the new Roseanne has turned out to be much safer than the original—which, among other groundbreaking moments, included an episode that ABC initially refused to air because it showed a kiss between Roseanne and another woman.
It’s hard to avoid concluding that the reboot deals so vaguely and shallowly with the issues that fueled its predecessor, because its writers have been tasked with pleasing both the right-wing types who make up Barr’s current following and fans of the old, progressive sitcom. This refusal to meaningfully challenge, or even defend, either group is its own form of political correctness.
In interrogating their own prejudices and ours, without fear of offending anyone and while fighting to survive, the Conners of the ’90s weren’t exactly the regular family the show promised—they were better. Instead of simply holding up a mirror to white working-class America, Roseanne challenged all of its viewers to be as thoughtful and righteous as its heroes. The Conners showed us who we could be if our outward dysfunction concealed a core of compassion, rather than the other way around. Maybe they would have gone on to become Trump voters, some of them. But if they did, they surely would’ve had the decency to tell us why.