Sitting in front of the TV Tuesday night, it felt odd that I was actually watching an episode of “Roseanne” that wasn’t a rerun. Having been born only a year after the series’ original run premiered, I was too young to watch the show when it first aired. I was aware of it. I remember seeing commercials for it while my parents watched the local news, but I grew up in, at the time, a very conservative household, and wasn’t allowed to watch much of anything on primetime TV until several years after “Roseanne” ended its original run in the mid-90s. I became a fan around 2005, when the first couple of season were released on DVD. The Conners, who were more liberal than most of my family and most of my friends and their families, still seemed more like the real people in my life than any other cast on TV. Even though the early episodes were approaching twenty years old at that point, they seemed incredibly relevant during the Bush years. I stopped watching the DVDs around season five. I was busy going to college, becoming engaged in politics and charting out a career path. But every so often I would return to the series, usually through repeats on cable, and “Roseanne” still seemed relevant, whether I was watching during fall 2008 just after the beginning of the Great Recession or a few weeks after the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
Last year, when ABC announced the series would return, I had mixed feelings, just as I do when I hear a great film is going to be re-made. Realizing we hadn’t watched the show for several years, Alex and I bought the entire series off Amazon and began watching it last fall. The first two seasons, like the beginnings of so many sitcoms, are a bit clunky. There are episodes with very thin plots and little to no tension. The cast has chemistry, but the writers don’t seem to know what direction to go in. There are a few really solid episodes though that foretell the series’ more issue focused tone, including the season one finale where Roseanne deals with harassment from her new boss (played by Fred Dalton Thompson).
The series began taking more risk in season three, including an episode Roseanne dresses up as a man for Halloween, and the series takes off from there. Seasons 4-6 find the show at its peak, and had us binging it hard even as we were in the middle moving. By season 7, the series seemed to be running out of ideas, though there were some interesting episodes, including one where DJ refuses to kiss a classmate in the school play because she is black. Then came season 8. I admit that we fell behind in our viewing a little bit towards the end of season 7, and were just starting season eight a couple days before the reboot premiered. Five episodes into season 8, we gave up. The show was just bad. I’ve seen the infamous final season before on cable. I know how it ends. It is a train wreck. It is also so bad that I think people often forget how lousy season 8 was too.
So I began the week with my expectations pretty low. As a liberal myself, I’ve been disappointed by Roseanne’s support for Donald Trump. I was also worried that, politics aside, the show would just be a disaster. Could the magic of the first 6 or 7 seasons of the show ever come back after how the series left us?
After Tuesday’s double episode premiere, I have can cautiously say yes. First off, I need to address politics. “Roseanne” was always a political show. It always addressed social, economical and political topics, usually from a left-leaning viewpoint. That viewpoint, however, was always expressed in brash, politically incorrect terms. Tuesday’s premiere was pretty much the same, but with one difference: Roseanne Conner voted for Trump. She defends her vote and the sitting president on multiple occasions in the first half hour. She mocks Jackie’s pussy hat, calls her a snowflake and asks, before the family says grace, if Jackie wants to take a knee. But for all the celebrating that Trump supporters have been doing online today over the news that the “Roseanne” premiere attracted a massive 18 million viewers, I have a strong suspicion that many of them were not among those viewers. That’s because nearly every other character in last night’s episodes, while not explicitly stating support any liberal politician, definitely seemed to embrace at least socially liberal viewpoints. Even Roseanne still seemed a lot like the same character from the earlier seasons, very supportive of Mark (Darlene’s son, not Becky’s dopey husband) and his less than traditional wardrobe choices. It’s early, but my verdict on the show’s political leaning at this point is to say it’s neutral to maybe even slightly liberal. Based on these two episodes, its message doesn’t seem to be “isn’t Trump great” so much as “families can still find a way to get along despite political differences.” This show has always been about family conflict, and if handled correctly, the actual political differences between the cast of this TV family have the potential to result in a very authentic depiction of that struggle.
While watching the premiere, I could tell the cast was really enjoying this reunion, even if it is apparent they are still trying to get back into the rhythms of the series. I hope that the roughness of some of the writing and acting will disappear as the season goes on. Laurie Metcalf and Sara Gilbert gave the standout performances in the first two episodes. “Sup deplorable” is not a great line, but Metcalf’s timing made it hilarious. And Gilbert made it seem like she never took a break from being Darlene.
As far as Dan is concerned, I think the writers handled his character just right. They quickly addressed the whole Dan is dead storyline, came up with the best bad explanation for it, and moved on. Goodman’s performance in the first episode was a bit stiff, but he was much better in the second. In fact, everything about the second episode was better. I hope that is a sign of what the next seven episodes hold.
There were some things I didn’t like. The political feud between Roseanne and Jackie relied on jabs that were just talking points repackaged as insults. It was a little weak, and I think the writers could have made it a lot funnier if they tried. The twist that Jackie voted for Jill Stein because Roseanne got in her head was a good idea though. It took what was, up to that point, a shallow cable news treatment of the political differences between the two and made it about the dynamic that has always existed between them. It was the point in the premiere where I really felt that the series was back.
I do hope they give Jackie an actual arc. Once the feud was over, she was pretty much just life coach Jackie for the second episode. It was funny, and it was classic Jackie, but seeing Metcalf transition so perfectly back into the role makes me hope the writes give her something juicy to work with the rest of the season.
There were a couple elements of the hour that seemed out of place. The characters are still dressing like it is 1991. The rest of the house looks like it is at least early 2000s era, and the appliances are very modern, but my god, that shirt Becky was wearing was early 90s if not late 80s. Also, the fat jokes. I know they were a big part of the original series, but they just seem unnecessary and cheap at this point. Are constant jabs at weight the reason why it seemed like the right time to bring this show back? Of course not. They are even more out of place considering John Goodman’s recent weight loss. Having watched “Kong: Skull Island” recently, I was stunned by how trim Goodman has become. Here it looks they are padding Goodman up to play Dan, and that also doesn’t seem necessary. There are so many ways they could explain the weight loss. It was already established that he and Roseanne both have high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Maybe Dan is sticking to a diet this time.
In the 21 years since “Roseanne” originally signed off, the dynamics in my family have shifted a bit. Some people who were conservative have become liberal, and vice versa. That can put strain on relationships, but for the most part, we still talk and spend time with each other. The Conners have undergone some changes in that time too, but they still seem like a fun bunch to drop in on each week.