Here’s an interesting fact about the original series Roseanne – while it was a No. 1 show in the United States, it never had quite the same intense following in Canada. That was unusual in the way-back, the early nineties, when a handful of commercial networks dominated all TV in both countries. Tastes overlapped.
Something about Roseanne Barr and the Conner family she created for TV was slightly off-putting to some Canadians. Roseanne Conner came swaggering onto prime-time television like a character let loose from a Grace Paley story, radiating an underclass attitude and cackling. She was not our kind of American. We preferred the Keatons on Family Ties. As it turned out, sniffily ignoring Roseanne and the Conners was a mistake. Those people ended up electing Donald Trump. And exactly how and why is one of the biggest inexplicable issues of our time.
Which is why it’s really, really important to watch the revived Roseanne (Tuesday, ABC, CTV, 8, p.m. and 8:30 p.m.). The nine-episode reboot is not some phony, retro exercise. It’s a strange, vital and brazen thing to behold. And it aims to make the viewer uncomfortable.
The series has the same setting and the same characters, but in the tumult of now. It seems everybody is older but far from wiser. Roseanne and husband, Dan (John Goodman), are facing the reality of looming old age and with it, medical bills. They sit at the kitchen table and figure out how to distribute between themselves the medication they can afford. It’s funny but it’s unnerving, this material.
Daughter Darlene (Sara Gilbert, who was the main force behind this revival, not Roseanne Barr) is back in her hometown of Lanford, a single mom with two kids. Son DJ (Michael Fishman) is also back in Lanford, but he’s returning from a tour of duty in Syria. He’s got a biracial daughter, Mary (Jayden Rey). Daughter Becky (played by the original Becky, Lecy Goranson) is considering a good offer to be a surrogate, having a child for a woman who looks just like her (played by Sarah Chalke, who also played Becky). Nobody has a dime, really. They’re all wisecracking past the graveyard of their lives and hopes.
The key conflict, comedically and realistically, is between Roseanne and her sister, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf). They’re not on speaking terms. See, in the 2016 election, Roseanne voted for Trump - all the world knows Roseanne Barr is a vocal Trump supporter - and Jackie voted for “that woman.” It’s up to Darlene to get them to talk and be amicable. Mostly, that amounts to the sisters shouting insults at each other about deplorables and snowflakes. The animosity is real, and it’s funny, and it makes you wonder – can these people find common ground in the tawdry bickering that is part of the everyday political landscape of the United States in 2018?
There are so many other questions. Can Roseanne the character sustain her admiration for Trump? Can she continue to believe that a gender-nonconforming kid deserves every chance and simultaneously believe that Trump’s election was necessary to disrupt a smug status quo?
At times, the series is mind-boggling, testing theories of realism inside a traditional sitcom format, coming close to disrupting the notion of the fourth wall between the actors and the audience. It’s not that the actors address the audience directly. It’s just that everyone has a high awareness of being watched, of being connected to that everyday political landscape. You can see why everyone involved was temped by the idea of this revival. It’s strange, rough TV, dealing as much with anger and confusion as it does with TV sitcom laughs.
Of course, some Canadian viewers will still look with snobbery and condescension on Roseanne Barr and this revival. Barr shrieks, is overbearing, over the top and unapologetically defiant. Not our sort of people. And the whole adventure is, to some viewers, some tawdry trailer-trash nightmare.
Yeah, right. But from its very start, Roseanne, the hit series, was about white working-class America, not remotely connected to the bourgeois, dry-irony style of comedy that we like.
It’s hard to fathom now, but Roseanne was a disruptive force about working people who are loud, rude and aggressively self-assured. Dan had his own drywall business, a precarious enterprise. Roseanne and Jackie worked doing unskilled labour at Wellman Plastics. It was paycheque to paycheque and they were kind to each other but cynical about societal change and about those above them on the hierarchical ladder. Those things didn’t go away when the show ended. They liked Trump when he came along. Now, it’s complicated, and that’s why this nine-episode return is must-see.