I admit, I may have been the tiniest bit overeager, but still… After all the preliminary hype about Roseanne (if not Roseanne) being pro-Trump, it appears the subject was mostly enlisted in service of a feud subplot—and one really good joke—between Roseanne and her sister Jackie.
The idea of the beloved '90s sitcom, which may have been the last piece of pop culture to convincingly unite liberal values with a working class milieu, becoming a platform for Barr to shill for the current president has made a lot of people swear never to watch this reboot, which is, in a way, totally understandable. Life is short. I don't want to hear his fucking name again either. (And by the way, you don't, at least not in the first two episodes.) If I didn’t consider it to be the greatest sitcom ever on TV I probably wouldn’t have stayed up till 2am for Hulu to start streaming it.
In which case we all would have been lonely. According to ABC (via Vulture), the two premiere episodes drew over 18 million viewers. For comparison, the Will and Grace reboot drew about 10 million. The most recent season premiere of The Walking Dead drew 11 million. The most recent season finale of Game of Thrones drew 12. Oh, and, the 1997 series finale of Old Roseanne drew about 17 million.
I don't know about the rest of the 18 million viewers, but I’m glad I stayed up. The first episode was a little clunky, but, like an old car, it got running pretty good once the gunk burned off. Episode two was excellent.
The weirdest thing about the Roseanne reboot isn’t the way the actors look; it’s the way they sound. Roseanne Barr’s voice, which used to fly between the poles of sarcastic complaint and full-blown tantrum, seems to have been mood-stabilized. John Goodman’s Chicago baritone has gotten gruff and growly. Sara Gilbert is no longer doing the patented Darlene drone. Lecy Geranson has dropped almost an octave. Only Laurie Metcalf sounds the same as she did during the series’ heyday.
None of these are meant as judgments. It was just that everything else was so familiar that the change to the show’s music—an under-explored element of sitcom creation—was a little disorienting.
As was the crowbarring in of hyper-intentionally relevant topics like Roseanne and Jackie feuding over the former’s support of Trump (whose name is never spoken, though his famous slogan is), and the latter’s presumed backing of Hillary Clinton—which yields the best joke in episode one, though Jackie’s already-anachronistic pussy hat and Nasty Woman t-shirt feel uncharacteristically burlesque after about 10 seconds.
But Roseanne was only ever nominally driven by “issues.” It’s true that unemployment, underemployment, and later LGBTQ struggles provided conflict and context, but the real engine of the comedy and the drama was always the relationships between the extended Conner family. (It didn’t hurt that two of them were and are a couple of the greatest actors alive.) That engine proved to be in excellent working order once they dispensed with establishing what’s new in the show’s universe, namely:
Roseanne drives an Uber; Dan appears to be retired somehow; Darlene has lost her job and is living back at home with her two kids, one of whom is exploring early stages of gender non-conformity; Becky, a widow, works as a server but is trying to line up a sweet deal to be a surrogate mother for one of Lanford’s elusive rich people—played, cleverly enough, by Sarah Chalke, who played the other Becky for a couple of years—for a $50,000 fee; DJ is a veteran with a young, black daughter and a wife still serving in Syria; Jackie is now a life coach.
But that’s all just backdrop. The main attraction is Roseanne and Dan’s mean/romantic banter, Becky and Darlene mocking each other like they always did, Jackie’s persistence in the face of never being taken seriously (and her delivery of the word “journeys”). By episode two, everyone seems to have remembered how to be right back where they belong.
The gag with Dan and Roseanne dividing up the prescription medicine they can afford with their insufficient insurance is pretty good, but only because it’s a delivery device for their unorthodox version of connubial devotion. The real Roseanne Barr may have changed in all manner of ways—social, political, surgical—but her talent for being the anchor of an endearingly familiar (and intriguingly alien) TV family remains delightfully intact.
The fact that some of them (one of them, anyway) are wrong about important things (one important thing, anyway) may turn out to be a feature, not a bug, not only because it’s inherently valuable to be exposed to that particular brand of wrongness given form by someone who has been right about other things, but because it’s a good feeling to remember that it’s possible to feel love and respect for people you disagree with.