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‘Roseanne’: Is the Show Really ‘Just Like Us’? (Column)

The most widely understood story of the success of “Roseanne’s” revival is that it’s because Roseanne (Roseanne Barr) is a proud “deplorable,” a supporter of President Donald Trump’s most extreme policies. As I wrote last week, I believe “Roseanne” is presenting more nuance to the viewer than unadulterated Trumpiness: The show is not necessarily on Roseanne’s side. She is a Trump supporter, and perhaps her husband, Dan (John Goodman), is, too. But in the dynamics of the show, she’s frequently the bully; her bitterness and delusion taint everyone around her.

The TV audience is invited into the life of this one Trump supporter, who is stubborn and bullying and warm and humorous. The appeal of that is so strong — for an audience that lives in a world where voters like “Roseanne” dictate their current politics — that the show, already trading off of its nostalgic appeal, went on to net 25 million viewers over a week for its premiere episode.

Tuesday night’s episode of “Roseanne,” “Roseanne Gets the Chair,” continued to expand on some of the complex dynamics introduced in the first two episodes. Roseanne, a disgruntled grandma, is frustrated with her entitled granddaughter Harris (Emma Kenney), and believes that her daughter Darlene (Sara Gilbert) ought to set Harris firmer boundaries. When Darlene fails to, Roseanne tricks Harris into approaching the sink, and then shoves her granddaughter’s head into the basin so she can douse the 15-year-old with a hose. Roseanne’s methods are shown to be needlessly spiteful, and ineffective; Darlene’s sit-down with Harris is what resolves the conflict, not Roseanne’s flirtation with waterboarding. But the laughter of the audience indicates that her approach resonates in some way — either because it’s so outsized, or because her impulse to resort to extreme methods is recognizable, ridiculous, stupid, or otherwise amusing. The full takeaway of the sitcom is not Roseanne’s worldview, but how her worldview coexists with the rest of her family.

Which is why an unrelated throwaway joke, midway through the episode, was so frustrating. In a bit about how Roseanne and Dan slept through primetime TV, the pair have the following exchange. Bear in mind that the last line is dripping with sarcasm.

DAN: What time is it? Did I miss dinner?
ROSEANNE: It’s 11. We slept from “Wheel” to “Kimmel.”
DAN: We missed all the shows about black and Asian families.
ROSEANNE: They’re just like us. There, now you’re all caught up.

With the reference to “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” — and the fact that “Roseanne” is on ABC — the black and Asian families are almost certainly the protagonists of “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” two lauded sitcoms on the network that represent landmark achievements in diverse representation. There’s no context to this joke, no disagreement, no modulated follow-up. It’s just a mean-spirited taunt.

It’s hard to tell if Roseanne and Dan are mocking ABC’s efforts to diversify their lineup or, more essentially, the simple assertion that families like the Conners might try to relate to families like the Johnsons and the Huangs. Either way, it’s reprehensible — both for “Roseanne” to mock the other families on the network, and for ABC to allow “Roseanne” to do so. The network wants the millions of eyeballs “Roseanne” is delivering, sure. But apparently, it wants those enough that it’s willing to throw “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat” — and their own mission of inclusion and understanding! — under the bus. (When contacted about this episode, ABC declined to comment, though co-showrunner Bruce Helford justified the joke to the Hollywood Reporter in an earlier interview.)

The framing of this joke is especially pointed given that ABC used the framing “the family that looks like us” in marketing “Roseanne’s” revival. Certainly, the show’s raw portrayal of the indignities of being poor is a major part of what has made the show so beloved. But there’s also no mistaking the subtext of that “us,” the hidden layers to it. The New York Times reports that “Roseanne” was crafted in response to Donald Trump’s presidential victory. And last week, when Trump praised the show’s ratings, he crowed, “It was about us!” Trump, a self-described billionaire, is not talking about class. He’s talking about whiteness.

In fact, it’s ironic that so much of this episode focuses on the treatment of one of Roseanne Conner’s granddaughters, when really, this story is about the other granddaughter — the barely featured, rarely speaking Mary Conner (Jayden Rey), all of 8 years old, who is the living rebuttal to the claim that the show is presenting an all-white family with Trumpian (read: racist) views. “Roseanne” has positioned itself as a show emblematic of the diversity of viewpoints that networks like ABC are hoping to showcase — in this case, a white working-class family, with political beliefs quite different from the majority of Hollywood. Part of the show’s good-faith expression of diversity is in the casting of Rey. Mary, who is presented as DJ (Michael Fishman)’s mixed-race daughter, features prominently in the promotional materials for the show, and in the premiere of Season 10, Roseanne picks her up and ostentatiously cuddles with her. But for one thing, she’s just a kid, and for another, the show barely features her. Three episodes in, she’s only had one line — a tossed off little joke about dogs and cats.

In one of the most famous episodes of “Roseanne” — an episode frequently held up as an example of how progressive the show’s politics are — DJ comes home from elementary school saying that he’s skipping the school play because if he participates, he’ll have to kiss a black classmate. The Season 7 episode, called “White Men Can’t Kiss,” includes an emphatic admonition from Roseanne to her grade-school aged son, back when he was the same age as little Mary Conner: “Hey! Black people are just like us. They’re every bit as good as us, and any people who don’t think so is just a bunch of banjo-picking, cousin-dating, barefoot embarrassments to respectable white-trash like us!”

There’s a lot of shades of meaning in the uses of “us” in this mini-rant. But the first one says it all: just like us. “Roseanne Gets the Chair” reverses that phrase — and erases the granddaughter that arose from Roseanne’s impassioned speech in 1994, which apparently convinced DJ so well that he went on to marry a black woman. What kind of future does Mary Conner have, if her grandmother dismisses the relatability of a show like “Black-ish” — one of the very few sitcoms where Mary might see a character that looks just like her?

So what happened, “Roseanne” and Roseanne, between 1994 and now? Who changed? “Us” — or you?

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