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A Liberal Defends ‘Roseanne,’ Sort Of (Column)

With his typical nuanced grace, President Donald Trump has fanned one of TV’s most remarkable ratings stories into a politically polarizing data point that has both the entertainment and politics punditry buzzing over how to best interpret it. The news: ABC’s revival of “Roseanne” drew 18.2 million viewers — a 5.1 share in the key demo — which is a simply staggering number for a broadcast premiere, in today’s competitive attention economy. “Roseanne” had a lot going in its favor, such as being a hugely recognizable brand that was once the #1 show in America. But undoubtedly, some of the appeal resided in the fact that its star Roseanne Barr has been an outspoken Trump supporter, and that the show incorporated her notoriety into Barr’s character. So when the numbers came back big, Trump did what he does best — take credit for someone else’s work. He called Barr up to congratulate her on the show’s success, conflating Barr’s Trumpism with her character’s — and the character’s with the overall sentiment of the show. After a bit of light tweeting, this afternoon the president bragged about ratings during one of his tantrum-like rallies:

“Over 18 million people! And it was about us! They haven’t figured it out! The fake news hasn’t quite figured it out yet! They have not figured it out! So that was great. And they haven’t figured it out. But they will. And when they do, they’ll become much less fake.”

Ironically, the premiere of “Roseanne” is an attempt to bridge divisions by encouraging several members of the Conner family to coexist, even though they don’t agree. But now Trump and supporters such as Laura Ingraham are taking the show’s success to be a victory for Trumpism. Conversely, anti-Trumpists who have sparred with Barr on Twitter are taking the show’s success as a victory for the small-minded bigotry that she’s often espoused and retweeted. There’s absolutely no doubt that “Roseanne’s” fearlessness in tackling Trumpism contributed to its ratings success; as the lingering furor around the show’s debut indicates, it struck a nerve. On the other hand, there’s also no doubt that Barr has used hateful rhetoric — and vocally supported and then voted for a man who built an entire campaign based on bigotry.

But while the success of the show is about politics, it’s not really about partisan politics. “Roseanne” in Season 10 has presented the audience with an array of characters, each with their own biases and concerns, and they are all distinct entry points for engaging with the story. I found that the show was pointing towards investment in Darlene (Sara Gilbert), who is just trying to survive in the midst of a bad situation, but you could bend towards flaky Becky (Lecy Goranson), gruff Dan (John Goodman), nervy Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), or of course, bullying Roseanne herself. There are issues with which characters are represented, of course — it’s telling that the only person of color is a biracial girl who has barely any lines, and none of political consequence.

But it’s also not necessarily on Roseanne’s side. TV is a medium about the viewer as much as it is about the product itself — i.e., it’s not just who Roseanne is, but what the audience sees when they watch her. As I wrote in my review, my takeaway from Roseanne’s Trumpism in the first episode is tied with how she’s depicted as increasingly out of touch and belligerent. And when it comes to healthcare, “Roseanne” and Roseanne explicitly don’t agree; even as Roseanne tells Jackie she’s not smart enough to understand the government can’t pay for healthcare, the show depicts Dan and Roseanne trading their pills at the kitchen table, because they can’t afford all the medications they both require. (I don’t want to get into spoilers, but a later episode delves into the Conners’ problems affording their healthcare in a bigger way.) To be sure, healthcare is not the only arena of Trumpism that should be affronting to the Conners — what about that tax bill full of juicy cuts for billionaires? — but it’s one that they can’t avoid, as Roseanne and Dan get older. The second episode explores gender expression, and Roseanne’s acceptance of her grandson, even though Barr herself — and the Trump administration — have been explicitly anti-trans rights. “Roseanne” is not Roseanne; Roseanne is not Barr. And what the audience sees in “Roseanne” is much more complicated than simply sympathizing with Barr’s politics.

Instead, I’d argue, the draw is seeing a show acknowledge that voters who disagree are still people — maybe wrong people, maybe righteous people, maybe confused people, but certainly human beings. A lot of the rhetoric since the election has been incredibly heated, and often that’s because at least some segment of voters can’t see the humanity in others. “Roseanne” gets heated, but it also makes space for the discomfort to become bearable. And that is the discomfort of the world we’re living right now. I have great faith in the multi-camera sitcom as vector for national conversation. Like many of these, past and present, “Roseanne” offers a “safe” space — someone else’s living room — to expose the ugliest, stupidest, most frustrating things about people and America and life. To expose it, laugh at it, and eventually, to be able to live with it. It seems that people throughout history have relied on dumb comedy to process a difficult world. “Roseanne” is pleased to offer itself up as that comedy.

The problem with this, despite my starry-eyed faith, is that not everyone can live with it. When I presented a version of this argument on Twitter this morning, NPR critic Linda Holmes offered this response, which I think encapsulates the sharpest points of frustration with “Roseanne”: “[The show] treats politics as an emotional issue for white people, something that they need to work out with each other, but not as something that makes anyone’s lives better or worse. The idea that it doesn’t really matter is the basis of the reconciliation.” Holmes is right, in that “Roseanne” presents politics as just one arena of many where family members disagree — when the fact is that these politics have massive, grave consequences. This administration might make many uncomfortable, but there are some people it is disproportionately and actively harming. When families are being broken apart and Americans are being deported, having an honest conversation is a position of privilege. Not everyone survives this conversation. And yet, it is fully characteristic of the Conners — who benefit from some privileges and not others — to flex the ability to tune out of the thorny issues they are complicit in but don’t directly deal with. It might be the most realistic thing about the Conners, that politics is a faucet they can turn on and off. It’s not pretty, but it’s real. And it would be a mistake to dismiss “Roseanne,” which is comprised of many people besides Barr, as a sitcom unaware of the tensions and symbols it’s presenting. The appearance of dumb comedy does not mean that the people behind it are dumb, too.

This is all to say that at the end of the day, the national conversation about “Roseanne” is the national conversation about us. It’s about how the Trump voters among us justify themselves, and how — or if — the rest of us can find common ground with them. Undoubtedly, “Roseanne” is disproportionately creating a voice for a working class white family. But frankly, maybe that’s part of its success; it’s because the resentment of whiteness, and the myth of working-class whiteness, is so much of what dictates the country’s politics right now. I, for one, would prefer to sort out our social resentments on TV than in the White House.

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