After a polarizing first revival season, “Roseanne” has once again established itself, much like its eponymous leading lady and executive producer, as the brashest and most cage-rattling voice in the broadcast sitcom conversation in its revived tenth season.
“Roseanne and I, when we first met way — back when in ’92 — it was, ‘We’ve got to be brave,’” show runner Bruce Helford tells Variety. “We both agreed that was really important to go places where other shows wouldn’t go, find humor in things other people would have difficulty in finding humor in, and find the honesty within the family.”
Despite differing opinions from the audience on how the show handles discussing hot button topics such as illegal immigration, the show has also proven to be a ratings success. So although ABC entertainment president Channing Dungey recently said the show would be “moving away” from politics in its second season, Helford clarifies that exploring close-to-home concerns facing working-class Americans will be an integral part of the show’s DNA — as long as the provoke as many laughs as they do vigorous discourse.
“When we write, we try and inspire people to think — not to think one way or another way — but to think. That’s really happening, and I think it’s just elevated the discussion of what we watch on TV in general, which I’m really happy about,” Helford says. “I always say this: We don’t teach moral lessons, and that’s not what sitcoms should do at the best, but there has to be something satisfying in an episode for an audience to walk away with.”
Here, Helford talks with Variety about how and why the sitcom will evolve such discussions, and what void the writers’ room will feel without co-showrunner Whitney Cummings, who recently exited the series.
For a while your team was putting the show together in your own little corner. Once the audience got a taste of what you were doing, how did that impact the way you wanted to go about it going forward?
We were already done shooting by the time it aired, because we were so far ahead of the curve on that. By the way, it was very bizarre that the things that we wrote jokes about almost a year earlier were still relevant a year later. I was looking at the one “Murphy Brown” quote about they were worried about not being timely enough, because it takes time to get it on the air, and then by that time something has changed. A lot of times in American politics, nothing has changed within a year. It didn’t have an effect on us in terms of what we were doing this season. Going forward, I think we go with the same mandate. There’s going to be controversy. There’s going to be lovers and haters. People who will like what we say in one place and don’t love what we say in another place. But I think if you watch the show, you’ll find your view represented in there as well, no matter what position you’re taking, because we really want to be balanced. And I just think that if we try and play it safe in any way, it really undoes the value of what the show is, and that’s the authenticity of it. To be honest, it’s always been that, and we always try to achieve that. It was great debate and long hours to come to places that we feel are honest.
The show is inherently political, even if it is not explicitly having characters talk about voting or the president, because of the issues the Conners face — from Dan worrying about losing jobs to illegal immigrants, to their healthcare being too expensive to take care of Roseanne’s knee. What is your philosophy for how political to get in the second season?
In [the premiere] episode, we really wanted to address the elephant in the room about politics, about where things were at in the country — and that was the debate between Jackie and Roseanne — and to show the polarity within the family or opposing views within the family and all that. But mainly, this show has never been one to [shy away]. We tackle really tough issues. Now, that’s part of our mandate. We will be tackling social issues. There’ll be some controversial issues, for sure, that we’ll be tackling. But always through the viewpoint of how it affects this family, so that it’s a relatable thing and not something that where we’re coming off preachy, because we really aren’t. We have no agenda in trying to tell anybody what’s right or wrong. The idea is just to present it out there as to what’s really going on. …The idea is to be funny, but there’s lots of humor in all the tenseness and the irritability and the polarization — to [have the audience] look at themselves and maybe laugh or take a step back from their hardened positions.
What’s is the inspiration, on a storytelling level, for looking at some of these smaller towns around America and figuring out how the cultural makeup has changed, and how those are going to affect people like the Conners?
Lanford is a fictitious place, obviously, but it represents the suburbs of Chicago and, particularly, around the Elgin area, which now, as everybody has noted, is primarily Hispanic. We started to represent that. We didn’t have time in the first nine to go too deep into it. We started to represent it in the fact that the new family hangout is a Mexican restaurant, which there are plenty of in that area. Also, with Dan dealing with some problems with undocumented workers taking jobs in that area, and how he feels about that, and how we feel that probably a lot of Americans feel about that — specially, if you’re struggling to make living like the Conner’s are, and how difficult that is to deal with. We’re not done tackling that subject. When we come back next season, we’re definitely going to get into more of how the area has culturally changed, how the Conners are adjusting to that. When you’re the majority, and then you become the minority, there’s an effect on that. How they adapt, and how the neighbors adapt to them — we’ll definitely being going into more of that.
I don’t know if you know this about me, but I don’t fly. I only drive across country by car or take trains and all that. I’m from Chicago, and I just got done spending some time in Chicago — I drove out to Elgin and just drove around and checked it out. I also just speak to people wherever I am and try and get anecdotal information about what life is like and how things are. Of course, we do focus groups and all those things, but I prefer to do it personally when I go out there. …I’ve always tried to make it reflect in the show, and in trying to show what’s really going on with families and communities in the heartland. We’ll be dealing with all that stuff and, hopefully, have some positive effect on having healthier relations between people who have differences. That’s really all it really always boils down to.
How will the show will fill the void that Cummings leaves in the writers’ room?
There were a lot of people in the room, obviously, that were “Whitney-ish,” if you want to call it that. It isn’t really a matter of replacing her point of view, because her point of view is represented by lots of people in the room. First of all, her point of view wasn’t all one thing. I think she talked about her being a liberal voice in the room, but as time went along there were issues that she found herself, I’m sure, on the side of a more conservative view or sometimes more liberal view. I don’t think anybody in that room was so hardened in their opinions that they just took a stance whether they totally agree with it or not. Whitney went with her conscience. As far as people going with their conscience, I’ve told all the writers to go with your conscience. In other words, when you come into that room, be sure you don’t censor yourself [and] when you disagree with something, disagree with it heartily.
Aside from her political points of view, Cummings was a female leader in the room.
I think as far as Whitney’s voice as a woman, that will be well-represented — very well-represented. …Jena Friedman is a stand-up comic and has a very strong voice. …Ali Liebegott comes off “Transparent,” and she’s going to come with a voice that’s going to be very strong and definitely a unique voice in the room. With the exception of Ted Jessup, I think all of the writers hired are women –– and Mitch Hunter, because Mitch and Jana Hunter are married, and they’re a team of writers. We’re going to miss Whitney. Whitney and I got very close. I love her to death, and we’re going to definitely miss her. Like I said, she was always a person who spoke very, very much from her conscience, and we respect that. In that tradition, we have everybody doing the same thing. But we love her.
Among the story threads that were introduced this season is the Conners’ Muslim neighbors, the Al-Harazis, in an episode that got its share of praise and criticism. How do you want to handle these characters moving forward?
We haven’t really spoken about it yet. We will be getting into the room and talking about it. It shouldn’t be all of sudden lovey-dovey. Roseanne had deep-seated fears that she had been fed information through news sources that made her fear them. I think that it’s like anybody you get to know, it takes time to get to know somebody. They’re people, and any neighbors that you get are new to you. When people are culturally different than you, it’s a matter of bridging those gaps. As you said, we got praise and we also had people who were not as happy with it as we would have liked them to be. But the fact of the matter is, have you ever seen this level of discussion and the depth of intelligence in discussion about a show, and how long has it been since Norman Lear times? I welcomed that [“Late Night” writer] Amber Ruffin wanted to have her say on that. I don’t know if you watch the Norman Lear blog site, but we had so many Muslim influencers and community leaders who loved the show, who felt that we were saying things that hadn’t been said and needed to be said. It’s great that everybody’s weighing in, and it makes for exactly the kind of dialogue that we hope will happen. …But I think that we will be definitely approaching it with them. It’s a getting-to-know-you situation, and there’ll be problems as neighbors have problems. There’ll be positives as neighbors come together when they share problems.
How was the reaction to Roseanne’s abuse of medication, and how far do you want to take that storyline?
We made a big decision when we decided to make it Roseanne to be as opposed to one of the other characters. Because when something happens to Roseanne, obviously, it’s the “Roseanne” show, and so the focus there makes it that much more important. I think that we started that as simply because she had a bad knee, and we had to address that. But then it became the talk about “How can we make this integral to the show and find something in there to really dig into?” Everybody’s so uncomfortable to deal with it. …It used to be the drug problem was just the kids’. In my day, it was everybody’s doing acid; everybody was smoking too much weed. This really crosses all the boundaries in age. Also, we bring up the idea of people sharing drugs. This goes on all the time. I don’t know how many people have told me, “Oh yeah, well, I ran out of Vicodin, so I got some from my friend who has some left over from his root canals.” It’s like, “What?” It’s become a common thing: “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with that.” We comment on the fact that she had gotten from friends and neighbors. I think that that was great that we brought it out into the open. We aren’t done talking about that yet — as obviously, in the finale, it’s dealt with also. We’ve talked about the possibility of continuing that thread into the following season.
Are there still some characters from the original run that you’re hoping to revisit?
Yeah, we are. We were so limited. …It was originally only going to be eight episodes; it became nine. Now that we have a little more advance time there, and we’ve got 13, I think we’re going to really try to bring some more of the people back. We’d love to have [George] Clooney back. We haven’t talked to him, but I would love to see George there. And Martin [Mull] and Fred [Willard]. There’s a lot of people who can come back. We have a limited amount of time, but we’re going to definitely try to bring back some of the old faces, because people really loved seeing Crystal on the show. It was like, “Crystal! There’s Crystal!” There’s nostalgia and also making people relevant in the current times. We brought Chuck back in — Chuck and Anne-Marie. We brought them back in also and made that a relevant storyline — not just having somebody come in and do a cameo, but giving them something to really chew on. For the actors, I think, it was great to really be able to dig in there.
You and Roseanne have had such a deep history together, how has your relationship evolved with the experience of this revival season?
It’s really nice. Back in the day, we just didn’t have access to her. Everything was way too crazy. She had a lot going on in her life. Everyone tried to work as hard as they could in what are crazy conditions for the number one show in America — I can’t tell you the pressures of that. As wonderful as it is and how glamorous it seems to be, it’s also an incredible amount of hard work and a lot of stress, personal stress on people. Now, like when we first sat down to talk about doing the show again, she was like, “I don’t have anything to prove now. I just want to have fun. I want to do brave stuff.”
How involved is she in what topics the show addresses?
We talk regularly. She always has ideas that we’re running by. She’s going to be coming to the writers’ rooms which is a new thing. I mean, she did it for that last season, too — to be part of the writers’ room as opposed to just dealing with stuff as you get a script and all that. She was always part of the stories and saying what her feelings were about certain stories or certain lines. But this way, she’s in there with the writers. She gets to know them. It’s really good. It’s really healthy. I can tell you the true evidence of how good the relationship for everybody was: I don’t know if you know this, but there was no option on anybody when we did the first eight. [Executive producer] Tom Werner said, “We’re going to do eight. If it’s wonderful, we’ll talk about doing more, but let’s just do eight wonderful shows and see what happens.” At the end of the episodes, everybody wanted to go again. Every actor signed on again. I signed on again. …That doesn’t happen unless you’re really having a great time. Roseanne was really happy with the way that it went. She really felt thrilled. She kept saying, “I feel so blessed about all this. They had all this come together, and they have all these great people supporting me, and what we do and everything else.” It was really, really good. We have an understanding of respect and of hard work, hard work, hard, hard work ethic. We go the distance to make this thing as good as can possibly be. I’ve always said this show is the mountaintop. For writers that haven’t written a show like “Roseanne,” it’s a very, very exhilarating and a growing experience, for sure.