Watching television in 2018 is a perpetual process of déjà vu, and there is no clearer example of that than the revival of the 1989 sitcom “Roseanne,” starring brash, pugnacious Roseanne Barr in a slightly modified version of her stand-up persona. Disconcertingly, it’s as if nothing has changed. The iconic sitcom returns on March 27 on the same network, with the same cast, and — as the marketing material has made much of — the same crocheted throw, folded over the back of the same faded plaid couch. The blanket, with its rainbow granny squares set checkerboard style on a black background, is too symbolic. It’s like, yeah, we get it: The embrace of the past is both cozy and smothering, a musty-smelling throw intentionally full of holes that looks warmer than it is. No wonder Darlene (Sara Gilbert) fled to Chicago.
But as Season 10 of “Roseanne” opens, she — like the audience — is back in this living room, older but seemingly no wiser. Short a husband and saddled with two kids (Emma Kenney and Ames McNamara), Darlene returns to Lanford to try to restart her life. Things have changed: DJ (Michael Fishman), fresh from a tour of duty in Syria, lives nearby with his biracial daughter, Mary (Jayden Rey). In a characteristically cheeky and self-referential move, the long-running gag of Becky being played by two actresses is resolved in the 10th season by the original Becky (Lecy Goranson) meeting a woman who looks just like her, named Andrea (Sarah Chalke), who is interested in having Becky be her surrogate. It’s a quaint reshuffle, one that barely disguises the complex machinery of making a TV show; it’s not quite breaking the fourth wall, but it comes close. Which could also be said of the biggest change of all: In the time we were away, Roseanne — both the performer and the character— became a Trump supporter. In 2018, “Roseanne” returns as a specter of the painfully familiar past we have been trying to run away from — and makes a case for staying in the Conners’ living room for a little longer than is strictly comfortable.
Unfortunately, the revived series is a bit rough around the edges. Not in terms of its humor or content, which are remarkably well-adapted for a modern audience, but in terms of its pure execution; it’s undoubtedly quite difficult to return to the rhythms of a sitcom that debuted 29 years ago. The timing all feels a little off; the transitions are abrupt, the dialogue layers unevenly, and the punch lines don’t land. Barr and Goodman, as Roseanne and Dan Conner, sound the same — but their patter is slower and thicker, like drying molasses. Barr and Goodman, whose vivacious on-screen relationship was the pillar of the show, appear to be reading cue cards during takes for the premiere episode, “Twenty Years to Life”; if not, they’re distracted, breaking eye contact with their scene partners to glance off camera. Goodman is a prodigious actor, Emmy-nominated seven times just for his role as Dan Conner; he’s just not exerting himself much here. And though Barr has often been a detached, ironic presence on the show that bears her name, she’s never been as remote as she is in the premiere; her line readings beam into scenes like she’s sending them from space.
It’s a pity, because aside from what seems like a rushed shoot, “Roseanne” has much to offer in 2018. The focal point of the first episode is that Aunt Jackie (Oscar nominee Laurie Metcalf, taking up exactly the amount of space necessary) and Roseanne haven’t spoken in a year, because of the fallout of the 2016 election. Roseanne voted for “that man,” Jackie for “that woman.” Darlene, re-installed in the house she grew up in, tries to reconcile her mom and aunt. Roseanne and Jackie trade barbs — “Deplorable!” “Snowflake!” “Liar, liar, pantsuit on fire!” — but while Roseanne rejoinders with her typical humor, Jackie appears to be really shaken by the events of the year preceding. The show always excelled at locating discomfort — usually signified by a conversation where some participants had hurt feelings, while others were laughing at their expense — and with this friction between Jackie and Roseanne, the sitcom finds that disconnect and widens the space for it, until it feels disarmingly survivable.
This methodology is a particular gift of the multicam sitcom, which brings the tension of the stage play to a national audience. “Mom,” on CBS, and “One Day at a Time,” on Netflix, both use that immediacy to explore similar themes of class struggle and family intimacy. “Roseanne’s” talent is its familiarity with, and apparent appreciation for, the ugliness underlying things — for the crocheted throw, the plaid couch and the shades of beige surrounding them. It’s not just aesthetic, of course. The Conners cohabit with, or sometimes fully inhabit, the worst parts of our country — the constant anxiety of poverty, as compounded by the looming medical expenses of an aging couple; the latent distrust of anything different, whether that’s their grandson who paints his nails or the idea of a woman president. “Roseanne’s” gift is that it neither ignores the ugliness nor condemns it; it honestly engages with these unpalatable elements of American life, trappings that most other shows find a way to gloss over.
At times it’s off-putting; it feels uncouth to revel in an ugly world, especially the parts of it that we are trying to leave behind. But in a political moment when white working-class resentment elected a dramatically unfit man president, “Roseanne” is a reminder that the parts of American life we’d rather forget have not gone anywhere. And though Roseanne and Dan are mercifully not mocking themselves, they aren’t presented as heroes either. In the premiere, when Jackie confesses that Roseanne’s bullying during the election really destabilized her, Roseanne can’t bring herself to sincerely acknowledge Jackie’s pain. “I should have understood that you want the government to give everybody free healthcare because you’re a good-hearted person who can’t do simple math,” Roseanne says, apparently trying not to laugh. Opposite Metcalf — a consummate professional, who revives and gently skewers Aunt Jackie with expert grace — she’s put in the role of heartless bully. And in a truly exceptional later episode, Roseanne’s long-standing love for her family turns into an impenetrable mask of desperation and bitterness. Her defensive anger is so potent that she even turns on the stalwart Dan; in retrospect, this serious rift between them brings new gravity to the disconnected feeling of the opening episodes.
As Roseanne ages, the show shifts its focus away from her toward the unsung linchpin of the family — Darlene Conner, now an unexpectedly grave adult. Twerpy, gross, tomboyish Darlene has grown into a concerned mother at the end of her resources, and Gilbert — now an executive producer of the show — pours her heart into her performance. Darlene has become the working-class mom she was raised by, facing the same financial problems on the ratty couch she was hoping to escape from. But she’s not merely reliving her mother’s woes. With the same tools in the same house, she’s hoping to produce a life that’s just a little bit better.