How the Roseanne Premiere Handled Donald Trump

Photo: ABC

The opening minutes of the Roseanne revival are all about rebuilding the lives of the Conner family. The afghan is still there, slung over the sofa. Darlene has moved back home with her children. Roseanne and Dan are older, but they’re still hot for each other and they’re still cracking jokes. Roseanne wears the chicken shirt. Times may have changed, but for the most part, the Conner household is the same.

Then 2018 comes bursting through the front door, in the form of Roseanne’s sister Jackie, decked out in a pussy hat and a “Nasty Woman” T-shirt. “What’s up, deplorable?” she greets Roseanne.

The premiere episode introduces all sorts of storylines – Dan and Roseanne’s difficulty in paying for their prescription medications, Becky’s desperate need for money, and the lost job that forces Darlene to move back home with her parents – but the buzziest story is this conflict between Roseanne and Jackie. Roseanne voted for Trump in the 2016 election; Jackie supported Hillary. Their political rift became personal, and the two sisters have been estranged since election day.

The jokes about their fight are familiar (Russia, #MAGA, pantsuits, lying politicians, taking a knee), and they’re delivered with a pause-and-pounce pattern that will be recognizable from the original series. Despite not talking since Trump’s election, the sisters’ jokes are delivered in such a well-worn, comfortable atmosphere that there’s a palpable strangeness about the whole thing. Roseanne is touching the third rail of American discourse, saying aloud the sorts of hashtags and talking points that you ordinarily see from online trolls – yet nearly everyone smiles while doing it. At the end, Jackie and Roseanne reconcile. They still disagree, but they also hug.

It took me a while to figure out why I tensed up every time Jackie and Roseanne traded political barbs. I kept waiting for … what, exactly? A brawl? For Jackie to storm out of the room, never to be seen again? For the light disagreements to erupt into a serious fight, with each woman brandishing fistfuls of conspiracy-laden printouts? For Dan to pull a knife-brandishing Jackie off of Roseanne after one of them brings up Pizzagate? I kept waiting for them to have a real debate about the substance of their disagreement, rather than throw out laugh lines, even though I dreaded what that debate could actually do to the Conner family.

More than any other family sitcom, the original Roseanne was willing to fall off serious storytelling cliffs, into dark valleys of job-loss and fear and real insecurity. But here, in the very first episode of its celebratory return, my logical brain told me there was no chance Roseanne and Jackie would cut ties forever. It’s the first episode of a network sitcom! Of course they’ll make up!

It felt like a relief to know that Jackie and Roseanne weren’t about to spit in each other’s faces, but my emotional brain kept pinging anyhow, waiting for something more than a punch line. Even though the context undercut their conflict, even though their presence inside a sitcom rendered it safe, their words still felt so laden. I kept tensing because my brain saw the threat of a real fight without immediately registering the sitcom-framed safety-net underneath, and because I couldn’t stop waiting for the battle that never came.

It is really hard to watch two people on opposite sides of the political spectrum fight out loud. The world is full of political jokes, but they’re almost always delivered to an imagined sympathetic audience. The Will & Grace revival gives Trump fandom to Karen, the show’s laughable privileged monster, lending all their Trump jokes an air of presumed agreement. On One Day at a Time, another revival comedy with a Trump-based episode, political disagreement is similarly rhetorical. Late-night monologues are called monologues for a reason; Trevor Noah and John Oliver are not pausing for blowback rejoinders from Milo Yiannopoulos.

Roseanne’s Trump jokes feel notable precisely because they’re exchanged between two people who truly disagree, regardless how tame the jokes themselves may sound in a vacuum. Jackie brings salad dressing for dinner, prompting Roseanne to quip, “Oh look, Dan. Russian!” It’s hardly the stuff of trenchant cutting commentary, but in a hostile conversation like this one, a shallow joke can feel as resonant as a deep one. Jackie stands fuming while Roseanne keeps slinging taunt after taunt. “Haven’t you seen the news?” Jackie asks her sister. “Things are worse than ever!” “Not on the real news,” Roseanne shoots back. I flinched. Somehow, I’ve gotten to a place where sitcom family members disagreeing about Trump is enough to jangle my nerves.

It doesn’t help that Roseanne Barr’s politics hang over the Roseanne set like the Twitter feed of Damocles, constantly threatening to puncture the fictional veil. Roseanne Conner is not Roseanne Barr, and she is not the showrunner of the revival. And yet, most of the humor and most of the narrative power in this premiere episode belongs to Roseanne. Hers is the voice in victory, and she’s the one who gets to smile smugly at the dinner table while finishing grace with, “But most of all Lord, thank you for making America great again!” When Jackie finally apologizes for her part in their lengthy rift, Roseanne pauses before grinning wolfishly once again. “I forgive you!” she tells her sister.

It’s a joke, of course. Roseanne will never accept when she’s wrong, so Jackie takes her forgiveness as the closest she’ll get to an apology. “I know how hard that was for you!” she wails. We all laugh, and the episode ends with an embrace and a chuckle from the studio audience. The message is clear: Roseanne and Jackie can disagree about Donald Trump, and they can still be sisters. Even this — the most fraught argument in our country right now — can get resolved in 22 minutes if everyone agrees to hug and make up.

But that anodyne resolution is precisely the thing that will make some viewers furious. The episode uses its shallow Trump jokes to ping emotional responses like my instant anxiety, while also shutting down any chance for actual debate. The happy forgiveness at the end does not allow space for Jackie to ask seriously whether there might be a connection between the current political landscape and Roseanne’s lack of healthcare, and it does not allow anyone on the show to triangulate between Roseanne’s Trump fandom, Trump’s racist policies, and Roseanne’s black granddaughter. The thing I was nervous about — a real argument that gets into real feelings — is shut down by the sitcom structure, and instead of being relieved, I felt as though the show had denied me something of value.

The Trump jokes in Roseanne’s premiere feel important because they’re happening. It’s an all-too-rare picture of two people who disagree about politics and who love each other nevertheless. But if the revival season is going to actually speak to America as it exists in 2018, eventually the jokes will need to speak to something deeper. The original Roseanne did this so well, shifting registers between jokes and stories about the complicated, irreducible, hard realities of life. I’m looking forward to episodes of the new Roseanne that reach toward less comfortable, more messy endings.

How the Roseanne Premiere Handled Donald Trump