Roseanne Is a Political Series and Let’s Not Pretend Otherwise

Roseanne Conner (Roseanne Barr), letting her granddaughter (Emma Kenney) have it. Photo: Adam Rose/ABC

In the week since the reboot of Roseanne debuted to monster ratings that prompted Donald Trump to embrace the series and its Trump-supporting lead, Roseanne Barr, some of the people who work on the sitcom have stressed that the show is really not political.

In an interview last week on Watch What Happens Live, star Sara Gilbert, an executive producer of the reboot who was instrumental in making it happen, said that the new Roseanne is “not about politics” and noted that the name Donald Trump is never uttered in the series. “It’s not about anybody’s position or policy,” she explained, noting that Roseanne is the only blatant Trump supporter in the Conner clan. “It’s really about what happens to a family when there’s a political divide.”

In a New York Times piece about ABC’s decision to greenlight Roseanne as part of a broader strategy to appeal to “heartland” viewers, producer Tom Werner said, “If you watch all the episodes, we don’t really mention politics as much as we did in the pilot.”

Having now viewed four of this season’s episodes, including Tuesday’s “Roseanne Gets the Chair,” it seems that Gilbert and Werner are both technically correct but also totally wrong about Roseanne. They are certainly being truthful when they say that politics is not discussed as overtly as it was in the pilot, which featured Roseanne rehashing Election 2016 arguments with her sister, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), a Nasty Woman T-shirt wearer who Roseanne referred to as a snowflake. But the idea that the show will be less political going forward is, frankly, ludicrous.

Because the first episode of season ten is rooted in politics, and because Trump claimed the show as something that belongs to him and his supporters during a speech last week, it will be extremely challenging to watch each episode without considering it through the context of partisanship. As unfair as that may be to Gilbert, Werner, and others who work on Roseanne and sincerely want to ignite productive, less politically charged dialogue, that’s an unavoidable fact.

Plus, episodes like this week’s “Roseanne Gets the Chair” actually strike me as more political than the first one was.

On the surface, the third installment of Roseanne 2.0 deals mostly with relatable family disputes: Roseanne refuses to use the stair lift that Dan (John Goodman) acquired to alleviate the stress on her bad knee, and also gets into an extended battle with her granddaughter Harris (Emma Kenney of Shameless), who keeps hogging the washing machine and generally disrespecting her elders. But the way that Roseanne handles these conflicts, as well as some other pointed comments she makes throughout the half-hour, exposes the cultural and generational differences that underlie the political divide that led to Trump’s election. Just in case that point might be missed, Barr framed the episode ahead of time with a tweet that could have been ghostwritten by the president: “The next episode shows Harris (my tv granddaughter) calling me a stupid old hillbilly-watch how I handle her and her very liberal mother!”

The central idea of the episode is that contemporary “snowflake” parents like Darlene (Gilbert) are way too permissive with their kids and don’t know how to instill discipline the way that their own parents, i.e. Roseanne and Dan, did.

“Your generation made everything so PC,” Roseanne tells her daughter. “Instead of spanking [your kids], you tell them to go over there and think about what they did wrong. You know what they’re thinking? I can’t believe this loser isn’t spanking me.”

Later in the episode, when her frustration with Harris’s out-of-control impudence reaches a boiling point, Roseanne says to Harris something that Darlene will not: “You’d better start showing some gratitude instead of acting like some entitled little bitch.” When Harris responds, as promised, by calling her Granny Rose an old hillbilly, Roseanne shoves Harris’s head into the kitchen sink, douses her head with water, and shouts, “Welcome to the hillbilly day spa!”

Roseanne’s response to Harris is extreme and, sadly, perhaps an accurate reflection of how some fed-up grandmothers might respond in this situation. (I’d like to think no grandma would call her own granddaughter a bitch, but that’s probably naïve.) As much as we’d like television characters to always do what we perceive as the right thing, they can’t, nor should they. That sort of insistence on projecting decency at all costs is what to led to so many syrupy “very special episodes” of sitcoms in the 1980s, the kind of programming that made Roseanne seem like such a breath of fresh, outspoken air the first time around.

Still, there’s no denying that what Roseanne does here is pretty awful and that the language in these scenes is too peppered with the kinds of buzzwords and phrases often lobbed in partisan arguments — “too PC,” “entitled,” “hillbilly” “you think you’re better than us” — to ignore the politics embedded in it. That politics is even hanging right there in the room; on the wall of the porch where the washer and dryer that kickstart this conflict are located, a Make America Great Again cap is visibly perched on a hook.

This episode, written by Sid Youngers, a writer and producer who worked on the original Roseanne,  underlines the stereotypical perceptions that some older white Americans, perhaps Trump supporters, may have of their younger counterparts: that they don’t have to work very hard, that they expect everyone to be sensitive, and that they act like a bunch of whiny little elitists. (It’s notable that Harris comes from big city Chicago and is totally bored by sleepy little Lanford.) Those feelings certainly don’t fully explain why some people voted for Trump and this episode doesn’t suggest that they do. But they are reflective of broader cultural issues and underlying resentments that polarized people in the lead-up to the presidential election and continue to polarize them now.

One could argue that, as an aging woman who’s now a stair-lift mishap away from shouting “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up,” Roseanne Conner’s opinion is well on its way toward irrelevance, a point the show is subtly driving home. I refer to this as the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Defense, as it’s in keeping with the points he makes in a Hollywood Reporter piece in which he says Roseanne is actually more anti-Trump than pro-Trump because it never settles on one set of consistent political principles and also keeps demonstrating that the Conners are struggling with the same problems they’ve always contended with, MAGA or no MAGA .

But I have to pump the brakes on that thesis because of some crucial things in Tuesday’s episode. When Roseanne shoves Harris’s head into that sink — a brutish, childish thing to do — the live studio audience immediately applauds. That proclaims as loudly and clearly as a Roseanne Barr guffaw that we are supposed to be on Roseanne’s side here.

Darlene also ultimately mostly agrees with her parents and reminds her daughter that those “ crazy old hillbillies” will “get in the pickup truck and pull you out of any well that you fall into.” While she’s frustrated by her mother’s interference, Darlene never insists that Roseanne should apologize to Harris for giving her a kitchen sink swirlie or calling her a bitch. (Actually, Darlene never even hears about that second part.) Roseanne also never offers an “I’m sorry,” just as she never offered one to Jackie in episode one when they reconciled after their libtard vs. deplorable smackdown. So far, this is a show in which Roseanne never has to admit when she’s wrong, but everybody else does, which makes it harder to believe the show’s end goal is to bridge the distances between decent people who disagree.

There’s also another troubling but telling exchange in this episode that has nothing to do with Harris, but circles back to that comment about people being too PC. At one point, Roseanne and Dan fall asleep on that familiar, afghan-covered couch, then wake up and realize they’ve snoozed through an entire night of ABC programming.

“We slept from Wheel to Kimmel,” Roseanne says.

“We missed all the shows about black and Asian families,” Dan responds.

“They’re just like us,” she retorts. “Now you’re all caught up.”

Maybe this was meant as just a cute little meta joke, but it’s so dismissive of the ABC series it’s clearly referencing — Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat — and what their presence signifies to groups who deserve to be represented as much as white working-class families like the Conners, that it’s downright offensive, especially in light of conversations that have ensued over the past week about whether embracing Roseanne amounts to normalizing the more extreme political views of its star and the right wingers who share them. Even the construction of that sentence — they’re just like us, in which “us” is considered the default — is off-putting.

Do these issues mean that Roseanne shouldn’t be on the air? No, although the notion of giving Barr this platform after she’s supported Pizzagate and other conspiracy theories is troubling. That said, for every problematic moment like the one I just mentioned, there are genuinely funny ones, like the interplay between Goodman and Barr when Dan tries to coax her into using that stair chair. By several metrics — humor, quality of acting, the overall storytelling — Roseanne is a very good sitcom. Just as there are and should be shows about families that are black, Asian, or anything else, there should be a place for more than one series about a working-class family with a semi-conservative matriarch whose perspective may not jibe with every viewer. (I also think there should be a place for that Black-ish episode that ABC decided not to air about black athletes kneeling during the national anthem. I guess confronting that subject head-on is suddenly not “PC.”)

But let’s not act like this show isn’t political. For some reason in this country, unless we’re explicitly talking about elections or using the word Congress, we act like we’re not talking about politics. Which is absurd. The decisions that elected officials make affect our daily lives, including how much we have to pay for our medications and whether our kids and grandkids have to move back home because of money concerns and then start hogging the dryer. Cultural and generational dynamics — including whether we view some people as hillbillies and others as entitled — also shape our attitudes about politics. You can’t talk about any of these issues in isolation and act like they’re not connected to each other and to the state of our union, because they absolutely are.

The presidential election and the social turmoil that has followed should have taught us that all this is true by now. If they haven’t, Roseanne is, intentionally or not, doing that job. Whether you like the show or don’t, there’s no denying that it is a button-pushing reminder that the personal is indeed political. I think even Roseanne Conner — both the one from the ’80s and ’90s and the more Trump-ified one of today — would probably agree with that.

Roseanne Is a Political Series, Full Stop