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‘Roseanne’ revival hits a nerve by tapping the political divide

“Roseanne” is back after a two-decade-long hiatus, winning high ratings and critical acclaim, as well as criticism. One of the few sitcoms to grapple with issues of class, the reboot locates the Connor family in Trump's America, in the middle of a family feud over the 2016 election. Jeffrey Brown talks with Sonia Saraiya of Variety and NPR’s Eric Deggans.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    After two decades since it went off the air, “Roseanne” is back, and its revival was big in its debut, with 25 million viewers. The third episode airs tonight on ABC.

    The show has won acclaim for the way it’s dealing with our political polarization after the election, but the comedy and Roseanne Barr herself have also attracted a share of criticism as well.

    Jeffrey Brown has a look.

  • Laurie Metcalf:

     What’s up, deplorable?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The Conner family is back, still with a bite. ABC’s hit show “Roseanne” got a modern reboot, and some 25 million people tuned in last week to watch the series premiere.

  • Roseanne Barr:

    Thank you for making America great again.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     It’s been more than 20 years since audiences heard the wise-cracking wit of the blue-collar Conner family matriarch, Roseanne, the character created by comedian Roseanne Barr.

    She returns with husband Dan, played by John Goodman, sister Jackie, Laurie Metcalf, and daughter Darlene, played by Sara Gilbert, who this time around also serves as the show’s executive producer.

  • John Goodman:

    Are you ever sorry we got married?

  • Roseanne Barr:

    Every second of my life.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     The original “Roseanne” was lauded for its depiction of a struggling working-class American family living in the fictional of Lanford, Illinois. It lasted nine seasons, much of that time as one of the highest-rated programs on television, and one of the few sitcoms to grapple with issues of class.

    The reboot continues that tradition, in Donald Trump’s America, with Roseanne Conner a supporter of the president, and sister Jackie, who voted for Hillary Clinton.

  • Laurie Metcalf:

    How could you have voted for him, Roseanne?

  • Roseanne Barr:

    He talk, about jobs, Jackie. He said he’d shake things up. I mean, this might come as a complete shock to you, but we almost lost our house the way things are going.

  • Laurie Metcalf:

    Have you looked at the news? Because now things are worse.

  • Roseanne Barr:

    Not on the real news.

  • Laurie Metcalf:

    Oh, please.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Other issues come up. One of the newest characters, Mark, is Roseanne’s gender-bending 9-year-old grandson.

  • John Goodman:

    You hear that honey? My grandson’s nails are wet.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Barr herself is a real-life Trump supporter, and the president embraced the show’s success as part of his own.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Even look at Roseanne. I called her yesterday. Look at her ratings. Look at her ratings.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Barr has also received criticism for her seeming embrace on social media of right-wing conspiracy theories, including one involving a student survivor in the Parkland shooting.

    Some of her tweets have since been deleted. “Roseanne” the TV show has already been renewed for another season.

    Joining me now, Sonia Saraiya, a TV critic for “Variety,” and NPR’s Eric Deggans.

    Welcome to both of you.

    Eric, first, 25 million is a huge number these days. Why do you think the interest? What do you think it’s tapping into?

  • Eric Deggans:

     I actually felt like a bunch of different trends came together in one huge result.

    People have been looking at the cities where the show seemed to rate back, and they have noticed that a lot of those cities are in the middle of the country. And I certainly think there was a sense that people tuned in hoping to see a depiction of themselves that they don’t often see on television, where people in the middle of the country and people who might be working-class are treated with respect and treated as if they have some sense. And they’re not treated like caricatures.

    But I also think ABC promoted this show very heavily. I think the show was popular when it was on. It was one of TV’s most popular shows when it was on. And so a lot of these trends came together to create a show that was very popular when it aired.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Well, Sonia, you wrote in your piece, “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.”

    So, but it’s tapping, it’s hitting a lot of raw nerves. So, what do you see?

  • Sonia Saraiya:

     I think that when you see Roseanne and when you see her family, too, you see that there’s one woman who is a very outspoken Trump supporter here, and then there’s her whole family around her who has different viewpoints, maybe apathetic viewpoints.

    But, like, frankly, I recognize the Trump voters that I have met and who are in my family in some of the ways in which she’s both espousing these beliefs and then also in the ways that she’s not listening to some of the other criticisms that she’s hearing.

    I think that there is something very real about that person, and I think that we’re — you know, we’re all trying to understand who that person is right now. Whether or not you’re coming from the perspective of like I am a Trump supporter and I want to see what I believe on screen, or if you’re someone who has a loved one who believes those things or who supports this president, it’s a really important conversation we’re having right now.

    I think it really did strike a nerve.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     Is it inevitable, Eric, that we — in our currently political and culturally divisive age, that we watch these things through that lens? And, also, this question of separating Roseanne Barr the person from Roseanne the character.

  • Eric Deggans:

    Well, I do think what’s interesting to me about this show is that it didn’t really explore the roots of why somebody like Roseanne Conner, who, when we last saw her, you know, was supporting abortion rights, supported gay rights, trying to investigate on her own whether she and her husband had unwittingly transmitted racist views to their son, when he didn’t want to kiss a black girl in a school pageant, how somebody like that came to believe that voting for Donald Trump was something that made sense, when Hillary Clinton seemed to be much more in line with those values.

    And I don’t think the show really investigated that. And that felt like a lost opportunity. When the show was at its height, they spent two episodes looking at how all the characters on that show felt about abortion.

    The episodes that I talked about with D.J., Roseanne’s son, and racism, they spent a whole episode exploring how he might have come to feel that way and how Roseanne and Dan may have unwittingly contributed to that.

    The discuss that we saw in this new “Roseanne” was basically a series of sort of jabs and insults traded between two characters. They didn’t take a lot of time to sort of investigate how Roseanne may have come to feel the way she felt or how other people in her family may have felt about it. A lot of it was implied.

    And I noticed when I tried to talk to the cast about this, when I tried to talk to Roseanne about this back in January, that they were a little hesitant to talk about the political implications of what they were doing and why they were making the choices that they were making to make Roseanne a Trump supporter in the first place.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Well, but let me ask, because that — let me ask you, Sonia, because that’s a lot to put on a sitcom and to ask it to answer a lot of questions that we talk about all the time on a program like this as well.

    Sara Gilbert, who is the actress and now the executive producer, she says the show is not about politics, it’s not anybody’s position or policy. It’s about what happens to a family when there is a political divide.

  • Eric Deggans:

    You know, I don’t know that you can quite get away with saying it’s not about politics, because there are a lot of shows on television that portray a lot of different kinds of family, and not all of them are dealing with the fact — are explicitly making jokes about deplorables or pantsuits or Donald Trump or whatever it is.

    But I definitely think that politics is a part of a lot of people’s families. It’s part of a lot of people’s family disagreements. And what is important about “Roseanne” is that it’s not just about her the character or her the actor and their support of Donald Trump.

    It’s also about the whole family, and it’s about how the whole family talks about these things. It’s even about how Roseanne’s own sister, who is a Hillary supporter, feels bullied by Roseanne into making a decision that isn’t right for her ultimately in the ballot — in the voting booth.

    I mean, and more than that, it’s worth saying, you know, to Eric’s point, that the “Roseanne” in the past has dealt with these things a lot more sensitively, we have only seen two episodes, and only one of them really talks about Donald Trump.

    Now, I’m not saying — like, I can’t tell the future about what the rest of the season is going to hold, but I think it’s important to remember that some of the things, some of the assumptions that we’re making out of the very first episode might be things that get unpacked more as we go forward.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    OK. We will see. And we will also what happens to the ratings going forward.

    Sonia Saraiya, Eric Deggans, thank you both very much.

  • Sonia Saraiya:

     Thank you.

  • Eric Deggans:

    Thank you.

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