Roseanne and the art vs the artist dilemma

by Diana Wichtel / 11 April, 2018

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Roseanne: same old couch, same old cast, still controversial.

Roseanne rebooted still doesn’t explain why a badass feminist would vote Trump. 

Those who forget the past are condemned to watch reboots of 90s television shows. The X-Files, Twin Peaks … Now, Roseanne going for gold when it comes to nostalgia and, depending on your tolerance for Trump-era Roseanne Barr, a range of less agreeable emotions. Still, it will fill in the time until the robots take over or, as Roseanne’s still-liberal sister Jackie fears, the president who shall not be named blows up the world.

Same old kitchen table, same old couch, same chicken shirt. Also untouched by time are the tropes of the classic American sitcom, as ritualised as kabuki theatre. Everyone still lurches into shot to shout one-liners at each other, and the underlying family devotion is expressed in extended bouts of maniacal laughter. Viewers longing to become reacquainted with the tonsils of Roseanne when she’s in full roar have had their dreams fulfilled before the end of the opening titles.

Same old cast. The original show’s final season, in which the Conners won the lottery and the show stopped making any sense, rendered a reunion problematic. In the finale, it turned out the good fortune was just a story Roseanne was writing to deal with her grief at the death from a heart attack of Dan. Or something.

Barr didn’t deserve the sexism the storyline copped from some commentators – a blue-collar “domestic goddess” isn’t allowed to become a famous writer, apparently – but the show jumped a whole school of sharks and Dan was dead. Never mind. On Planet Sitcom, the deceased can be rebooted like some once-audacious television comedy. “Dan!” shrieks Roseanne in the opening scene. “I thought you were dead!”

Roseanne was groundbreaking: it starred a generously proportioned, loudmouth badass who wasn’t male, and storylines included abortion, racism, PMS and mental illness. The reboot has also proved controversial. Roseanne is now a Trump supporter. There are jokes about healthcare. “Wassup, deplorable?” says her sister Jackie, wearing a pussy hat and “Nasty Woman” T-shirt. Roseanne calls her “snowflake” and declares, “Aunt Jackie thinks every girl should grow up and be president – even if they’re a liar, liar, pantsuit on fire.” Fair enough. The character had a history of poor life choices.

But there’s the art vs the artist dilemma: can you appreciate the art while deploring the artist? Barr has been in bother for tweeting mad Trump-friendly conspiracy theories and Fox News talking points. Her social-media presence is not for the faint-hearted. Trump rang to congratulate her on the show’s premiere, though the tiresome conservative commentator Ben Shapiro railed that the reboot has adhered to its liberal origins, citing the storyline involving the Conners’ little grandson, Mark, who prefers girls’ clothes. Roseanne and Dan are kind of okay with that. The outrage.

It’s still a sitcom. Everyone can be at each other’s throats only to hug and make up at the end of the commercial half hour. I’ll keep watching, for the wonderful Laurie Metcalf and a bemused-looking John Goodman. But there’s little insight into why a formerly left-wing, feminist, working-class woman such as Roseanne Conner might vote for Trump. Life hadn’t turned out as she’d hoped. Where was her American dream? “He said he’d shake things up,” she says vaguely. Drain the swamp, build the wall, whatever. Do something.

It’s easier to see why Barr – rich, famous, never quite Hollywood and possibly bored – might see Trump as a role model. As Jimmy Kimmel pointed out to her on his talk show, “You were kind of the original crazy tweeter.”

In 2012, when a lamentably unqualified buffoon of a television star doing such a thing was more of a novelty, she ran for president. As Kimmel told her through slightly gritted teeth, “You’re expressing your views, as crazy as they may be.” In these absurd times, we should be grateful she’s only making another sitcom.

ROSEANNE, Three, Thursday, 7.30pm.

This article was first published in the April 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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