After three weeks of ratings dominance on Tuesday nights, it’s safe to say the reboot of “Roseanne” is here to stay as one of network TV’s highest rated and most culturally resonant series.
The audience size has come down from the 25 million that watched the premiere in week one, but it is still in the upper teens and way above any of the competition. This kind of success is not simply a matter of curiosity or nostalgia.
When a TV show — or any pop culture artifact — is drawing that kind of a mass audience, it has something to tell us about ourselves and the times in which we live. And, in this case, that something involves more than just the Narcissist-in-Chief’s claim when the first batch of ratings arrived that the show’s success was all about him.
President Donald Trump is part of the story here but far from all of it. In fact, after the first episode that generated so much buzz about Roseanne Conner voicing her support for Trump, while her sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) bitterly denounced him, the president has all but disappeared from the overt onscreen conversations of the show.
That’s why it’s a good idea to wait until several episodes are available to make pronouncements about what a series as deep as this might be about. The Trump talk was a useful tool in the first episode to generate big interest, but the series is now traveling richer terrain as it explores three generations of the working-class Conner family living under one roof in the fictional flyover town of Lanford, IL.
What the popularity of this show is telling us, among other things, is that we are living through one of the most contentious periods of American life since the late1960s and early ‘70s, a time of genuine cultural revolution. “Roseanne” is also reminding us of the power of the working-class sitcom despite network television’s best efforts to avoid any discussion of social class differences and economic uncertainty in prime-time entertainment programming.
As conservative as some of the views voiced by Roseanne Barr might be, this is a series that offers as hard-edged a critique of working-class life as has ever been shown on network TV. This week’s moving story line of Becky Conner (Lecy Goranson) finding she was medically not suitable to serve as a surrogate for a wealthy woman who hired her for $50,000 dramatizes a truth regularly chronicled by sociologists from the left about working Americans often seeing their bodies as their only source of capital. Network TV does not like to talk about such harsh truths when it is trying to sell luxury vacations, bigger homes and huge SUVs during commercials.
The most striking aspect of this ABC series to me is how closely it parallels in terms of the politics of the times “All in the Family,” a sitcom starring Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker, a loading dock worker living in Queens. The hit series aired on CBS from 1971 to ‘79.
In 1971, the nation was still very much in the political and social upheaval of the 1960s. America was in Vietnam, and the anti-war movement was raging forcibly enough to shut down campuses. The civil rights era was winding down, but a black pride sensibility was on the rise, and the women’s movement was in the streets and gaining strength.
Republican Richard Nixon, who had been elected president in 1968 on a promise to restore “law and order” to the nation, was gearing up for what would be one of the most lopsided victories in presidential politics in 1972. One of his strongest appeals for support would be to what he termed “the silent majority,” mainly white, working class voters who Nixon insisted were being ignored in favor of those marching in the streets and protesting on campuses.
If that sounds like Donald Trump’s “forgotten Americans,” you are getting the idea here.
In “All in the Family,” the tensions within the larger society symbolically played out within the Bunker household. Archie, a staunch Nixon supporter, argued politics with his liberal daughter (Sally Struthers) and long-haired son-in-law (Rob Reiner). It was the same dynamic as Roseanne and Jackie in the first episode of the reboot.
Archie was a more one-dimensional character — a clear-cut bigot. The character of Roseanne is more complicated, which is why the conversation of this series is more multi-dimensional.
The series is conservative on several levels. There’s Roseanne defending her vote for Trump rather than Hillary Clinton by saying in the first episode, “He talked about jobs, Jackie.”
It is also deeply conservative in its rock-ribbed celebration of family above all else.
But it is nearly Marxist in its critique of economic inequalities in American life and the struggle of working-class families as the gap between haves and have-nots widens in this Gilded Age of Trump. Dan (John Goodman) and Roseanne Conner don’t have enough money for their prescription medications, yet they open their home to a grown daughter who recently lost her job, Darlene (Sara Gilbert), and her two children.
Roseanne and Dan fight in the episode that aired Tuesday over Becky being a surrogate. Roseanne is against it. But Dan, in one of the few scenes where he goes head to head with his wife, explains what the $50,000 fee means to someone in their grown daughter’s economic circumstances.
“Neither of us wants this to happen, but she’s a grown woman and she’s made it clear we don’t have anything to give her, so we shouldn’t be standing in her way,” Dan says heatedly. “Did you see the look in her eyes when she thought she had the money for some kind of future? We got no right to tell her she can’t take $50,000.”
Early in the episode, Becky talks excitedly about being able to afford a house with a backyard so that she can have a dog. I know that dream.
This is where “Roseanne” lives. And for all the excesses and sins of the star, this is the sitcom I celebrate.
The history of working class sitcoms is abysmal.
At the dawn of prime-time network programming in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, there were a number of such shows.
“The Goldbergs,” starring Gertrude Berg as Molly Goldberg, matriarch of a Jewish family in the Bronx, was the first family sitcom. “The Honeymooners, starring Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden, a bus driver with big dreams and constant frustrations, is probably the one best remembered.
But Madison Avenue, on which the networks were totally dependent in their early years, didn’t like working-clas sitcoms because they were considered poor vehicles for selling the new, post-war, consumer society of home appliances, bigger cars and buying on credit.
And so, the look of prime-time, family sitcom quickly changed to dad in white shirt, tie and sweater reading the evening paper after coming home from his office job, with mom in the kitchen wearing pearls as she cooks dinner. Urban settings gave way to white picket fences and suburban greenery.
There were a few notable exceptions like “All in the Family” and “Roc,” which debuted on Fox in 1991 and featured Charles S. Dutton as a Baltimore sanitation worker. Dutton imbued Roc with a fierce work ethic and played him with great dignity. God bless him for that.
But such working class depictions have been few and far between.
I know some people can’t get past the sense that “Roseanne” validates voting for Trump. If it does that, they believe, it must be denounced. End of discussion.
But if that’s how you see it, you’re missing an engaging dramatization of the working-class struggle. Even as it makes millions of viewers laugh each week, it reminds us of the growing inequalities for a large segment of the population that mainstream media has a history of ignoring.