TV

Was There Really Ever Any Chance That “Roseanne” Could Be Great Again?

Now that ABC has given Barr that megaphone, it’s not going to be so easy to take it away

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I grew up on Roseanne reruns, my weekend afternoons spent happily confined to the warmly shabby Conner family home. When I popped ABC’s screener DVD into my laptop back in January, a couple of months before the rebooted sitcom premiered, I didn’t know what to expect; by the time the familiar wail of the opening credits song began, I had tears in my eyes. I loved this show so much, and now, 21 years after it went off the air, it was back in my life.

It seems crazy now, in the wake of ABC’s decision to cancel Roseanne after its star and namesake tweeted a racist “joke” comparing former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett to an ape, but at the time I had forgotten about the sad, strange turn Roseanne Barr’s public life had taken since her show went off the air in 1997. She’d long been tweeting conspiracy theories — that tweet about Jarrett was followed by another one calling Holocaust survivor George Soros a Nazi who profited off the deaths of Jews during World War II — but it took the election of Trump to give her the megaphone she so clearly craves: In March, the New York Times reported that ABC executives met the day after Trump’s election to discuss how to reach out to the viewers they’d apparently alienated — those economically anxious, working-class, “heartland” Americans who, pundits have repeatedly assured us, are definitely not racist. Apparently, ABC decided the best evangelist for this mission was Roseanne Barr.

On Tuesday, ABC president Channing Dungey abruptly announced the show’s cancellation with a one-sentence statement decrying Barr’s tweet. In retrospect, this unceremonious demise was inevitable, because the decision to revive Roseanne in the first place grew out of a cynical impulse: to cater to and placate Trump voters with a show that, as Trump himself boasted at one of his rallies, is “about us.” From my perspective as a liberal TV watcher (and critic), the revival also felt like a sneaky way to put viewers like me in a bind: Roseanne has been celebrated as a feminist working-class sitcom since its debut, and as I wrote shortly before the new season began, its reboot felt like a litmus test for the left — you say you can’t separate the art from the artist? What if the art is a beloved sitcom you grew up with and have deep affection for — one that featured openly gay characters, complex teenage girls, and Laurie Metcalf? By playing the nostalgia card, ABC seemed to be having it both ways.

Until it wasn’t. In time, I’m sure we’ll learn more about ABC’s choice to ax Roseanne. It can’t have only been about the tweet, which is just one of many abhorrent and unhinged statements Barr has spread among her copious followers — they now number over 800,000 — since joining Twitter in 2011. Executive producer Whitney Cummings had already left the show; after Barr’s tweet about Jarrett, consulting producer Wanda Sykes announced via Twitter that she, too, was out. Shortly after ABC announced the cancellation, Emma Kenney, who plays the teenage daughter of Darlene (Sara Gilbert) in the new episodes, tweeted that she had also been planning an escape route. These departures, along with declining ratings over the course of the season, might have helped contribute to ABC’s decision.

For me, though, the Roseanne reboot ended a long time ago. The nostalgic glow of the series faded around episode three. ABC hadn’t included this one in its screener package, which comprised episodes one, two, and four. Presumably they wanted critics like me to bask in the promise of those episodes before we reached the moment when Roseanne makes a cruel joke at the expense of two other ABC sitcoms, Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat: Roseanne and Dan have fallen asleep while watching TV, and when Dan points out that they “missed all the shows about black and Asian families,” Roseanne snidely reassures him, “They’re just like us! There, now you’re all caught up.”

It’s one thing to insist that Roseanne Conner is not Roseanne Barr, therefore any issues you may have with the latter shouldn’t affect your view of the former; but the revived Roseanne seemed to collapse the distance between the two, and it was never willing to truly challenge the character’s stubbornly ill-informed views (“He talked about jobs!”), which felt like a win for Roseanne Barr, too. The show could attempt to dress up Roseanne-the-character’s ignorance with liberal ornaments, like Darlene’s genderqueer son, or the black daughter of D.J (Michael Fishman). But Roseanne always got the last laugh.

So I stopped laughing, and about halfway through the season, I stopped watching. It wasn’t a political choice, or even a fully conscious one. I didn’t take to Twitter to announce that I would no longer be tuning in. I didn’t even announce it to myself. My early enthusiasm just flagged; it felt flimsy all of a sudden. I felt like I’d been duped.

When the show was canceled, I thought I’d go back and watch the episodes I’d missed, but by Tuesday night Hulu had already scrubbed the new episodes, and streaming platforms that had housed the original series followed suit. ABC had even disappeared the show from its press site; when I searched “Roseanne,” no results came up, as if the whole thing was just a fever dream. Roseanne? Doesn’t look like anything to me.

This is a shame, and a woefully shortsighted decision. Having finally done the right thing, it’s as if ABC is trying to pretend the whole debacle never happened — that it never made a calculation on the day after Trump’s election to bob along the MAGA river so long as it could continue dredging up profits from it. (And can’t we leave the original Roseanne out of it?!) Already, viewers and critics are floating the idea of bringing back the show without its star, which seems like yet another attempt to purify something that has already been contaminated. And now that ABC has given Barr that megaphone, it’s not going to be so easy to take it away. The cancellation of her show has inevitably turned her into a martyr among right-wing fans who view ABC’s decision as a way to muzzle conservative voices. Roseanne ends its reanimated run as a cautionary tale about the dangers of trying to corral a volatile yet popular celebrity figure who will not be tamed. It’s one we’ve heard before.

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