‘Roseanne’ Is More Critical of America Than Its Record-Breaking Audiences May Realize

Trump may support the show, but the sitcom isn't exactly a celebration of its working class family.
ROSEANNE - "Roseanne Gets the Chair" - Roseanne's clash with Darlene over how she's raising her kids - especially Harris - reaches a breaking point; while Dan tries to help Roseanne with her bad knee by getting her an elevator chair, which she refuses to use because she doesn't want to admit getting old, on the second episode of the revival of "Roseanne," TUESDAY, APRIL 3 (8:00-8:30 p.m. EDT), on The ABC Television Network. (ABC/Adam Rose)ROSEANNE BARR, JOHN GOODMAN
ABC / Adam Rose

The tenth season of “Roseanne” doesn’t exhume the ’90s sitcom so much as it functions as a meta-commentary on its original appeal. No matter how much the far right — and Trump himself — would like to embrace the show for foregrounding a prototypical working-class Trump voter as its hero, this commercial phenomenon critiques America in spite of itself. There’s something surreal, even a touch eerie about watching a family divided along political lines, jostling each other about unfunny topics like health care, gun rights, and sexism, while a live studio audience laughs on cue.

Written by liberals even as its creator endorses the president, “Roseanne” showcases irreconcilable belief systems under the guise of a laugh track. It’s an enthralling cultural paradox, no matter the original intentions, and far more critical of America than its voluminous working-class audiences may realize.

The show has become a self-referential statement on its medium. The closest parallel isn’t previous “Roseanne” seasons but the sitcom sequence of Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” which finds future criminal Mallory (Juliette Lewis) flashing back to her troubled teen years at hands of her sexually abusive father (Rodney Dangerfield). As the scene grows increasingly unsettling, the audience laughter takes on a queasy, ironic quality, drawing out the fundamental limitations of the sitcom medium. Every exchange, no matter how depraved, plays like another cheesy punchline.

“Roseanne” was already a hit when “Natural Born Killers” was released in 1994, but the dark satire now looks downright prescient. The “Roseanne” reboot is upfront in its intentions when the character’s estranged sister shows up in a pussyhat and a “Nasty Woman” T-shirt and says, “What’s up, Deplorable?” There’s a gag in which Dan can’t find his gun, another about health care, and Roseanne trolls her sister as they say grace by thanking the Lord “most of all, for making America great again.” The frustrations of a bruised country — dysfunctional, angry, and cruel — have been sublimated into punchlines. The studio audience chuckles each step of the way, laughing at the country’s fiercely divided mindset with the ease of watching someone slip on a banana peel.

It shouldn’t be surprising that “Roseanne” became an insta-hit with the same voting bloc that propelled Trump to the White House, no more than the success of “Black Panther” reflected the enthusiasm of an underserved black audience. However, while “Black Panther” wrestles with complex notions of blackness around the world within the confines of a Marvel movie, it doesn’t need to smuggle sophistication into the spectacle; they work in parallel. “Roseanne” represents a stranger cultural event: The show’s attempt to hit the zeitgeist overpowers the work itself, so that even its creators lose full control over the depth of its ideas.

On the surface, “Roseanne” caters to the middlebrow sensibilities of modern sitcoms. “Mom,” “The Middle,” and “The Ranch” all depict characters living beyond coastal bubbles and wrestling with everyday American ideals. Viewers averse to risk-taking storytelling, the sort of people who watched a few minutes of the Oscars and said “The Shape of What?” before changing the channel, will find “Roseanne” far more approachable. It speaks to them. But what’s it actually saying?

The premiere episode is packed with developments: Darlene has moved back in with her aging parents, bringing her two young kids in tow, including a boy who wears dresses and hasn’t quite figured out his sexuality. Darlene’s sister Becky announces plans to become a surrogate mother to pay off her debts. Roseanne’s sister Jackie shows up, still fuming about Roseanne’s decision to vote for Trump. Dan — resurrected in the opening scene after he died in the previous season — remains a moody background character, content to guzzle beers in the garage rather than deal with the family’s ongoing spats. When Dan storms out of the kitchen after hearing Becky’s plans, pushed to the sidelines by the women in the room (“it’s her body, her decision, Dan”), Roseanne gives him under five seconds to get drunk enough for her to talk him down to Earth.

Now: What’s funny about any of this? It’s not the circumstances that make “Roseanne” function as a comedy, but the banter that fuses it all together while the story hums along. In Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbings, Missouri,” Frances McDormand plays an older working-class woman so enraged by the limitations of her surroundings that she rebels against them, taking justice into her own hands. Working-class audiences didn’t see her as a mirror to their angst; they rejected it, incredulous. “Roseanne” resonates in its depiction of an older-working class woman trapped by her surroundings and only surviving by cracking wise about it. To some people, that’s the reality of everyday life, punched up by a professional writing staff.

ROSEANNE - "Twenty Years to Life" - Roseanne and Dan adjust to living under the same roof with Darlene and her two children, Harris and Mark, when Darlene loses her job. Meanwhile, Becky announces she is going to be a surrogate to make extra money; and Roseanne and Jackie are at odds with one another, on the season premiere and first episode of the revival of "Roseanne," TUESDAY, MARCH 27 (8:00-8:30 p.m. EDT), on The ABC Television Network. (ABC/Adam Rose)ROSEANNE BARR, LAURIE METCALF

Yet the show’s conceit isn’t far removed from the sort of pitch-black bureaucratic satire found in Armando Iannucci’s work, from “In the Loop” through “Veep” and now the essential satire “The Death of Stalin,” which depicts a dysfunctional Soviet regime of inept and murderous psychopaths. Just as “The Death of Stalin” wrestles with the question of how any society would allow men like this to run a country, “Roseanne” contemplates the degree to which the neglect of the working class has made it vulnerable to manipulation and disdain for the cultural elite.

Why on earth did Roseanne vote for Trump? Her sister demands to know. “He talked about jobs!” she cries, noting that the family nearly lost their home. Barr herself may see the substance in that argument, and her character positions it as an end unto itself, ignoring the obvious: Nothing in her self-contained universe has changed. Ultimately, “Roseanne” illustrates the futility of working-class America. Two decades have passed and the fundamental struggles of this household remain the same, no matter who’s in charge. Only this time, rather than being ignored by the system, they’ve been hoodwinked.

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