Television

The New Roseanne Proves It’s Still the Ultimate White, Working-Class Sitcom

But what that means, two decades later, is much more complicated.

Roseanne Barr in the original series and the revival.
Roseanne, then and now.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images and Adam Rose/ABC via Getty Images

By the time she was 25 years old, Roseanne Barr had three kids and a husband and was living in Denver. While working as a cocktail waitress at Bennigan’s, she thought she might be able to turn her life into a stand-up act. Housewives then, as now, were no one’s idea of cool, but that didn’t stop Barr, who developed a routine built around her persona as an ironically titled “domestic goddess.” She first performed her act in the parking lot of a lesbian feminist bookstore, the same store where Barr and her sister had recently “educated themselves in the politics of female liberation,” Joy Press writes in Stealing the Show: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television, before honing her stuff on the road. “People say to me, ‘You’re not very feminine,’ ” she would joke at the end of her set. “Well, they can suck my dick.”

In 1985, Roseanne made it to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. As she launches into her domestic goddess shtick, the audience adjusts to her deflated California girl twang, nasal and flat, and starts to laugh. (Barr laughs along, but it sounds noticeably gentle.) She warms them up by teasing herself, “So I’m fat—I thought I’d point that out,” and then works her way around to some scabrous man lampooning. John Lahr quoted the end of her act in a New Yorker profile from 1995: “Still, stuff bugs me. This bugs me the worst. That’s when the husband thinks that the wife knows where everything is, huh? Like they think the uterus is a tracking device. He comes in: ‘Hey, Roseanne! Roseanne! Do we have any Cheetos left?’ Like he can’t go over and lift up that sofa cushion himself.”

The distilled sensibility of this joke—both feminist and working-class, misandrist and anti-elitist, cutting and self-effacing, principled and sloppy—would make it into the TV show Roseanne, with the addition of Barr’s famous cackle. Roseanne premiered in 1988, an instant hit, watched by more than 20 million people, a critical and popular success. The show was about the Conners, a poor, struggling, harried, funny, feisty, loving family who were never going to triumph over their circumstances but refused to succumb to them anyway.

Roseanne is thought of as the ultimate white, working-class sitcom, and for good reason. It’s not the only comedy that has taken on class—there’s Norman Lear’s oeuvre, The Simpsons, scads of reality TV, and even a handful of sitcoms, like Mom and The Middle, created by Roseanne writers—but it did so with unusual candor, focus—and popularity. Just as important to Barr, however, was that it was a feminist sitcom. In a piece she wrote in New York magazine in 2011, she made sure to describe it as “television’s first feminist and working-class-family sitcom (also its last).” Barr is not always a reliable narrator, but she’s right about this. So much of Roseanne’s honesty about class is connected to Barr’s feminism, which infused the character of Roseanne Conner, a woman who speaks her mind.

Roseanne Conner was an overwhelmed working mother who called attention to all the housework she, as a woman, was expected to do while her husband didn’t. She was fat and desired, unruly and opinionated, difficult, lovable, loved. Roseanne’s feminism bled into her larger progressive politics. She was tolerant, pro-choice, friends with gay people, unbigoted. The show, which could be much darker than most sitcoms, took on harassment and domestic abuse.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Barr warred with the status quo. Barr was initially paired with a male writer, who was given sole credit for creating the series. Outraged and gutted, Barr stood up for herself: She posted a list on her dressing room door of people she would fire when the show went to No. 1, she took scissors to outfits she felt her character wouldn’t wear, and she refused to deliver lines she didn’t believe in. She was passionate and impolitic and convinced that no one would have treated a man like this.

When the show became a smash hit, she got to fire all the people she said she would. And then the chaos continued. (For a great précis on the Tom Arnold of it all, read Press’ book.) At the time, Barr thought of this turmoil in feminist terms. After TV Guide insulted a late season of Roseanne, Barr went on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and let loose: “I think what they’re really mad about is that a I’m a woman calling the shots and that I was a waitress and that I was a maid and I never went past the ninth grade, and I still do a better show than any of them.”

On Tuesday night, after a 20-year hiatus, Roseanne returns to ABC, with its cast, and that crocheted blanket on the couch, intact. The awful ninth season, when the Conners won the lottery and Dan (John Goodman) died, has been wiped away. Dan and Roseanne are still happily married curmudgeons, but they’re unable to afford a deductible that would allow Roseanne to get knee surgery. Darlene (Sara Gilbert), a mother of two, including a son who sometimes wears girls’ clothing, has just moved back home after being laid off. Becky (Alicia Goranson) is a 43-year-old waitress contemplating donating her eggs for cash. And D.J. (Michael Fishman), back from a tour in Syria, has a biracial daughter and a wife who is still deployed.

The new Roseanne, from the very first cackle, feels pretty close to the old Roseanne. Roseanne looks oddly good—as good as a rich actress would look in her 60s, not as good as Roseanne Conner would—and there’s some off timing in later episodes, but the first episode gets into its old groove with eerie facility. Still, it arrives at a moment when the show’s very description—a working-class and feminist sitcom— is more complicated than it was. The complication is Barr, who in recent years has become an ardent Trump supporter. A different version of Barr, or even just a Hillary-voting one, would be doing a victory lap right now: She was an ironic misandrist before everyone was an ironic misandrist, a woman who fought for her due credit with everything she had, who believed in her talent and her brain and her mouth and her body when others refused. But what does a feminist, working-class sitcom look like today, and can a show anchored by a woman who voted for our pussy-grabbing, millionaire president still be it?

In the first episode of the new season, Roseanne and her sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) haven’t spoken for a year, not since Roseanne voted for Trump and Jackie voted for “liar, liar pantsuit on fire.” Roseanne’s vote is plausible. She would be the type who voted for Trump just to, as she puts it, shake things up and then bully Jackie about it. But her vote is also meant as a signifier, a dog whistle that this show still intends to speak, especially, to working-class white people.

Once whistled, the series doesn’t dig in on Roseanne’s partisan politics. Instead, it digs in on the opioid crisis, on the expense of health insurance, on the lousy jobs on offer. Roseanne does as good a job as anything at demonstrating the ways Trumpism, for some voters, doesn’t map onto a particular ideology, beyond a faith in Trump. Roseanne hasn’t become conservative. Socially, the show remains largely progressive. In the first episode, Becky announces her plans to become a surrogate. (The intended mother is played by Sarah Chalke, who played Becky for a few seasons while Goranson went to college.) “You always believed a woman had a right to decide what happens to her body,” Jackie admonishes Roseanne, and Roseanne acknowledges this is so. In the third episode, Darlene’s son wants to wear girls’ clothes to school. Dan and Roseanne don’t like it and fear for their grandson’s safety, before coming around and being supportive.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Barr said, “We’re not going to talk about who the Conners are going to vote for. I think people would turn us off real quick.” But politics have become too unavoidable, and TV audiences have shrunk. Maybe Barr isn’t worried about alienating members of her audience: Some will agree with her, others may find her character more illuminating than a journalistic safari deep into Trump country. Or maybe it’s that the writers know Roseanne’s vote isn’t all that alienating, because it’s not that fundamental to the show.

One way to read the new season is as a mellowing of Barr, or at least a stepping back. Her name is still the title, but she’s not the driving force anymore. Late in the first episode, Roseanne and Darlene have a heart to heart on the couch, where Darlene confesses that she’s embarrassed she had to come home. Roseanne hugs her and growls, warmly, “loser,” a touching example of the show’s knack for being mean and loving at once, but it’s Darlene’s tears that are the heart of the scene, and the revival.

Sara Gilbert, the driving force behind the reboot, now plays the mother struggling to provide for her kids. Gilbert has become a very good, low-key actress. She’s still a downbeat smart aleck, but she can make you cry without appearing to do very much. She’s not as big a personality as her mother, but she’s the source of the show’s greatest heartbreak. Dan and Roseanne may still be in the same house, eking things out, but it’s the show’s vision of Darlene that is the real American indictment, a woman who thought she could get out and do better, who went to college, but who can’t escape generational poverty despite her best efforts. She’s a feminist, too, but one who can’t overcome her seemingly immutable status as a poor person, whomever she voted for.