Roseanne Is More Than Just Its Politics

Like most good art, it cannot be reduced to a single message.

Sara Gilbert, Laurie Metcalf, and Roseanne Barr in a scene from Roseanne.
Sara Gilbert, Laurie Metcalf, and Roseanne Barr in a scene from Roseanne.
ABC/Adam Rose

Last week, Roseanne returned to ABC after a 20-year hiatus. The series, about the blue-collar Conner family, always seemed like a particularly well-timed reboot. It was a nostalgia play, sure, but one with a resounding reason to be: the election of Donald Trump. For eight seasons (ignoring the ninth, in which Roseanne seemed to have won the lottery) the Conners labored to make ends meet, hold steady jobs, and provide for their children, establishing themselves as members of the struggling white working class. When this group, motivated by racial resentments as well as economic fears, was widely credited with delivering the presidency to Trump—with an assist from Roseanne Barr, who also voted for him—ABC decided it would be a good time to bring back the newly relevant Conners. It would have been hard to predict how good a time. More than 18 million people watched the new Roseanne, a gargantuan number for 2018. ABC immediately picked it up for another season.

Roseanne has always been a political sitcom—Barr envisioned it, from the start, as explicitly working-class and explicitly feminist—and in the days after its ratings triumph, Roseanne has been dissected in a manner familiar from 2016 election post-mortems. What accounts for the show’s ratings victory? Had Roseanne’s audience been underserved and undercounted by the media establishment? Is watching Roseanne morally defensible for conservatives? How morally indefensible is watching Roseanne for liberals?

The essayist and novelist Roxane Gay wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times that she would not continue watching Roseanne, though she found it funny, because “This fictional family, and the show’s very real creator, are further normalizing Trump and his warped, harmful political ideologies.” Writer and political commentator Jared Yates Sexton, first in a viral Twitter thread and then for Elle, argued that Roseanne sanitizes Trump voters, ignoring their racism and intolerance and making the show a dream machine for someone like Steve Bannon, who worked so hard to convince potential voters that supporting Donald Trump didn’t mean they were prejudiced.” Meanwhile, Daily Show writer Daniel Radosh observed that Sexton’s argument was nearly identical to conservative Daily Wire editor Ben Shapiro’s, who argued that critics love the show because it “recasts Trump voters as social leftists who just disagree about economics.” And then there was Trump himself, who called Barr to congratulate her on the ratings and, speaking to union members at a rally in Ohio, said, “Look at Roseanne! Look at her ratings! They were unbelievable! Over 18 million people! And it was about us!”

Who exactly is “us”? Gay, in her piece, observed that “Forty-one percent of voters earning less than $50,000 voted for Mr. Trump while 53 percent voted for Hillary Clinton. Forty-nine percent of voters earning between $50,000 and $100,000 voted for Mr. Trump while 47 percent voted for Mrs. Clinton.” Working-class voters, in other words, did not primarily vote for Donald Trump. Nor, as Gay points out, is the working class nearly so white as it’s often imagined to be. Of the 18 million people who watched Roseanne, it is a safe bet that some were Trump voters and some were not, that some were working-class and that some were not, that some were white and some were not. That Donald Trump should ignore these distinctions with his “us” is no surprise. It’s efficacious. Politics is a zero-sum game, in which everything leads to a vote for the Democrats or a vote for the Republicans. Trump wants to turn Roseanne’s ratings into a victory for his team.

But good art, though it may be political, is not simply reducible to its politics. It is possible to watch Roseanne and to see a liberal conspiracy to present conservatives as social liberals, a liberal pathology to make Trump voters seem fundamentally unracist, a victory for Trump’s America, or an arena in which to fight Trump’s America. But this is not some kind of defect. It is, instead, a reflection of Roseanne’s attempts to accommodate various, completely at-odds, political perspectives. We all come to Roseanne with our own preferences and concerns and biases and hopes. That we can see them both reflected and refracted in it should be evidence, I think, that it is not pushing a coherent political agenda but something harder and simpler: It is asking people who vehemently disagree to share it.

Roseanne does reach out, directly, to white working-class people. Roseanne Conner’s vote for Donald Trump declares this, full-throatedly. At the end of the first episode, Roseanne makes peace with her Hillary-supporting sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) by refusing to apologize for bullying her about her candidate of choice. Roseanne is being ungenerous, but the moment is played for laughs. Roseanne’s stubbornness is often a source of amusement, and there’s the intimation that Jackie—who caved and voted for Jill Stein—is a sucker, a bleeding heart who doesn’t quite know her own mind. Roseanne’s vote, unlike Jackie’s, is not giving. It’s not flexible. It’s not willing to see the other side. I think it feels bulwarked by the presence of Roseanne Barr, a Trump voter and conspiracy theorist, who supplies Roseanne Conner with a bit of extratextual rigidity, a true believer’s lack of doubt that is probably palpable to and appreciated by many Trump voters.

But TV shows do not just blindly co-sign their lead character’s behavior. Breaking Bad didn’t think Walter White was good—even if some of the audience did. All in the Family’s Archie Bunker was a bigot, and the show knew it—even if some of the audience adored him. Roseanne’s writers and showrunners—who are no longer Roseanne Barr (Bruce Helford and Whitney Cummings haven taken the helm, while Sara Gilbert, who plays Darlene, orchestrated the reunion)—have complicated the series’ perspective without rebuking or condescending to Roseanne Barr. As ardently as the Roseannes Barr and Conner may support Donald Trump, the series is grounded in this essential fact: Trump has made absolutely no material difference in the Conners’ lives. They have no better jobs, no better health care, just a family feud and, in a few episodes, an opioid addiction.

In the new episodes, Roseanne has a black granddaughter­—who, like her father, D.J. (Michael Fishman), hasn’t been given much of a storyline so far—and a nonbinary grandson. Yates, Shapiro, and Gay all saw these characters as a way to insulate Roseanne from charges of intolerance and racism. She may have voted for Trump, but she’s not bigoted—just look at her grandkids! It’s true that no one on the show has pressed Roseanne on this contradiction: How could she support Trump when he supports policies designed to discriminate and dehumanize her kids’ kids? But even as these children are giving cover to the prejudice inherent in Roseanne’s vote, they are doing something else: They are also communicating the series’ values, that tolerance is important, no matter who Roseanne voted for. If TV can influence us, can make us more socially progressive, as it did with Will & Grace, who’s to say there isn’t a Trump voter out there who will be kinder and more accepting of a little boy who wants to wear girl’s clothing because Roseanne Conner was?

I think the challenge in sussing out the political meaning of Roseanne is that it is bipartisan, by which I do not mean a genuine compromise, but a piecemeal accord, in which everyone involved held onto their beliefs and tried to work together anyway. It’s trying to speak to both teams, to not be a part of the zero-sum game. This may be impossible. The various, opposing political critiques of Roseanne gesture toward another, deeper question, which is whether the show’s goal—to reach out to everyone, to make something all Americans can enjoy—is one anyone ought to have right now, when one side’s beliefs are so racist, intolerant, and dangerous. Roseanne wants us to share something at a moment of profound, necessary disagreement. For one hour last week, whether we should have or not, 18 million people did.