Brow Beat

In Roseanne’s Cancellation, Morality Won Out Over the Status Quo

A still from the TV show Roseanne.
Roseanne.
Adam Rose/ABC © 2017 American Broadcasting Companies Inc. All rights reserved.

When the news broke this afternoon that ABC had canceled Roseanne, the hugely successful reboot of the 1990s sitcom, after a racist tweet by its star, Roseanne Barr, I was in the middle of writing a piece about how unlikely it was that the show would be canceled. Roseanne—which, it should be said, some other network could still theoretically pick up—was a rare, gargantuan hit for flailing network television, starring, in Barr, a woman who has long had an extremely contentious and deranged Twitter account. When she tweeted earlier today of President Obama’s former adviser Valerie Jarrett, “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj,” I assumed that she would receive, at most, a slap on the wrist from ABC, which would not punish the goose laying the golden egg, even if the goose was extremely racist.

The decision to cancel Roseanne will, I expect, lead to a huge backlash in the coming days and weeks, from people who weren’t that offended by Barr’s tweet to begin with. Just as the show was embraced by President Donald Trump, Fox News, and Barr herself as a victory for white working-class people, those same factions will now treat the cancellation as an attack on this same cohort, further confirmation that the PC police, the liberal media, the establishment have it in for them. They will, in other words, try to make this story seem like it is more of the status quo.

The cancellation of Roseanne is anything but the status quo. Network executives surely took finances into consideration, but given the success of Roseanne and the swiftness with which this decision was rendered (Barr’s challenging Twitter account and personal politics may have primed the pump here), it strikes me as being, primarily, a moral one.

The decision was made possible by something else—really someone else—who is not status quo: ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey, the first black woman to be the head of a major broadcast network. We can never know for sure what would have happened if a white person were in charge of ABC at this moment, but it strikes me that that person would have been much more likely to administer the aforementioned wrist slap, continuing to put up with the polarizing circus act that is Barr. Dungey, instead, saw Roseanne’s tweet comparing a black woman to an ape for what it was: too much, too far, enough.

As I was writing about Roseanne, thinking that it would never be canceled, I was trying to articulate what has always been so tricky about the reboot, which was the utility of its immorality. Trump voters could watch Roseanne and feel seen, heard, and flattered. It allowed them to imagine themselves, like Roseanne Conner, as smart, tough, funny, and not racist.* And as false and mendacious as this fantasy is, it was, also, perhaps efficacious for our schisming America, a pressure release valve for Trump voters, while also being a relatively nontoxic way for progressives to observe said Trump voters. It was a way for us to see each other without actually having to speak, a way to exist in the same space without having to fight. But sometimes there’s no choice but to fight. Sometimes morality has to trump utility. Channing Dungey knew that.

Correction, May 29, 2018: This post originally misidentified Roseanne Barr’s character on the show as Roseanne Arnold. She’s Roseanne Conner.