The original Roseanne is one of the titans of sitcom television—a shrewd, piercing, and sometimes devastating glimpse at a Midwestern family always on the brink of financial collapse. And time has only made the show more remarkable. It’s difficult to find a contemporary series, other than the occasional urban crime drama, in which the actors actually resemble people who might live on cheap processed food purchased on irregular wages. By comparison, the stars of present-day sitcoms, even the “nerds” of The Big Bang Theory, look manicured within an inch of their lives.
Roseanne retooled the tropes of such classic family sitcoms as All in the Family to suit the ferocious contemporary voice of its controversial star, Roseanne Barr. Roseanne and Dan Conner (John Goodman) are working-class heroes whose heroism derives from their ability to maintain a scintilla of sanity and humor in a hopeless situation. Dan, gifted with his hands, is frequently unemployed, while Roseanne, an intelligent woman with no college degree, scuttles from one thankless and demoralizing job to another while trying to raise three (eventually four) children. The daring of the series resides in the fact that it’s often hilarious. Roseanne wasn’t another condescending liberal op-ed piece disguised as entertainment, in which the struggling heroes were miserable ciphers with no opinion on their suffering.
An irony, tough to process in these confusing times, is that Barr is an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump, which feels like a betrayal of an implicitly progressive series that once viciously lampooned, in a legendary sketch, the hypocrisy of Republican tax breaks. Roseanne’s new nine-episode season, arriving 21 years after the original show’s conclusion in 1997, acknowledges Barr’s current politics up front, as if to say “let’s get this over with.” In the premiere, Roseanne is feuding with her sister, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), over the 2016 presidential election. Without any specific names being mentioned, we can discern that Roseanne voted for Trump and that Jackie, well, that spoils one of the episode’s best jokes.
Jackie is the voice of every liberal, and many conservatives, who asked “How? Why?” Roseanne needs a new knee, and Jackie wishes her luck on paying for such an operation with Trump’s health care plan. Evocatively, we don’t learn the politics of the rest of the Conner family, at least not over the course of the three episodes that were screened for press. Dan remains steadfastly neutral in these arguments, though we assume he shares his wife’s point of view. Like Jackie, Roseanne and Dan’s grown daughter, Darlene (Sara Gilbert)—who’s moved back home with her teenage daughter, Harris (Emma Kenney), and young son, Mark (Ames McNamara)—chafes against the iron will of her stubborn mother, though she attempts to maintain some semblance of objectivity so as to bring her aunt back into the family’s fold.
Though only a few jokes explicitly revolve around Trumpism, Roseanne is thoroughly concerned with the emotions that feed reactionary sentiments. Dan and Roseanne are old-school worker bees who pride themselves on being able to weather hardship. Despite their complaining, they accept American life as is, which can lead to resentment of people who buck the system. Roseanne isn’t a typical Republican by any measure, but she’s grown more conservative over the years, and her once-progressive notion of women’s rights could use a little dusting off. Roseanne’s eldest daughter, Becky (Alicia Goranson), wants to be a surrogate mother to the tune of $50,000, which might free her of the drudgery of working as a waitress. Roseanne and Dan object, leading to a poignant and uproarious riff between the couple in their garage.
So far, the 10th season of Roseanne is a little wobbly, trying to shoehorn too many contemporary hot-button topics into a compressed amount of time. Roseanne and Dan’s son, D.J. (Michael Fishman), served in Afghanistan; and Mark dresses in girl’s clothing, which leads to moving scenes in which both Roseanne and Dan acknowledge the child’s bravery. There are also sharp observations about medical coverage, as Dan likens himself to the “Candy Man,” buying Roseanne half their medication at twice the cost. These are all legitimate narrative threads, but they cumulatively scan as contrived when squashed together over the course of a few 21-minute episodes.
Yet this Roseanne revival serves as a major recovery from the original run’s final two seasons, which collapsed into a farrago of shrill fantasy sketches. (Dan, who Roseanne announced died of a heart attack toward the end of the original series, is amusingly resurrected here with a single line of dialogue.) A primary joy of this season is watching actors of varying skill and widely divergent career paths rejoin and mesh together. Goodman and Metcalf slip Dan and Jackie back on like second skins; Barr isn’t nearly as subtle as her co-stars, but she still has her verbal fastball, and delivers consistently solid punchlines with merciless precision. Gilbert, one of the original show’s most striking presences, has seasoned Darlene’s awkwardness to reflect the character’s ongoing sense of misplacement and newfound feelings of failure. But the biggest surprise is Goranson, whose expressions of misery are among this new season’s most haunting and nuanced flourishes.
By the time that Dan and Roseanne find themselves unable to accept a “free” hotel room due to bad credit, while hiding a ham in a travel bag, Roseanne has rediscovered its sea legs. As a guiding sensibility, Barr still evinces a formidable understanding of the endless feelings of assault that characterize the lives of those on the brink of poverty, and how those feelings can broker rage toward a political climate that can be mischaracterized as sympathizing with everyone but people like the Conners. In this context, Roseanne’s embrace of an old-fashioned format—the multi-camera, laugh-track-scored sitcom—becomes unusually resonant. The Conners are now a multi-camera family out of place in a single-camera world.