After the 2016 election, I kept noticing people playing out a particular thought experiment: guessing which of their favorite old sitcom characters would have voted for Donald Trump. Would Hank Hill? Ron Swanson? Joey Tribbiani? Any of the “Seinfeld” crew?
The exercise seemed like picking at a scab, but maybe it was therapeutic as well. The election was bitter and personal; it left behind feelings of personal betrayal. One safe way to deal with the “I thought I knew you”s of real life was to argue about which lever your fictional TV kin would have pulled.
The revival of “Roseanne” was what happens when you actually get an answer.
The polarizing version of the classic sitcom that returned on ABC this spring was really two shows. The first and better one was closer to the series’ original class-conscious, character-based comedy.
The extended Conner family was dealing with their lives having gone on without really having improved. Darlene (Sara Gilbert) confronted the fizzling of her writing dreams and her marriage. Becky (Lecy Goranson) tried and failed to become a surrogate mother at age 43. Roseanne (Roseanne Barr) and Dan (John Goodman) were staring down old age while still scraping together work to pay their medical bills.
This “Roseanne” was a little rusty after two decades away. But it was trying to get at something real about how life is lived and how people’s options are limited by their resources. The season’s arc for Darlene, who took a demeaning job as a casino cocktail waitress to secure benefits for her kids, recalled the original series’ feel for the personal politics of paying bills and making it in the workplace as a woman.
That “Roseanne,” however, was drowned out by the smaller but louder second one: a forced political comedy born of Ms. Barr’s support of President Trump, which transferred to her character.
This show consisted mainly of two episodes and key bits of other ones. But it dominated the discussion of the revival, for both its fans (who made the premiere the highest-rated sitcom in years) and its detractors.
Some of this was the doing of “Roseanne,” which made its first episode about the bad blood between Roseanne Conner and her pussy-hat-wearing sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), setting a context for the eight episodes to follow. Some of it was the doing of Ms. Barr, whose Twitter feed had long mixed conservative tirades and conspiracy theories.
And — of course, this is 2018 — some was the doing of Mr. Trump, who can make a political football of anything (including football). The Nielsen-fixated ex-reality star took the show’s success as a personal victory, telling supporters in Ohio that the ratings “were unbelievable … And it was about us.”
Was it? Roseanne Barr the performer is pro-Trump; so is Roseanne the character. But “Roseanne” the show was less pro-Trump than pro-Roseanne, working to assure the audience that, whether you thought she was right or wrong, she meant well.
Her argument with Jackie, for instance, mostly sidestepped questions of racism, or xenophobia, or Mr. Trump’s dog-whistle nostalgia for “the old days.” Instead, she said that Mr. Trump (though not mentioned by name on the show) “talked about jobs.”
Was that the only reason she voted for him? I don’t know. But I 100 percent believe that’s what she would say her motivation was. People sell themselves, all the time, on the most charitable interpretations of their actions.
But the following week’s episode had an offhand line that suggested there was a kind of white-identity politics under the surface here. The Conners woke up in front of the TV, having slept through, Dan said, “all the shows about black and Asian families.” (The reference was to “black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” the only two such sitcoms on ABC.)
“They’re just like us,” Roseanne said. “There, now you’re all caught up.”
The line felt like a sarcastic slap. Ms. Barr defended it on Twitter as “a joke about class solidarity.” If so, it was a weird one because 1) both of the referenced shows are about more affluent families; 2) if Ms. Barr knows how to do one thing, it’s to make sure you know sarcasm when she delivers it; and 3) if the line were about class solidarity, it would be … not really a joke but simply a statement.
The season’s seventh episode left less ambiguity. In “Go, Cubs!” Roseanne met her new Muslim neighbors, who she was afraid are terrorists. The publicity for the episode emphasized that Ms. Barr wanted her character to get a “comeuppance” for her prejudice.
That she did. The episode was unsparing about her ignorance of people from “Eye-raq” and “Talibanistan,” whipped up, Jackie says, by her media diet of Fox News. “Go, Cubs!” is full of good intentions, right down to the end, when Roseanne defends her neighbor Fatima (Anne Bedian) from an Islamophobic grocery store clerk who shames her for using food stamps.
It did that, though, by temporarily turning “Roseanne” and Roseanne into something they never were: a Norman Lear-style issue-of-the-week comedy with Ms. Barr in the temporary role of Archie Bunker. (And it ended with exactly the sort of pat, “They’re just like us” moment that the earlier episode seemed to criticize.)
What “Roseanne” did in its best years — and sometimes did this season — was to treat politics as dollars-and-cents lived experience.
The checkout-line scene in “Go, Cubs!” was a version of that approach. But amid the episode’s lurch to geopolitics, it felt like an easy out, suggesting that as long as you’re good to your neighbors individually, it doesn’t matter how you treat people in the aggregate. (Roseanne’s neighbors are from Yemen, which her neighbors note is on the travel-ban list that the president she voted for campaigned on.)
And look, these are real phenomena. People do grow isolated and scared. They do compartmentalize their personal experience (the “good Muslims” next door, the immigrants they’ve met personally) from the abstract (the Muslims on cable news, the “illegals” who Dan says he’s been losing contracting jobs to).
Arguably, that dynamic is one of the most influential in American politics now. I’m just not sure today’s “Roseanne,” half-remaking itself into a new show on the fly, has a handle on it yet.
It’s made some interesting efforts, though. Healthcare — where policy meets your aging joints and your medicine cabinet — was the season’s recurring thread. Roseanne and Jackie argued over it in the premiere, then negotiated eldercare for their mother. Roseanne had knee problems and couldn’t afford surgery — eventually we learned she’d become hooked on prescription opioids.
In Tuesday’s season finale, torrential rains flooded the Conners’ basement, piling five figures’ worth of foundation damage on top of the medical bills. In a terrific scene for Mr. Goodman, Dan waded through the floodwater to save a few boxes of things, looking gaunt, beaten, as if he might drop dead on the spot and be thankful for it.
Then, suddenly, the troubles evaporated. President Trump declared a federal emergency, meaning a windfall of FEMA cash, a deus ex MAGA. Dan would save enough money doing the repairs himself to pay for knee surgery — there would even be enough construction work in town, as Roseanne put it, “for everybody, legal and illegal.”
It was an awfully convenient resolution even by sitcom standards. When the old “Roseanne” broached serious issues — depression, domestic abuse — it stuck with its stories and recognized they had lasting consequences.
The new, politically pot-stirring “Roseanne” seems to prefer to hit quick and move on. But in the America it wants to speak to, no divine wind is coming to blow everyone’s problems away.