WATCH CLOSELY: “Roseanne” — In Trumplandia, Women are the Losers

For me, the experience of watching Roseanne is annoying and unpleasant.

“Roseanne” show reboot — Roseanne Barr and John Goodman. Photo: ABC.

By Peg Aloi

The highly anticipated revival of the popular 1980s sitcom Roseanne was controversial before its debut. Rumors that the show would portray the comedienne’s television character Roseanne Conner as a Trump supporter dovetailed neatly with Barr’s social media ramblings about Pizzagate and various other right wing conspiracies. (Not to mention her crude remarks disparaging Hillary Clinton). While the first episode contained a fair amount of antagonistic dialogue between Roseanne and her sister Jackie (who shows up for a visit clad, rather ridiculously, in a pink pussy hat and a shirt with “NASTY WOMAN” emblazoned across the front in hot pink), this plot point was dropped very quickly. In the first episode Jackie admits to being so rattled by Roseanne’s attacks on Hillary Clinton that,when it came time to vote, she (unaccountably) pulled the lever for Jill Stein. Roseanne also refuses to apologize for the rift with her sister over politics, forcing Jackie to bury the hatchet first. The takeaway: the Trump voter is in the right, and the Clinton voter is wishy-washy and uninformed.

Emily Nussbaum’s recent review for the New Yorker explores the rather crude racism behind many of the “jokes” in the poorly-written script. The print edition of the story was entitled “White-ish,” a reference to the socially-charged series “Blackish” as well as several other current network shows that deal with race and class issues that, if it were a different kind of show, Roseanne might also explore. Nussbaum more or less issues a challenge to Barr to go beyond the show’s poorly-thought out humor, which strains to sound relevant and topical but thuds heavily in the sloppy story arcs the series has trotted out so far.

Every episode has dealt with various socially controversial topics, all by way of Roseanne’s family members. Both Roseanne and Dan (John Goodman) suffer from multiple health issues (the show opens with Dan wearing a respirator, a nod to the previous series’ finale that suggested Dan had died). They make jokes about trading their meds like candy. (This is ironic because type two diabetes is an issue for both characters. Both actors have slimmed down considerably; this fits in Dan and Roseanne having to follow doctors’ orders.). Roseanne drives for Uber to make ends meet: is this a nod to her being hip enough to be part of the gig economy? Or a subtle hint that maybe all those jobs Trump promised have yet to materialize?

In addition to being middle-aged, unhealthy, and nowhere near financially comfortable, empty nesters Dan and Roseanne suddenly have a full house: daughter Darlene (Sara Gilbert, also a producer on the show) lost her job, and brings her two kids home to live with their grandparents. In the second episode, Darlene’s ten year old son Mark reveals that he likes to wear nail polish and girly, funky outfits. The family anticipates a disaster when he goes to a new school. Grandma Roseanne, trying to be supportive, offers advice on how to deal with bullies, tells Mark to be himself, etc. It’s one of the only episodes that doesn’t  step on the wrong side of the show’s vaunted attempt to grapple with hot button social issues. But, as the season progresses, social topics seem to be dealt with in one of two ways: silly sentimentality or tastelessly condescending humor.

In a plot line that spans the first four episodes, Dan and Roseanne’s daughter Becky (Lecy Goranson), who works locally as a waitress in a bar, decides to be a surrogate mom so she can earn fifty thousand dollars to support her future. In a meta-televisual move, the wealthy woman hiring Becky is played by actress Sarah Chalke (best known for Scrubs), who briefly played Becky in the incarnation of the first series. Rather than pursue an opportunity for some intriguing doppelgänger exploitation, or even just a way to let the characters’ divergent life paths mirror each other, it’s simply used as a cutesy casting move. Becky lies about her age to get this gig, but in the end her eggs are not viable and she’s unable to see it through. Along the way, Aunt Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) tries to help Becky tackle the grueling medical preparation. Helping her niece fill out doctors’ forms, she asks if Becky has ever terminated a pregnancy. When Becky is shocked that her aunt would ask this, Jackie quips, “Well you were popular in school, so I just thought–?” The joke here is …what? Popular girls are slutty? Slutty girls get abortions? Popular girls get abortions? Not a very progressive take at a time when women’s reproductive rights are being eroded daily.

Roseanne and Dan are very much against Becky’s plans, but agree to let her make her own mistakes. Sister Darlene also questions Becky’s judgment, reminding her sister that she still lives and behaves as if she’s in her twenties. But Becky makes a convincing point when she criticizes her sister’s inability to support her children (Darlene’s ex, David, is not dwelt upon, but he makes an appearance in a later episode). When the surrogacy job falls through, Becky learns she may have waited too long to have children of her own. Roseanne has the smarts to comfort her, but she doesn’t suggest adoption or foster parenting as options. Parenting is apparently only a biological process, not a vocational one. It’s all rather sentimental, and not very realistic.

For me, the experience of watching the show is annoying and unpleasant. Barr is no actress: her tendency to keep a straight face when she makes a joke, as if she’s onstage waiting for a laugh, has always made Roseanne‘s titular star seem to be the caricature of a smug mouthpiece. Laurie Metcalf as Jackie seems wound up, histrionic; it’s a shame because Metcalf gave such a gloriously subtle performance as the mom in Ladybird, not to mention being an Oscar nominee. Goodman is in fine form as usual, his timing and delivery spot on, and at times he even transcends the laboriously contrived dialogue. Gilbert and Goranson are fine, and the rest of the cast are too, especially Ames McNamara as Mark. Youngest Conner son DJ has a biracial daughter, but despite their place at the dinner table in the opening credits, they’ve only appeared briefly in two episodes so far. No doubt when they are featured it will be a ‘topical’ episode examining mixed race families. But, as Nussbaum’s article argues, the show is not winning any awards so far for racial sensitivity.

The show’s Flavor-of-the-Week approach to social and political topics feels manipulative, and its lack of intelligent treatment of such issues implies the joke is on us for expecting anything more than shallow, sophomoric shlock. But, given the number of female characters, it stings that the show’s treatment of women’s issues barely manages to scratch the surface of human decency, let alone being a sounding board for feminism. Roseanne may be brash and loud, but that doesn’t mean she’s speaking up for anyone.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College, and currently teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Cinemazine, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at

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