Despite the ways Roseanne 2.0 has been politicized — from Donald Trump's giddy congratulations to the chorus of people insisting they won't watch — for the architects of Roseanne, the show is not about Roseanne Conner being a Trump supporter.
The show has always been progressive without being political; because Roseanne Barr pushed forward conversations about gay rights, abortion, workplace sexual harassment and racism in her show's original eight seasons, codifying her as a liberal felt accurate. But Barr's primary function as an artist has always been to shake up the status quo: after all, portraying an overweight, exhausted working-class white woman in a culture that wanted her out of sight and mind was a wild departure for TV in 1989. All that may make Roseanne Conner's new political leaning seem like an anomaly, even if the character is precisely the kind of blue-collar, white woman in a Midwestern town hit hard by new economic realities that voted for Trump. Making Roseanne Conner a Trump supporter gives the reboot good real-world tension to play with, but still, her politics aren't the point. Roseanne 2.0 isn't here to talk about the election, or the GOP but rather the ways Americans talk to each other in a time of frightening tribalism.
"I don't want people to focus on that [the politics]," series star and executive producer Sara Gilbert told TV Guide. "That's not what the episodes are about. You're never going to get any family to agree with everything," said the star, who, it's worth nothing, is gay and married herself. "You just love each other and focus on that."
Considering that Trump called Barr to offer congratulations at the show's ratings, producers' insistence that the show is not a platform for Roseanne's politics is a bitter pill to swallow. There's almost no group of people Trump hasn't outraged since his rise, from women (after bragging about sexual assault) to Mexicans, immigrants and, well, everybody disgusted at his tacit approval of actual Nazis marching in Charlottesville. But while Hollywood may be famously liberal, Barr is hardly the only household name to support Donald Trump — she's just one of scant few who's transparent about it, the radioactivity of the association be damned. A reality TV star works in the White House, and a big swath of working class, disgruntled white people put them there. The reboot bowed to staggering ratings because Roseanne, both the actor and the character, acknowledges them.
Seeing the show as merely a platform for cheering on the right, however, overlooks the breadth of viewpoints represented. Roseanne's family is presented as a microcosm of America at large; Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) supported Hillary; her grandson Mark (Ames McNamara) is genderfluid; there's a single dad (DJ Michael Fishman) who's married to black woman (stationed overseas) and has a biracial daughter Mary (Jayden Rey) while Darlene (Sara Gilbert) and Becky (Lecy Goranson) struggle to get health care. All of them have to figure out how to reconcile their differences. Roseanne, which was on the air during three different presidential reigns, has always supported the right of others to exist just as they are; in its comeback, it's defiantly saying that the same right applies to people like her, and we're just going to have to figure out how to get along. Civility, it's saying, is more important than politics. In these tightly wound times, the creators' greatest hope is that the reboot can soothe the whiplash of current culture wars. How plausible that is remains to be seen.
Many people, like writer Roxane Gay, have an problem untangling Roseanne from Roseanne Barr's personal politics, and that's understandable. Barr's put forth conspiracy theories and some mean-spirited tweets — some recently. At the Television Critics Press Tour in January, where ABC presented the show and cast to TV critics, there seemed to be a concerted effort by network spokespeople and even Roseanne's co-stars to keep her on-message and, as much as possible, away from answering questions specifically about politics and Trump himself. That's smart, not least because Roseanne Barr is not a political pundit but she admits that she "went crazy" (her words) from industry bullshit and flagrant misogyny during her show's first run — a process she detailed in a candid 2011 first-person article in New York Magazine. Some of her behavior has been regrettable and actually harmful considering her reach and stature but, not altogether surprising. This is, after all, the woman who famously grabbed her crotch and spit during a rendition of the National Anthem in 1990, earning a rebuke from President Bush and death threats, and the same woman who bailed on Hollywood to start a farm as depicted in her reality show literally entitled Roseanne's Nut. For Roseanne, the line between creative genius and scorned heretic has always been scribbled in chalk. That's why the people who helped her bring Roseanne back wanted to work with her.
"Part of the reason I wanted to do this show is because I disagreed with her politics," says Whitney Cummings, an executive producer on the series whose comedy and shows (Two Broke Girls) have been steadfastly feminist. "I thought the best way to be of service after what happened is to get into a room with someone I disagree with and have a mature adult conversation and show both sides with sophistication grace and compassion." Before Roseanne, she participated in a self-described echo chamber of conversations about the election and the presidency, only listening to and agreeing with who agreed with her. "We can be selfish in Hollywood where we only write people who are like us," she says. "They made themselves be seen and heard with their votes. We thought, if we found a way to make people seen and heard, then maybe this won't happen again."
Cummings and the writers engineered topics and people, like a forthcoming Muslim neighbor and Mexican immigrants, into the season to ensure opportunities for complex conversations to take place. Still, the good intentions in Roseanne's dialogue requires some suspension of core beliefs — and reason. People across party lines have bemoaned the current administration's disregard for the truth, flirtations with basic rules of democracy and the risk of unthinkable catastrophe since the guy in charge admits to liking chaos — considerations that go beyond a "conversation" but violate longstanding rules of engagement. In this way, Roseanne Barr's desire to "shake things up" runs parallel to Trump, though it comes from a place of privilege that overlooks the visceral fear and immediate physical harm immigrants and people of color have felt and experienced since the election. Roseanne might admirably support her granddaughter Harris' (Emma Kenney) right to choose, and she naturally adores her non-gender conforming grandson Mark, but, if at age 18 Hannah were to want an abortion or Mark were to explore the idea of transitioning to correspond with a true gender identity, those life choices would be extraordinarily more difficult, if not totally impossible, because of the people Grandma Rosie put in charge. And the healthcare crisis the entire family faces makes Roseanne's vote outright puzzling, considering that the previous administration sought to expand health care and this one has worked to undo it. Cummings, when asked about these rifts in logic, concedes and says that, as the season progresses, "We address that a lot of blue-collar families were hoodwinked. What he promised is very different than what he's delivering."
Ultimately, both real Roseanne and her TV counterpart have sometimes confounding politics but they are hers to own, like anyone else's. To its credit, Roseanne isn't attempting to make anyone believe what Roseanne believes but rather put forth the radical notion that we may not remain as divided as we are now if we engage each other and really listen in the way only families can. On its face, that's a noble ideal; whether it's possible, given the cultural momentum towards checking societal structures of power and privilege, is something else entirely. "Everybody needs to put their heads together and figure out what we want," she told TV Guide. "It's our country. We have to work it."
On that, everyone can agree.
Roseanne airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on ABC.