Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Return of "Roseanne"

I've gotten into the habit of waiting until a season of television is over before writing anything about it, but I'm going to make an exception for the "Roseanne" revival.  For one thing, it's timely in a way that few pieces of media have been outside of late night, and has generated a lot of conversation. For another, the two episodes that aired last week already provide more than enough material to write a whole post about.

So it's been roughly twenty years since we last saw the Conners and Langford.  Roseanne (Roseanne Barr) and Dan (John Goodman) are now in their sixties. Darlene (Sara Gilbert) has just moved back home with her two kids Harris (Emma Kenney) and Mark (Ames McNamara), after losing her job.  Widowed Becky (Lecy Goranson) works as a waitress and has agreed to be a surrogate mother for a wealthy woman named Andrea (Sarah Chalke). DJ (Michael Fishman) is fresh out of the army, taking care of his daughter Mary (Jayden Rey) while his wife is still stationed overseas.  Finally, Roseanne is in the middle of a feud with Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), and they haven't spoken since the election.

Most importantly, the show's creators decided that the last, weird, nutball season didn't really happen.  So Dan survived his heart attack, and the Conners are still working class and struggling to get by. There are definitely some new challenges - Roseanne is now "Granny Rose" to a biracial granddaughter and a grandson who is more comfortable in a skirt, while Darlene struggles with being a single parent.  Still, most things are the same. Roseanne and Dan remain loving and abrasive. Darlene and Becky trade insults constantly. Jackie is still a basket case. The Conner homestead is almost totally unchanged. Some of the actors are a little rusty in the first episode, noticeably Gilbert and Goranson, but they settle in by the second.

And by and large, the show is able to pick up almost right where it left off.  The laughs come easily, and the moments of melodrama have some surprising bite.  The show is uncomfortably genuine at times, reflecting middle and lower class America in a way that not much other American media does.  There's been a lot of press about Roseanne being a vocal Trump supporter, which is at the center of her feud with Jackie. The show keeps the actual politics offscreen, only mentioning Jill Stein by name, but it's still unnerving to hear Roseanne firing off right wing slogans without a hint of irony.  That's a good thing, though. It wouldn't be "Roseanne" if it wasn't going against the grain in some capacity.

As a revival, "Roseanne" is among the better ones I've seen.  The changes in the characters feel very organic, and the show's '90s sitcom format still works fine.  Laurie Metcalf and John Goodman remain the MVPs of the cast, as they always were, but I found that I was happiest to see Roseanne herself almost exactly the way I remembered her - opinionated, loud, uncompromising, and yet terribly endearing.  The second episode was much better than the first, as it puts the Conners in the middle of a new parenting (and grandparenting) dilemma, and watches them deal with it in their typically raucous and blunt, but entirely well-meaning manner.

There are several nods toward nostalgia, including a very prominent voice-over right up front stating that "Roseanne" was taped in front of a live studio audience.  This also doubles as a disclaimer that the occasional "Oooohs" we hear in response to Roseanne and Jackie trading snarky political barbs are genuine. The little self-referential bits, like Dan finding Roseanne's book where he was killed off don't work as well, but I'm hoping the creators got most of that out of their systems after the first episode.    

It'll be interesting to see how the revival does in the long run.  I want to see if they'll handle race issues better this time around, and whether some of the old faces like Leon and Bev and Crystal wil return.  We've been promised that the politics aren't coming back, but I wish that they would. "Roseanne" could probably handle digging a little deeper into the psyche of a Trump supporter, and this is one of the better platforms for it.  Maybe next year - because it's already obvious that there needs to be a next year for this show.

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