For about 20 minutes of airtime, the first episode of the Roseanne reboot played catch-up. Arguing its relevance, it crammed in references to cultural touchstones that occurred in the 21 or so years the show was off the air. There were jokes about Obamacare, Harry Potter and 50 Shades of Grey, taking a knee, female empowerment. They were rarely funny; many are in the clip reel above.
But if you’ve heard anything about this 10th season of what was once the edgiest of network sitcoms, you know that the most pronounced angling for relevance is in its decision to make protagonist Roseanne Connor a Trump supporter, just like the woman who created and plays her, Roseanne Barr. Much of the premiere was taken up by a feud between Roseanne and her sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), a pussy-hat wearing Hillary Clinton voter (as the two bickered, they did so with pronouns, never explicitly naming Trump or Hillary).
It’s all in service of making Roseanne great again. Explaining the decision to make Connor a Trump supporter, Barr told the New York Times, “I just wanted to have that dialogue about families torn apart by the election and their political differences of opinion and how we handle it. I thought that this was an important thing to say at this time.” But the Roseanne-Jackie conversation played out no more insightfully or illustratively than your average staunchly partisan tweetstorm. Roseanne is a deplorable, per Jackie; Jackie is a snowflake, per Roseanne. When explaining her rationale for her vote, Roseanne shouted, “He talked about jobs, Jackie! He said he’d shake things up!” Never discussed was the laundry list of hateful, stupid, and wrong things Trump said, nor their even more nefarious implications. Some dialogue.
It seems to me that something else Barr told the New York Times is an even better answer to the why-Roseanne-why-now question: “Everybody seemed to be into it and, you know, the conditions that I wanted were right.” She’s doing it just to do it. It’s another dumb sitcom in a content sea of them. A show’s gotta be about something, and so this one is about intra-family political squabbles (with, apparently, an imminent arc about the opioid epidemic). The second episode of this new season, which aired after the first, focused on the fluid gender expression of Mark (Ames McNamara), the young son of Darlene (Sara Gilbert). It circled around issues like bullying, weapons in schools, and peanut allergies. The ultimate wisdom was something like: Mark should be able to express himself as he’s inclined, but he should also be careful (but not weapon-toting careful). Okay, sure.
In a side plot, Becky (played by her O.G. portrayer Alicia Goranson) attempted to endear herself to a woman named Andrea, who was vetting her after offering $50,000 to carry her child and donate an egg. Andrea is played by Sarah Chalke, who filled in as the second Becky during the show’s original run the multiple times that Goranson left the show. It’s kind of a cop-out to just assign Chalke to a different role—I wish they’d done something really weird and had both Goranson and Chalke alternate the role with no explanation or discernible pattern a la Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire. Feels like a missed opportunity.
The whole thing does, really, in its surface-level treatment of real issues that face Americans today. Devoid of any real cultural insight and any new ideas in a conversation that has been going on for years on multiple platforms, the new Roseanne was only enjoyable as nostalgic novelty. The chemistry among the cast is inarguable, and it’s stunning how well they were able to pick things back up and replicate the energy of the original run (or at least, during the seasons when this show really sung).
Roseanne is seemingly interested in shaking things up—Barr said as much to the Times—but it finds its greatest strength in the moments where it seems as if nothing has changed. As a sitcom, that makes it sufficient; as a political statement, that makes it woefully inept.