Friday, March 30, 2018

you can't go back: "roseanne," reimagined

Flashback / That was then...

The sitcom "Roseanne," in its original incarnation, produced 222 half-hour episodes during a nine-season run on ABC - from October 18th, 1988, to May 20th, 1997. For six of those seasons, it was among the top four most popular shows, according to the Nielsen ratings, and was the most watched TV show in the United States from 1989 to 1990. And with good reason.

In a word, it was terrific.

At its artistic zenith, during its heady success, "Roseanne" was every bit as wickedly funny and bracingly original as "Seinfeld," as charismatic as "Friends," and as socio-political as "All in the Family" (although its issues were more "socio" than "political"). And in Roseanne Connor, it had an anchor as crucial as Lucy Ricardo, alternately incorrigible and endearing.

Connor was the alter ego of its star, Roseanne Barr, an outspoken stand-up comic who sarcastically self-identified as a "domestic goddess" and who molded this stage routine into a credible sitcom narrative. Roseanne Connor and her husband Dan were aging, pot-smoking hippies/liberals, defined during the 1970s, who much to their surprise found themselves ensconced in the '80s as dubious role models to three kids. But they tried.

The inexperienced Barr was savvy enough to surround herself with actors with strong stage credentials (John Goodman as her husband Dan, Laurie Metcalf as her sister Jackie and Estelle Parsons as their mother) and seasoned character actors from film (John Randolph as her father, Ned Beatty as Dan's father and Shelley Winters as her grandmother). Their influence rubbed off: Barr became a credible, often surprising, actress.

During its run, the Connors, in an effort to not be like their own parents, tried to respect their kids' individuality, while also educating them about racism, sexism, sex, homophobia and the harsh fact that life is not fair and requires hard work. Often strapped for cash, Dan worked in a series of construction jobs and tried being self-employed refurbishing and selling motorcycles, while Roseanne checked off a series of bosses - George Clooney and Fred Dalton Thompson at the Wellman Plastics Factory (with Debra Mooney as its owner, Mrs. Wellman), Elizabeth Franz at Art's Beauty Salon, and Martin Mull at Rodbell's, the luncheonette in the Landford Mall.

There were gay actors and gay characters on the show and, in one memorable show, Roseanne was kissed by Mariel Hemingway.

Perhaps the most telling episodes involved Roseanne's contentious relationship with neighbor Kathy Bowman, an uptight Republican blonde played to perfection by Meagan Fay during the 1991-92 season.

The show, with its attention to social issues, was often compared to Norman Lear's "All in the Family," also hugely successful - but there was a difference. "All in the Family" was also something of an unexpected backfire. Its bigoted central character, Archie Bunker, conceived to be an embarrassing joke, instead became iconic, a beloved national hero.

Like most successful sitcoms, "Roseanne" didn't know when to quit. Its final seasons were frankly unwatchable, with the Connors suddenly wealthy after winning a lottery (but, for some reason, never moving from that crowded little house) and with Roseanne indulging in insufferable "We're Connors!" proclamations. She gave birth to a late-in-life baby and, in the peculiar (but fascinating) final episode, she announced that (1) her mother is gay and (2) Dan had died. This was preceded by episodes in which Roseanne constantly demonized her father (also now deceased) and in which her two daughters have grown into awful young women dedicated to berating and humiliating their poor boyfriends/husbands. Unwatchable.

By this time, I stopped tuning in and was relieved when ABC put the show out of its misery. It wasn't the same "Roseanne." A friend had changed.

"Roseanne" had become something that it never was - negative.

During its run, the show appealed more to liberals than to the audience that it was portraying. In fact, conservatives were critical of "Roseanne" when its star campaigned for Presidential hopeful Bill Clinton in 1992 and especially when she mangled (on purpose?) "The Star Spangled Banner" at an MLB game in 1990, a performance variously described as "disrespectful," "disgusting," "a debacle" and "disgraceful," the word invoked by President George H. W. Bush himself. All the D words.

After "Roseanne" ended its run, Barr briefly hosted her own daytime talk show in 1998 and, as reported on the Angry Patriot site, she believes it was cancelled when she "crossed" Hillary Clinton by interviewing Paula Jones about her allegations against Bill Clinton, whom Barr referred to as a "rapist."

She remained out of the spotlight for a while before she returned with the 2011 reality series, "Roseanne's Nuts," about her years as a macadamia nut farmer in Hawaii, and with a 2012 campaign for President, running against Dr. Jill Stein on the Green Tea Party ticket and coming in fifth.

She was in clear need of a reinvention. And so was ABC.

Flashforward / This is now... 

Among the three traditional television networks and Fox, ABC had apparently ranked fourth. True, it had "The Bachelor," Shonda Rhimes and such trendy titles as "Modern Family" and "Black-ish"on its slate, but NBC had a monster called "The Voice" and CBS had sports. The network needed a shot in the arm and, following the Presidental election, it was deduced that the remedy was to cater to a conservative audience. But, from where I sit, ABC was already more right-leaning than NBC and CBS.

Enter "Roseanne" as a reboot - "reboot" being a euphemism for creative bankruptcy. Since original ideas are scarce and also risky, a rehash of what was perceived as strictly a blue-collar sitcom appealing to the unemployed masses would be the way to go. And so the original set of "Roseanne" was meticulously reconstructed and its cast reassembled.

Given the times, the issues would be different. But the all-important hook in terms of marketing would be to make it clear that the Connors (or at least the character of Roseanne) would be portrayed as fervent Trump supporters, exploiting the politics of its star - the implication of this hype being that the new "Roseanne" would be more "political" than "socio."

There certainly would be no "Hate Has No Home Here" signs on the Connor lawn in the exterior shots of their home in the fictional Landford, Illinois.

And as the debut of the "Roseanne" drew closer, ABC rebranded itself "America's Network" and also rebooted the cancelled Fox competition, "American Idol." "America"/"American" was clearly the operative word.

The new "Roseanne" debuted on Tuesday, March 27th to an audience of 18.2 million viewers - two days after the Stormy Daniels interview on CBS's "60 Minutes" played to 21.3 million viewers.

As it was in the heyday of "The Apprentice," TV is again in The Age of Trump. The difference is that the man can no longer be easily avoided. He's seemingly everywhere now.

And as far as ratings are concerned, Michelle Obama has both Roseanne and Stormy beat; she attracted 24.5 million viewers when she appeared on "60 Minutes" back in November of 2008.

The first two of ten new episodes of "Roseanne" were aired back-to-back for the debut. The opening one pitted conservative Roseanne against her progressive sister Jackie. The current president and his main opponent in the primary were not mentioned by name - only as "him" and "her" (although Hillary Clinton was also labeled as "the worst person" by Roseanne). The immediate impression is that this would be the first and last time that the series would refer to the election or who's in the White House. Co-star and producer Sara Gilbert has verified this in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. Gilbert confirmed that the remaining eight episodes of "Roseanne" would be issue-oriented, such as the second episode's involvement with Roseanne's cross-dressing grandson.

This makes sense, business-wise: While ABC hoped to attract its target audience with the show, my hunch is that it was also cautious to tread ever-so-lightly, so as not to alienate or lose other audience segments.

The reboot of "Roseanne" doesn't necessarily begin where the original left off two decades ago. Case in point: Dan Connor is now very much alive - or just barely (as portrayed by a strangely muted John Goodman). And there was only a fleeting, rather trifling mention of Jerry, the baby that Roseanne birthed late in the first show's run - and no mention at all of Jackie's baby born at the same time. Out of sight, out of mind.

The show struck me as a pale imitation of itself. The two episodes shown were frankly mediocre, something that could not be said about the original "Roseanne," even in its descent. There were few genuinely humorous moments and, although it's announced at the outset that the show is "filmed before a live audience," the enthusiastic laughter sounded "sweetened." Or "canned" or "augmented" or "enhanced." Pick your word.

Among the noticeable losses in this new incarnation are any kind of chemistry among the cast and any indication that the star still has a sense of humor. Roseanne Connor of the 1990s may have been sarcastic and cantankerous but she was never unpleasant company. Now she is.

And the show itself simply isn't the same, isn't what it used to be - an observation that can be easily fact-checked by the convenience (and, in this case, the misfortune) of comparison, given that the glorious original is aired in whopping 12-hour blocks every Saturday on TVland.

Watching the updated "Roseanne," I recalled an episode from its original run during which Roseanne and Jackie commiserate about how their mother would snoop around their room when they were kids - everything seemed to look the same and yet, somehow, it wasn't. Something ... changed. And that's my exact impression of this disappointing "reboot."

Thomas Wolfe was right. Sad but true. You can't go home again.

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* * * * *
(from top)

~Roseanne Barr in the opening credits of the original "Roseanne" and with John Goodman in a scene from one of the episodes
~photography: ABC, 1988©

~Barr in a scene from the documentary, "Roseanne for President"
~photography: Sundance Selects, 2016©

~Barr in a promo poster for the reality series, "Roseanne's Nuts"
~photography: Jill Greenberg/Lifetime 2011©

~Barr and the man who will not be mentioned by name


Vanessa said...

It will be fascinating to see if "Roseanne" can keep up the momentum of its boffo premiere. My view is that most people tuned in out of curiosity, what with all the hype about Roseanne being a Trump person. Liberals tuned in out of morbid curiosity, and conservatives wanted to see someone like them in a TV show.

Laurel said...

I agree -- really disappointing and mediocre. But I'll give it another week or two. But not on "appointment" television so I won't count in the ratings!

Tracy said...

As a person constantly struggling with weight issues, I appreciated "Roseanne" because it revolved around two wildly overweight people with almost no commentary on their size, except for an episode or two that involved dieting. Otherwise, they were people who had contentious fun with their kids, fun with each other and even enjoyed a healthy sex life. And what can I say? In those days, I found John Goodman attractive in an adorable, cuddly way.

Mike Schlesinger said...

This whole "Trump" thing is utter nonsense. As you noted, "Roseanne" was one of the most popular shows of it era, so it was a given there'd be a huge tune-in. Secondly, the presumption that only Trumpsters were watching is ludicrous; I'm as liberal as they come and I watched. Thirdly, the Trump faction is clearly misreading the vibe here: Roseanne is the ONLY character who's moved to the right--everyone else is where they were 20 years ago. She is alone, an outsider. Even Tim Allen on "Last Man Standing" had the Kaitlyn Dever, Hector Elizondo and Jay Leno characters to back him up. Roseanne has no one. Moreover, the family unconditionally loves the mixed-race granddaughter and the gender-questioning grandson, something genuine wingers would never do. Fourth, the idea that this is the only blue-collar sitcom on the air is absurd: "American Housewife" (another "American"), "The Middle," "Superstore," "Mom," "Young Sheldon," "Superior Donuts," "Bob's Burgers," "Family Guy," ""Man With a Plan," "Kevin Can Wait" and many others dot the prime-time landscape. Finally, it'll be interesting to see if the ratings hold up, but in any event, anyone who thinks this is the beginning of a trend is going to wind up with a very large omelet on his/her face.

Paul Gottlieb said...

Mike Schlesinger nails it. It is absurd for ABC (which cancelled "Last Man Standing") to hype this show as if it is the only middle American-blue collar sitcom currently on TV. And, yes, Rosy is the only one who seems to be a Trumpite on the show, although if I remember correctly, Dan never brings up the subject and Roseanne doesn't discuss it with him. She talks about it with Jackie - and in only one scene. Cripes! Give me a break. One scene - and his name isn't even mentioned. How daring - and controversial - is that???

Bill from Philly said...

I read the links that Joe provided and I also believe that the first/pilot episode of the rebooted "Roseanne" will be the only one devoted to Trump. The others are already in the can. Done. But I guess they can always go back and loop his name into already filmed dialogue. But I doubt it. He may be mentioned in season two, which has already been ordered, maybe prematurely. If the show nosedives in ratings, and it could, there may be no season two.

Eliana said...

What I loved about "Roseanne" was her constant battle with her kids, especially the war she waged with her two teenage daughters. Very real, not sugar-coated and very, very funny. The kid actors were great. Not the same now that everyone is older.

Mike Schlesinger said...

And I should add that the first new episode of "Will & Grace" was specifically about Trump, but he hasn't been a part of the show since then, apart from an occasional throwaway reference by Karen. Tomorrow's episode should tell us a lot about where future installments are headed.

v.h. said...

Regarding how Becky and Darlene treated Mark and David, I also found it awful to watch. Quite depressing, not funny at all. The later episodes of "Roseanne" has an anti-male strain going through them that made me stop watching.

janet p. said...

Well, Joe, I didn’t like Roseanne back in the day and I still don’t. She’s loud, crude and a Trump lover. What’s to like? I won’t watch the show.

joe baltake said...

Janet- It's difficult to separate star and material. Which can be frustrating. One might like the material but not the messenger of it.

m.h. said...

Hi Joe.

It is YOUR blog, and of course you can write on any subject that you choose.

Still, I think you "wasted" your prodigious talent as a writer when you chose to do the article on the ROSEANNE "old" and "new" shows, especially since the "new" show isn't very good. So I read the article, and thought "I just wasted my time." (You wasted your talent; I wasted my time.) I never saw the OLD Roseanne, and NOW I will not see the NEW Roseanne.

Regarding ALL (I believe "all") your other articles, I ALWAYS come away with great insight into obscure, or non-obscure, films/directors/actors/actresses/etc. Thanks to you, I view these films, directors, etc., in a different (and more sophisticated) light.

And I keep a list of films that I want to see again (or for the very first time) after I read your insights into the films themselves, or the directors, actors, etc.

That list is VERY long.

But really, who the fuck cares about ROSEANNE? I know that ROSEANNE has "political" overtones, but still . . . .

joe baltake said...

M.H.- Mny thanks for the kind words, Re the original "Roseanne," believe me - it is a brilliant show. Honest. But I have to wonder how you can comment on it - and negatively - if you've never seen it. As a matter of fact, if you watched it, there's a chance you would like it. -J

Kiki said...

As for Roseanne Redux . . . . baby, it's over. Move on.