Wednesday, May 30, 2018


The most grotesque element of ABC's "Roseanne" dilemma is that Roseanne Barr and, by extension, ABC itself set her up as a representative of oppressed, under-represented Middle America.

Roseanne Barr is decidedly not Middle America. She is not financially strapped nor does she have to scrimp and save because of health-insurance woes. She is not Roseanne Connor (at least, not anymore). She is an entitled person of wealth, independence and power who hasn't a worry in the world, except for a recent one that was entirely self-created.

Back in 1988, when she introduced her sitcom alter-ego, Roseanne Barr was indeed Roseanne Connor. She was a struggling stand-up comic, hungry for attention and success, who lucked out when some intuitive network executive saw something in her direct, brash sense of humor.

The result, "Roseanne," was a great show - atypically observant and genuinely witty. But, towards the end of its original run, when it became clear that Barr had moved on and was no longer "hungry," the show nosedived, becoming unwatchable. By 1997, when it ended, it was already clear that Roseanne Barr was no longer the artless but affecting Roseanne Connor. Her brash humor was now abrasive and, for some reason, angry.

Roseanne, the TV character, still lived in a modest little house in fictional Landford, Illinois, but she had the attitude of the now privileged, off-screen Roseanne. Something was off and Barr wasn't actress enough to reconcile the two. She could play only one character - herself - and she had changed. Roseanne Barr had become her audience's idea of the great American Dream - another "success story." But one not very attractive.

Of course, almost any contemporary Star (read: overpaid and over-indulged) who's attracted and attached to stories about put-upon little people could safely be labeled a fraud. There's something off-putting (and a tad condescending) about a well-fed A-lister playing downtrodden. I have the same knee-jerk reaction when a healthy, full-bodied actor plays someone with a disability or handicap. (The most hate mail I ever received was in response to my take on Dustin Hoffman's performance in "Rain Man.") But, hey, that's what acting is supposed to be all about, right? It's about someone taking on another persona and doing it with empathy.

But Barr has been doing her Roseanne shtick for more than 30 years now and, along the way, lost the empathy that she once easily embodied.

She never made it beyond the small screen and the Conner family, despite promising movie roles in Susan Seidelman's "She-Devil" (1989), opposite Meryl Streep, no less (although they share no scenes in the film), and Wayne Wang's "Blue in the Face" (1995). Much like Baby Jane Hudson, Roseanne Barr has clung to the role entirely responsible for her success.

It was a role, a character, that she outgrew - again like Baby Jane. Despite the show's eponymous link to her, Barr was frankly miscast in the new incarnation of "Roseanne" and the writers' heroic (deluded?) attempts to contort the narrative to fit what she has become was an insult - an insult to the Middle America that was ostensibly represented by its star.

As a result, beginning with its premiere episode, the new "Roseanne" just never felt right to me and I was stunned by the lenient reviews. Boffo ratings notwithstanding, it deserved to be cancelled. It was a bad show.

Note in Passing: There was a time when actors were astute about their careers. A good case in point is Joan Crawford who charmed audiences early on, playing a string of ambitious shop girls, but who grew to portray women of power and influence. Her transition was organic, real, because, well, she had become a woman of power and influence. She didn't pretend to be shop girls or pander to the audience who loved them. She evolved.

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~Bette Davis as Baby Jane Hudson, clinging on to her childhood persona in "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1962©


Vanessa said...

You say that Crawford evolved. I say Barr "devolved"! (Is that a word?)

joe baltake said...

Yes, it is.

Cliff Ocheltree said...

No good reason for you to remember me but we met, viewed several films together when I was living in Hatboro. Mentioned you in conversation with a friend and wondered where you had gone. Did some digging and found the blog. Thanks for some great memories. Cliff Ocheltree (New Orleans, LA)

joe baltake said...

Hey, Cliff! Yes, I do remember you as one of the regulars who participated in my reader screenings when I worked in Philadelphia (a lifetime ago!). Great to hear from you. -J

Bill from Philly said...

If I recall, when Roseanne fractured "The Star Spangled Banner" back in the day, she was derided and despised by the Middle Americans who now champion her. Curious

Sheila said...

I don't know. I think there is more to this story. ABC acted in such a quick, firm way that my thought is that the network just had enough. This was the last straw. I'm sure as this story goes on, there will be new information about behind-the-scenes moments.

Adrian said...

Well put, Joe!

Nancy said...

Yep, you're right.

Walt said...

an interesting article, Joe...