Editor’s Note: Clay Cane is a Sirius XM radio host and the author of “Live Through This: Surviving the Intersections of Sexuality, God, and Race.” Follow him on Twitter @claycane. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Originally, I had decided not to watch the reboot of “Roseanne” because of Barr’s vocal and bizarre worship of Donald Trump.
What’s bizarre about Barr’s affinity with working class Americans like her eponymous character – or her being on the road to becoming the next Ted Nugent – is, among other things, that she has been a multimillionaire for a long time. In the last two seasons of her show’s first iteration, she was the second-highest-paid woman in show business, after Oprah Winfrey. Not to mention she has called Muslims savages, retweeted transphobic comments, helped spread dangerous conspiracy theories and deluded herself into blindness to Trump’s racism and homophobia.
I make no apologies for not being a Trump supporter. Moreover, I don’t subscribe to the belief that we who oppose Trump should try to “understand” the “misunderstood” Trump supporter. No one called for people to try to “understand” President Obama’s supporters when he was in office. No one said Obama supporters were “ignored” over the years. No one gave Obama supporters the title of working class – as if only white men in red states are the working class.
The column inches, airtime, and dissertations given to Trump supporters are by comparison astounding.
However, when I heard that Wanda Sykes, one of the greatest comics of our time, was a head writer on the new “Roseanne,” I decided to give the show a chance. In addition, the very idea of the reboot came from “The Talk’s” Sara Gilbert (Darlene), who clearly isn’t a Trumpet. Plus, Oscar nominee for “Lady Bird” Laurie Metcalf was returning as Roseanne’s sister Jackie (it’s hard for me to resist anything that features the wildly talented Metcalf). John Goodman, back as Roseanne’s husband Dan, is a phenomenal actor who killed it as Rex Tillerson on SNL. Outside of Barr, there is a compelling cross-generational relevance in the cast and creators.
Within 10 minutes of Tuesday night’s reboot, I had to admit, the show was damn good – and not because of Roseanne.
While critics have taken the reboot to task for being more nostalgic than funny, I would argue the nuances of the Conner family, especially at the height of our country’s current culture war over class, is more relevant than nostalgic.
Just a little context: When “Roseanne” premiered in 1988, America was suffering through the lie of Reaganomics. With a huge tax reform bill in 1986 that benefited the rich, the wealth was supposed to “trickle down” to working class and lower income communities – it never did. However, this was the 1980s and, despite the crack epidemic, AIDS, and an increasing wealth gap, the fantasy of excess (regardless of whether you could ever actually afford it) played out everywhere in our popular culture. As Madonna sang, we were material girls living in a material world. “Dynasty” ruled television and many believed, as Gordon Gekko said in the movie Wall Street, “Greed is good.”
This cultural moment of the late 1980s is one of the many reasons why Roseanne was a hit show. Not since “Good Times” had television audiences seen poverty on the small screen. Roseanne, Dan, Jackie, Becky, Darlene and DJ brought us together around the common theme of class.
So in 2018, it’s no shocker, despite anyone’s personal feelings about Roseanne or her politics, including mine, that the show resonated again. Why? The 1980s are back. Trickledown economics returned with Trump’s atrocious tax bill. Opioids are the new crack epidemic (although the victims of opioids are getting more compassion and less jail time than the victims of crack), and a real-life Gordon Gekko is our President.
On television, we have the frivolousness of the Kardashians, American Idol still selling the lie of being the next Kelly Clarkson, and rich people complaining about roaches in a mansion (“Real Housewives of Atlanta“) – the top series, from reality TV to Ryan Murphy, are about glamorized escapism. The creators of Roseanne didn’t want you to escape, they wanted you to relate.
Thirty years later, the Conners’ kitchen isn’t renovated. They haven’t bought a new couch (maybe it was reupholstered?) and the house wasn’t even freshly painted. That is the reality of poverty. If I venture back into one of my old neighborhoods, it’s shocking how little has changed – it’s as if I was transported back in time.
The jokes about financial woes, health care, and the issues that hurt American families are where the show delivers the best laughs. The second episode tackled Darlene’s son wearing girls’ clothes, something I have never seen on network television and exactly the type of dialogue Trump supporters, if they are watching, would need to see (I hope the show properly unpacks DJ’s black daughter as well).
In some ways, the show was a billion miles away from the perspective of Trump, Barr and Fox News. As Dan Conner said, “God didn’t give me a head this big to have me be narrow-minded.” Hopefully, Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham heard that line.
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I would think Wanda Sykes, Sara Gilbert and Whitney Cummings, who is co-showrunner, would not allow empty-handed propaganda. There are characters on all sides – similar to Karen Walker on the “Will and Grace” reboot, who is a Trump supporter (unlike the other main characters). Upcoming episodes will tackle opioids, immigration and much more. But let’s be clear: this layered nuance did not come from Barr.
That said, it speaks volumes how the Conner family is still relevant three decades later. What other sitcom family has that staying power? Although it does disturb me that I might enjoy any show that Kellyanne “Alternative Facts” Conway could be watching, I will stay tuned to see what else Roseanne has to offer.