It makes some sense that the presidency of Donald Trump would bring about the return of Roseanne. One of the few network shows to ever deal thoughtfully with a midwestern working-class family that worried about the electric bill and took second jobs when they had to, Roseanne was set in the kind of place, and even in the kind of home, that reporters have visited over and over again in the last year and a half, convinced that the needs and the fears found there might hold the key to understanding … well, something.
Indeed, the first episode in the show’s return, airing Tuesday night, addresses itself directly to the fallout from the election. Roseanne Conner (Roseanne Barr) voted for Trump; her sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) emphatically didn’t. This has led to a yearlong rift between them that is easily the least interesting, most inelegant story in the three episodes ABC released in advance for critics. It’s mostly played for laughs, with Roseanne taunting the more sensitive, more emotional, more vulnerable Jackie, whose politics are as much about not being steamrolled by her sister than … well, any of the things anyone who voted in that election might have actually cared about.
While the show’s contemplation of the cultural moment is often quite thoughtful, its efforts to connect that moment to politics are superficial, probably for a reason found right in the word “broadcast.” When you’re battling for a large audience on ad-supported television, it doesn’t pay to make anybody mad. So Roseanne tells Jackie she voted for Trump because he “talked about jobs” and promised to “shake things up.” While that might indeed be the way she would describe it, there’s no effort — at least in these episodes — to go any further than that.
It’s fortunate that Barr and her portrayal of Roseanne don’t have to carry the show alone. Dan (John Goodman) is alive, despite having been killed in the original show’s strange finale, now forgotten in order to ease this return (just like the original finale of Will & Grace). Darlene (Sara Gilbert) lives at home with her two kids, a surly teenage daughter named Harris and a younger son named Mark, whose gender-fluid sense of style unsettles his grandpa Dan. And Becky is around, too (played by Lecy Goranson, the original Becky, as opposed to Sarah Chalke, the replacement Becky of later seasons). She never finished high school, just as her parents always feared she wouldn’t, and in her forties, she’s stuck with work she doesn’t like and debt she can’t manage. DJ (Michael Fishman) has returned from serving in the Army in Syria, and he’s caring for his daughter (Jayden Rey) while his wife is still deployed.
There’s much to like about the new stories that consider where this family might reasonably find itself 20 years after we last saw them. It makes sense that Roseanne and Dan might be in moderately poor health and constantly annoyed by the cost of medications. It makes sense that both their daughters might be recognizably themselves but changed by experience: Darlene is just as caustic but less flip, more loving, more grown; Becky is still socially eager and easily embarrassed, but 20 years and the little-discussed death of her husband have made her seem a little lost. Gilbert is particularly good as a mother trying to raise a kid whose gender expression she knows may make things hard for him, but who would never dream of not supporting him. (It’s hard to draw conclusions about what may or may not come up in future episodes, but it’s really strange that nowhere in the entire first episode about politics does anyone mention race, given that DJ’s daughter is black. Might Jackie bring it up? Might Darlene?)
And no dynamic clicks back into place quite as cleanly as Becky and Darlene’s. That edge that comes from Darlene being smarter than Becky but Becky being more sociable than Darlene has developed just the right weary patina, and while they can still spit one-liners at each other, like many adult siblings, they are each other’s most reliable (and unavoidable) allies.
Laurie Metcalf, who was nominated for an Oscar for Lady Bird last year, is not used to much dramatic effect as Aunt Jackie in the three episodes I’ve seen. She’s mostly used to play the most frantic, weird version of Jackie — the striving clown who never knows quite how she sounds to other people. Metcalf can do considerably more than this, but she’s very good at this.
But now, having talked about the storytelling, the performances, and the sense of the familiar that comes from seeing good actors slip into familiar roles, we are stuck with the complex question of what this is meant to be advocacy for. Roseanne Barr has been very politically active, right up to and including running for president, and in the run-up to the show’s premiere, she has stressed her own support for Trump’s presidency, including in an interview with Jimmy Kimmel. The idea that the show is getting at something important about the political Moment In Which We Find Ourselves has been central to its marketing.
Sometimes, her politics sounds like it did with Kimmel: someone who seems to want to find some kind of middle ground, who responded to her daughter’s despair over the election by telling her to “chill.” But sometimes, it sounds very different. On Saturday, during the march organizers had called the March For Our Lives, she tweeted from her official Twitter account: “MKULTRA.” Barr has spoken about this before, telling Esquire in 2013 that she believes “generations of people, not only here but all over the world,” have been affected by (and are still affected by) government mind control connected to (or similar to?) the known drug experiments (MK-ULTRA was one) undertaken by the CIA in the 1950s and 1960s. If you read the replies to the tweet, you will understand that this is not the same political conversation she had with Kimmel. Whatever she meant by it, many of her followers took her to be saying that the students who were marching were the subject of CIA mind control. (Monday, she added simply, “mkultra = lemming programming.”)
It’s not necessary to investigate every star’s politics — or certainly every star’s tweets. But here, it’s as if the show and its star are perfect symbols of two very different political conversations happening at the same time. The one on the show is the one that feels polite, like it is about families arguing over politics. It feels aimed at a broad audience, not made too uncomfortable, asked to consider whether maybe hey, everybody just needs to chill. But that’s quite different from the daily conversations that take place (not just about MK-ULTRA, certainly) in memes and photos and quotes that may or may not be real. Roseanne Conner, on the show, is not talking about CIA mind control. Those things, and the spread of discussions like the ones that followed her tweet, are also part of this moment. They are also part of our story.
Would that it were just about families who love each other sitting down to dinner. Would that it were just about sitting close together on that couch.