A politically incorrect lesson from ‘Roseanne’
The revolution, when it comes, won’t be on television, to the disappointment of couch potatoes everywhere, but there’s already “the resistance,” which is on a channel near you. In the 14 months since Donald Trump became president, “resistance” programming has dominated the air waves, and cable and satellite, too.
There’s “Saturday Night Live,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live” (he gets no superfluous exclamation point here), “The View,” “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” “The Daily Show,” “Real Time with Bill Maher,” and of course, the entire programming schedules of CNN, the least-trusted name in news, and MSNBC, which wants to be Fox News when it grows up.
All have dedicated themselves to mocking, maligning and deploring the duly elected president of the United States, who, truth to tell, occasionally contributes something tempting to mock. Television’s sitcoms, once the source of mirth and laughter, have become suffused with politics. NBC brought back the mothballed “Will & Grace,” for example, featuring gay characters as an obvious show of “resistance.” Award shows, Hollywood’s mutual-admiration society meetings where stars gather to give each other plaques, prizes and statuettes, have become undisguised political rallies.
This creates an enormous and unexplored virgin market, programming for the 63 million Americans who actually voted for Donald Trump, including many who, while they may care about politics, have no appetite for partisan politics shoved down their throats. They only want to relax and escape into the cathode tube. Hollywood, alas, dispensed with Sam Goldwyn’s famous caution to his writers and stars, “if you want to send a message, go to Western Union.” (This might require explaining to younger artists what Western Union and a telegram were).
Enter Roseanne Barr. “Roseanne,” the sit-com with Ms. Barr as star and executive producer, first ran on ABC from 1988 to 1997. Even at that more innocent time, the show was unusual: A loving, honest, witty and funny portrayal of white working-class Americans in flyover country. The lead characters — played by Ms. Barr and John Goodman, were overweight and out-of-shape, but not the butt of jokes for being so. “Roseanne” worked in a factory, the Goodman character bounced from job to job in a small Illinois town, and like most Americans they often lived paycheck to paycheck. A 1997 tribute to the show by Entertainment Weekly said “‘Roseanne’ is the most groundbreaking, kitchen-sink sitcom since Archie Bunker and ‘All in the Family.’ All the accolades the series has and will receive for its portrayal of a contentious working-class clan are deserved.”
Now she’s back. ABC, which has struggled to keep up with CBS and NBC in recent years, has rebooted the series for a limited run, and it debuted last week to cheers and new acclaim, though some critics can’t quite understand why and how it happened, as if they found a puppy in a just-born litter of kittens. The new “Roseanne” is as devoted to realism as ever. “I’ve always had [the show] be a true reflection of the society we live in,” Ms. Barr told an interviewer before the debut of the rebooted “Roseanne.” She correctly reasoned that a character like her own — working class, living the modest life in the Middle West — would have voted for Mr. Trump, and be proud of it. “Roseanne” tells her sister in the premiere episode, “Trump talked about jobs, Jackie. He said he’d shake things up. It might come as a complete shock to you, but we almost lost our house, the way things are going.” Caustic, sometimes sarcastic and funny as ever, she dismisses Hillary Clinton as “liar, liar, pantsuit on fire.”
The debut was a ratings hit, delivering more than 18 million viewers, according to the Nielsen ratings, the highest number for a broadcast comedy in three seasons. The debut of the “Will & Grace” reboot, which remains true to politically correct conformity, managed only 10 million. A renewal from ABC for another season seems all but assured. President Trump was impressed, to the chagrin of Hollywood. He tweeted congratulations and, ever attuned to television’s hits and misses, called the real-life Roseanne to convey his personal congratulations.
There’s a lesson here, and it’s not just that counter-programming sometimes gets its reward, and not just at another awards dinner. The lesson is that there’s a market for programming that doesn’t insult the deplorables, the clingers, the people who go to church on Sunday and who might even elect a president that Hollywood doesn’t approve of. The very idea that making television for millions and millions of contrary Americans who are otherwise underserved is such a crazy idea that it just might work. (But it has to be good, and funny.)
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