BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. So inching toward the midterms, we have more efforts to understand the Trump voter and on TV a primetime effort to portray one, Roseanne.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
Twenty-one years after going of the air, the show is back in a ratings-busting 10th season. In the first episode, Roseanne and her sister Jackie, played by Laurie Metcalf wearing a Nasty Woman t-shirt and a pussy hat, reconcile after a year of not speaking.
JACKIE: So I didn’t mean to imply that you’re some right-wing jackass. I should have tried to understand why you voted the crazy way that you did.
ROSEANNE: And I should have understood that, you know, you want the government to give everybody free healthcare ‘cause you’re a good-hearted person who -- can’t do simple math.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Trump’s name is never spoken and so far this season he hasn’t come up again but the show, as always, is political, even though the mirror it holds up to our fractured politics is itself cracked and warped. Now, when we left them 21 years ago, the Conner family had just won the lottery and Dan Conner, played by John Goodman, was dead. Now, well they’re still broke and he’s still alive. Eh, that’s TV.
Now in 2018, Roseanne and Dan are grandparents and three of their four kids live either with them or nearby. I’ll let Slate’s TV critic Willa Paskin pick up from there.
WILLA PASKIN: They have an older daughter, Becky, a middle daughter, Darlene who has just returned home, is divorced, jobless and has an older teenage daughter and a gender nonconforming elementary school-age son. And their youngest son, DJ, has just returned from a tour of duty as a soldier and he has a biracial daughter with his black wife who we have yet to meet. And Aunt Jackie is back, as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. You’ve talked about a gender nonconforming child.
ROSEANNE: How important is this to you?
MARK: It’s important.
ROSEANNE: Okay. Well, you know it’s gonna be rough on you at school, right? But we’ll back you up. [GIVES MARK A BIG HUG]
[AUDIENCE RESPONSE/APPLAUSE][END CLIP]
WILLA PASKIN: I think that’s there’s two ways of looking at the diversity of characters in the new Roseanne. On the one hand, it is reflective of a more diverse world and the show wants to be a part of that and be part of an ABC lineup that includes shows like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat. And then I think the other way that people have sort of considered this is almost as protection against the views espoused by both Roseanne Barr and Roseanne Conner. You know, having a black grandchild insulates her from the charges of racism, while she’s still supporting Trump, a person who supports racist policies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You pointed to a very interesting Twitter thread from Ben Shapiro, the conservative commentator and editor of The Daily Wire. He wrote, the whole premise of Roseanne is that this pro-abortion, pro-LGBT woman who is happy to watch her grandson wear girl’s clothing voted Trump because she's blue collar. This isn't an accurate description of Trump voters, he said. It’s actually a Hollywood fantasy of what Trump voters are, people who agree with Hollywood elites on values but just disagree on economics because they’re old white factory workers, deliberately blunting the edges, you know, in order not to alienate a big potential chunk of its audience.
WILLA PASKIN: And this is what’s so fascinating about the show to me, is that there’s a fight going on about who Roseanne is a fantasy for. Is it a fantasy [LAUGHS] for liberals that Trump voters actually are not socially conservative at all and it's all about economics and they're not racist, they're just voting because the jobs have disappeared or, as liberals would have it, is it a fantasy for conservatives, essentially, that voting for Trump is not actually a racist or a bigoted or a xenophobic or homophobic vote? I think the real thing that’s going on with Roseanne is a fight about whether or not we’re allowed to agree about anything [LAUGHS] anymore.
Is it okay for Trump voters to feel welcome, to feel flattered by the show, in any regard, even if it's not reflecting reality? And is it okay because maybe it’s bringing them into a conversation with us or maybe because it’s making them accept a gender nonconforming little boy? Roseanne is theoretically a place where we could practice not being so furious at each other all the time. And that's what I like about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm.
WILLA PASKIN: But I think that that is actually extremely difficult for people to embrace right now, and not just because we’re so furious but because there is a moral component to it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, I mean, it would be great if we could all get along, and I do think it's interesting that there is an argument over how realistic Roseanne is. But first, just the ability to watch it. Roxane Gay said she couldn't continue, because?
WILLA PASKIN: She said she wouldn't continue because she finds Roseanne Barr, who is, obviously, a huge part of the show but is not a writer for the show or the showrunner anymore, she couldn't continue to watch because Roseanne Barr's own personal politics were so abhorrent. I mean, Roseanne Barr is, is essentially, you know, pretty close to a conspiracy theorist. She's called, like, the Parkland students “Nazis.” I mean, her personal beliefs are very --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Way out there.
WILLA PASKIN: Yes, [LAUGHS] way out there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She says that Trump has freed multitudes of sex slaves, he’s broken up sex trafficking rings. It’s weird that, of all the things Trump tweets about, he hasn’t gotten around to those.
WILLA PASKIN: [LAUGHS] He did get around to congratulating her, though.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah.
WILLA PASKIN: I mean, and that was -- also what happened is that there was a kind of land grab for Roseanne, so it aired and I think Roseanne is a show that is probably made, other than Roseanne, by people who are more liberal or not necessarily for Trump. I mean, it’s an assumption I’m making. And they, I think, were probably genuinely trying to make a kind of brokered compromise with Roseanne, accurately representing her views without cosigning them or also representing their own, but because the show was so popular and because there are so few shows that do have a Trump voter or a white working-class person, it was taken basically as a victory for that demographic. And Trump claimed it as a victory for that demographic. And then it becomes very hard not to react to it, like that’s what it is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So there was a study out this week looking at why white Christian and male voters went for Trump, and the conclusion is that mainly these voters were not influenced by economic anxiety, which many of us assumed and which the Roseanne TV show itself suggests.
ROSEANNE: He talked about jobs, Jackie. He said he’d shake things up. I mean, this might come as a complete shock to you, but we almost lost our house, the way things are going.
JACKIE: Have you looked at the news, ‘cause now things are worse?
ROSEANNE: Not on the real news.
JACKIE: Oh, puh-leeze!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Turns out, those white Christian and male voters were motivated more by a fear of losing their status in a rapidly-changing country.
WILLA PASKIN: This is the critique of the show from the left, that it is a fantasy of what a Trump voter is, right? It's not a person actually motivated by losing jobs, it is, instead, a person motivated by the sense that they’re losing their status in a more diverse and a more equitable America.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But a close viewer would see that. The critic Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker this week pointed to a short scene in the third episode. Roseanne and Dan wake up on their memorable iconic sofa.
ROSEANNE: It’s 11 o’clock. We slept from Wheel to Kimmel.
DAN: We missed all the shows about black and Asian families.
ROSEANNE: Oh, they’re just like us. There, now you’re all caught up.
[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER][END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We know they’re referring to Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, which both air on ABC. Roseanne suggests that the marginals have taken over the airwaves.
WILLA PASKIN: It was a throwaway and no one was paying enough attention and it exposed too much about the show and a sort of casualness about Roseanne's view. But I don't think they were trying to make a point with that. I think that’s why it’s so ex - explanatory.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How about the advertising slogan that's used on the trailer, “A family that looks like us”? Who’s “us”?
WILLA PASKIN: Yes, this show is 100% dog whistling to white voters. That's why they wanted it on the air. This is what I mean when I said that it was a brokered compromise. I don’t mean that I think people are coming towards each other being like, I’ll concede this point and you concede that point and we’ll come up with something we can both live with.
I just mean I think it’s having two fundamentally different perspectives try to exist in the one show, this Trump-voter- point-of-view presented in the most flattering way that it can be presented, in the context of the media landscape that I think really is morally horrified by the Trump voter, to the point that they’re, like, not allowed on television anymore. And I am not sure that that is productive, even if it's morally correct, that there's a utility to putting those people, even in a flattering light, on television. But is that more valuable than the normalizing that exists when that show is on the air, that’s like the real fight to me. If we can’t even look at what each other think without that being immoral, [LAUGHS] where is this going? This is not going anywhere good, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s talk about feminism. It’s been part of both shows. The daughter Becky is interested in picking up 50 grand by being a surrogate mother.
WILLA PASKIN: When this comes up initially, Roseanne doesn’t want to let her.
DAN: Anybody want to know what I think?
JACKIE: Dan, it’s her body, her decision. Right, Roseanne?
ROSEANNE: Jackie’s right, Dan. It’s, it’s Becky’s call.
BECKY: Thanks, Mom.
WILLA PASKIN: I mean, that’s another note in this first episode that sort of lays out the political stakes. She’s a Trump voter but she’s not a racist, but she believes in abortion.
But I think the feminism of Roseanne is like one of the real head trips of this reboot, which is to say Roseanne Barr describes Roseanne as not being just working class but being a feminist working-class show. Her original persona, the domestic goddess, was always thinking about what men could do that women weren’t allowed to do, how much work women were doing that was not being paid attention to.
ROSEANNE: The husbands, they think that the wife knows where everything is. I hate that.
Huh! Or they think the uterus is a tracking device.
And he comes in, hey, Roseanne, do we have any Cheetos left?
Like, he can't go over and lift up that sofa cushion himself.
WILLA PASKIN: That whole bit is from her first appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. It’s such a perfect joke. She’s doing all of her identities at once, right? It’s like a very funny and astute feminist joke but it's not alienating.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
WILLA PASKIN: And it’s, it’s also a class joke. This is what Roseanne Barr's comedy was about. Right now, those sot of identities, they’re not on the same political side, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
WILLA PASKIN: So she’s split.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Interestingly, this reboot was, as you noted in your piece, spearheaded by Sara Gilbert who plays Darlene, and you wrote that she’s the real American indictment in the show.
WILLA PASKIN: So Darlene, and we know this if we were watching Roseanne 20 years ago, was this sort of spunky, sardonic tomboy.
DARLENE: The only way I’m going to the prom is if I can sit in the rafters with a bucket of pig’s blood.
[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER][END CLIP]
WILLA PASKIN: And she seemed like she was going to escape. She was unlike her parents, right? And, as the show begins, Darlene, instead of having accomplish any of the things that we’d have expected her to accomplish, even though she’s been to college, even though we know she's so smart and has a good heart, is back living with her parents and has no job, has no prospects, really. Her immutable destiny as a poor American is so dark and so distressing -- I mean, I think this is pretty subtle in the show, but it is true that for all Roseanne Conner’s supporting of Trump, he hasn’t done anything for the Conners.
ROSEANNE: How as your job interview?
DARLENE: Oh [LAUGHS] well, the pay was crap with no benefits, there were 50 people in line ahead of me when I got there but someone did call me “ma'am” so that was great.
WILLA PASKIN: The beating heart of the show, which I really think, in a way, is Darlene, is like this really grim view of, of America and meritocracy and what happens to our best and brightest, if they come from the wrong place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Willa, thank you very much.
WILLA PASKIN: Thanks very much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Willa Paskin is Slate’s TV critic and the host of the “Decoder Ring” podcast, which examines cultural mysteries.