Monday 20 May 2019

How Roseanne killed 'Roseanne'

The rebooted sitcom was one of the most important TV shows of the Trump era - until its lead actress brought it all down with a 52-character tweet, writes Ed Power

Roseanne Barr
Roseanne Barr

Ed Power

As one of Donald Trump's rare entertainment industry supporters, it was poetically apt that Roseanne Barr should hoist herself upon an incendiary tweet.

Her racist missive directed at Valerie Jarret, an African American former senior advisor to Barack Obama, has set social media ablaze and led the ABC network to cancel Barr's newly resurrected sitcom, after several cast and crew - including consulting producer Wanda Sykes - had already quit in disgust.

This wasn't the first politically deranged outburst from Barr, who has used Twitter to suggest Chelsea Clinton was part of a global conspiracy led by financier George Soros and claimed a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida had given the Nazi salute. Her latest fusillade was, in that context, all too predictable.

Yet ABC, and its parent, the Walt Disney Company, had previously appeared to accept controversy as the price of working with Barr, whose screen comeback has achieved stellar ratings. An astonishing 18 million viewers had watched the first episode of Roseanne season 10, with nearly 11 million tuning in for last week's finale. That's almost three times the viewership of Game of Thrones and a rare example of American network TV impacting meaningfully on the cultural discourse.

"You can't control Roseanne Barr," Ben Sherwood, the president of Walt Disney told the New York Times, when asked about her Twitter activity. "Many who have tried have failed. She's the one and only."

With her recent spewings Barr had clearly gone beyond the boundaries of what even a corporation with a major hit on its hands was willing to tolerate. Given the contents of the tweet - "muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby = vj", Barr wrote on Tuesday - ABC had little choice but to reverse its decision to renew the comedy for an 11th run.

John Goodman and Sara Gilbert in Roseann
John Goodman and Sara Gilbert in Roseann

Roseanne the show and Roseanne the person are, in the public eye, intertwined. Though she doesn't write the script, to many viewers the show is a manifestation of Barr's pugnacious persona, her support of Trump one of the major story-beats of the latest season. That is to the credit of the behind-the-scenes talent, including the aforementioned Sykes (also known for Curb Your Enthusiasm) and writers including Darlene Hunt, Morgan Murphy and Gail Mancuso and co-showrunner Whitney Cummings, a respected liberal comedian.

The other driving force behind the revival was actress Sara Gilbert, who portrays Roseanne's daughter Darlene and who played a huge part in shepherding the comedy back to the screen. She was one of the first to call out Barr for her tweets, describing them as "abhorrent".

"We've created a show that we believe in, are proud of, and that audiences love," she tweeted. "One that is separate and apart from the opinions and words of one cast member."

Roseanne's cancellation could nonetheless be regarded as unfortunate, and not just because several dozen people are now out of a job. Judged on its merits, rather than by the views of its lead actress, this was important, boundary-demolishing TV - one of the few shows on US television to seek common ground between Blue and Red State America and to interrogate the circumstances that drove so many working-class people to rally around Trump. Again, this was to the credit of the series - and not necessarily to Barr personally.

As it returned from a 21-year hiatus, Roseanne's smartest decision was to frame the tension between Barr's character and her liberal sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) in the light of Trump's ascent to the White House. Roseanne had voted Republican - an anathema to her progressive sibling and the source of a deep and initially intractable falling out.

Here was the real world recreated in microcosm on a half-hour, in many ways old-fashioned, sitcom - a slice of kitchen sink veritée. More than that, season 10 of Roseanne laid bare the travails of the American working class, whose incomes and prospects have crumpled across the past 20 years, yet which are often painted by the coastal media as a deplorable "basket" of privileged ingrates.

The depths to which many ordinary Americans have been reduced was powerfully illustrated in the very first episode as Roseanne and husband Dan (John Goodman) pool their sorry supply of medication to save bills. Later, their Gen X daughter Darlene (Gilbert) slouches back to the family home, having found the jobs market and the housing situation too unforgiving for someone trying to make it on their own.

Of course, it should also be recognised that the series was not a vehicle for Barr's personal opinions and that she was ultimately just the star. Indeed, it could be argued that Roseanne's strengths were a credit to the writers and that it succeeded despite, not because of, the actress from which it takes its name.

Though sprinkled with hokey gags and a braying laughter track, these were bruising evocations of the real America. Admirable sensitivity was also displayed in the depiction of Roseanne's cross-dressing grandson and Dan's fear the boy would be victimised in school because of his fondness for dressing as a girl.

Nuanced, humane and funny with it… such were the qualities that made Roseanne one of the most important TV shows of the Trump era. And now it's gone, done in by a racist outburst by its star. The scandal, arguably, is that Barr was permitted to spread hateful opinions on social media for so long. But what a pity she had to drag down Roseanne - in which she was just one voice among many - with her.

Irish Independent

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