'Roseanne' In Trumpland

Now that we are almost halfway through the new nine-episode season of “Roseanne,” can we do a quick check-in to see if it’s living up to its early promise as a reflection of white working-class America in the age of Trump?

The show is just a few weeks distant from those shockingly high ratings for the premiere episode, which, for the first time ever, sympathetically depicted a family of Trump supporters on a scripted television show.  Which means we’re also just a few weeks distant from the critical meltdown that came with it.

I just finished listening to a podcast on in which the participants debated whether continuing to watch the show would morally compromise them.  It’s the position of Slate that all Trump voters are racist even if they don’t know it, and that by failing to show the Conners as motivated by animus to black, brown and other non-white populations, the producers are whitewashing the dark side of the Trump base.



There was also pushback from the conservative side, too.  The right-wing editor and commentator Ben Shapiro, on HIS podcast, claimed that the show misrepresented the conservative base by showing that the Conners’ support of Trump was based solely on economic dissatisfaction and not by a reaction to the identity politics and political correctness of the coastal elites.

It’s a symptom of these over-politicized times that a relatively benign TV show can generate so much heat, and that its right even to exist can be called into question solely because some of the characters voted for the existing president.  

This reminds me of the reaction in the 1970s to “All in the Family,” an earlier generation’s exploration of working-class values.  That show was also denounced for providing a platform for the bigoted Archie Bunker, even though Archie was clearly made to be the buffoon.

The difference between “Rosanne” and “All in the Family” is that the latter was all politics all the time, while “Rosanne” mostly hints at politics.  Since the premiere episode, in which Rosanne Conner and her liberal sister Jackie have a fight over their respective votes, overt politics has been mostly off the table.

Instead of arguments about Trump, what subsequent episodes have offered instead are depictions of social and cultural issues that bedevil most families — specially working-class families, who are just getting by in a world that largely disrespects them. Rosanne’s an Uber driver now; one daughter is unemployed and living at home again; another daughter is so desperate to buy herself out of the rut she’s in that she accepts an offer to become a surrogate mother for a ditsy upper-class twit – by using her own eggs, no less. Meaning she’d be essentially selling her own biological daughter.  

I think it’s fair to assume that the Conners represent that group of swing voters who voted twice for Obama but couldn’t abide Clinton and the globalism that she embodied.  (Of course the thanks they got for voting for Obama is to be labeled racist for not supporting his white successor.)  

Contrary to Ben Shapiro’s claims that the Conners are not socially conservative, the fact remains that Dan Conner owns a gun, the family prays before dinner every night, Roseanne enacts a form of corporal punishment on her granddaughter when her daughter is too lenient, and their son DJ is a veteran of the Iraq war. They seem pretty culturally conservative to me.

Much has been made of the loving support that the Conners provide for their gender-fluid grandson and mixed-race granddaughter.  And both of those characters do seem to be on the show for the sole purpose of taking the hard edge off the Roseanne character.  But it’s also true that many families, including working-class ones, rally around their own kin when they perceive a threat from the outside, even if the threat is just from public opinion in general.

In the end, though, “Rosanne” is still just a sitcom, not a PBS documentary.  I didn’t really like the series when it was first on, and I’m not crazy about it now either.  It’s occasionally funny, but represents a genre of TV that was already tired when the show first aired in the 1990s.  As a multicamera show filmed in front of a live studio audience, it’s plagued by a soundtrack of people laughing at jokes, quips and set-ups that just aren’t that hilarious. It’s also undone by the standard sitcom need to wrap up all problems and conflict within 22 minutes so the next episode can start fresh.

And yet the show, as old-fashioned as it is, remains immensely popular, especially in local markets that Trump carried in 2016.  It appears that conservative white voters, who still represent a very large segment of the population, like to see themselves depicted on TV, just as blacks like to watch themselves on “black-ish.”

Why it took TV a year and a half to understand that there’s a huge underserved audience out there is another story, but in the meantime, someone is making a lot of money off the idea to bring back “Rosaeanne” and set it in Trumpland.

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