TV Review: ‘Roseanne’ Returns to TV with Mixed Bag of Tricks

“Roseanne” was one of the most daring, interesting and hilarious comedies to air on television. Over its nine season run from 1988 – 1997, the show redefined the working class family sitcom. The makeup of what a family sitcom has changed in the 21 years since “Roseanne” aired its final episode, particularly on ABC. The channel now boasts a diverse array of family sitcoms that includes “Black-ish,” “Fresh off the Boat” and “Speechless,” among many others on TV. Arriving in 2018, Roseanne Barr wants to bring her voice, and the voice of the Conners family, back to television. Finding what that voice is, however, appears to be a much more daunting task. There is still tremendous talent and chemistry happening on screen. However, everything feels a bit more stale, a bit more unnecessary, and worst of all, a lot more clumsy.

The first episode dives headfirst into the political turmoil of the 2016 election. Roseanne Barr, an open Trump supporter, gives her leading lady, Roseanne, the same political beliefs. As the show begins, the audience learns Roseanne has not spoken with her sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) since the election due to their differing political beliefs. When Darlene (Sara Gilbert) asks Jackie to drive her to a job interview, Jackie arrives in a “Nasty Woman” shirt and pink pussy hat.

There is a valuable conversation to be had about how the current political crisis has created a rift among families. It feels particularly relevant for the working class Conners family to have this conversation. Yet, the show skirts around what it means to have a political divided. The show treats us to an endless volley of political jabs between Barr and Metcalf that feel about a year too late. The final reveal around Jackie’s experience at the polls plays less like a punchline and more like a cop out. The conflict just boils down to “Roseanne’s a republican, Jackie’s a democrat,” which is incredibly simplistic. What does it mean to Jackie that Roseanne voted for Trump? How does Jackie’s beliefs inform Roseanne’s thought? We don’t get a political discussion, we just get a series of buzz words.

“Will and Grace” made a similarly cringe-inducing opening step into their reboot as Grace “redecorates” the Oval Office. Shows that want to make politics the cornerstone of their story need to try harder to give their characters more depth and reason behind their political leanings. “Black-ish,” for example, features one of the best episodes about the 2016 election. In “Lemons,” the Johnson family all reacts differently to the outcome, with discussions growing more heated at Dre’s (Anthony Anderson) job. The show was able to examine Trump and Clinton supporters in the present day without making them shrieking caricatures tossing around half-baked one-liners.

The extended Conners family promises many more episodes about identity politics, as we catch up with how the past 20 years have changed them. Becky (Lecy Goranson, returning to the character) wants to be a surrogate mother to earn enough money for the down payment of a house. Funny enough, the matriarch of the family that wants her baby is Andrea, played by Sarah Chalke, who inhabited the role of Becky after season six. There’s a good bit of fun to this running storyline. Plus, it gives Roseanne a nice speech about not abandoning her grandchild. We’ve also got potential for story-lines from DJ (Michael Fishman), who has returned from service, but has a wife who is still serving in the military. Their daughter Mary (Jayden Rey), shows some of the same quirks DJ had as a child. It will be interesting to see how the show explores their multi-ethnic family in the Conners household.

However, Sara Gilbert as Darlene emerges as the standout presence of the revival. Her Darlene tosses of one liners with the same wry wit, but adds a pinch of weariness to her voice. Jobless and back in her parents’ house, Darlene hasn’t found her footing. Complicating matters are the two kids she has in tow. There’s little new to her struggle with Harris (Emma Kennedy), a typical rebellious teenager. Her son Mark (Ames McNamara), however, prefers to dress in women’s clothes. The second episode revolves around Dan’s concern for how his Grandson will be treated at school. There’s a well-meaning heart behind the on-the-nose masculinity at the heart of the concept. It will be interesting to see if the show has the language and the interest to speak intelligently on the construct of gender with the character.

Roseanne and Dan (John Goodman) bounce barbs off each other very well. However, one can see time has past. The timing seems to be off just a tinge. Maybe the jokes have aged with the show. Either which way, what made Roseanne so progressive for its time comes off as stale today. There’s little in the way of a shake-up to the dynamics.

There will always be a place in the TV hall of fame for this working class Illinois family. However, the show acknowledges America has gone through many changes since it last aired, but it seems the characters haven’t changed with it. Can a right-wing Grandma love and accept her Grandson in a skirt and “Nasty Woman” sister? Absolutely. But in the course of these 30 minute episodes we get nothing more than surface level drama. What really has changed for the Conners family, and when can we see that show?

“ROSEANNE” AIRS TUESDAYS ON ABC AT 8 PM.

GRADE: (½)

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