Sunday, April 1, 2018
What To Make of the Roseanne Reboot
Okay, I'll admit I didn't watch the Roseanne reboot. To be honest, I wasn't much of a fan of the original series when it aired in the '90s, so I wasn't about to spend a half hour catching up on characters I wasn't all that into in the first place.
From what I've read, the ratings for the show exceeded even the most optimistic expectations at the network - 18.2 million people tuned in - so from a bottom line perspective, I wasn't all that surprised that ABC decided to pick it up for a second season. Bean counters only care about one thing and one thing only: profit. If it makes money, it'll be on the air. That's why Jerry Springer still has a show after 26 seasons.
But while liberals may deplore Roseanne Barr's politics and her penchant for conspiracy theories that would make Alex Jones blush, they would best be advised not to dismiss what this show represents to millions of people across the heartland of the county, who, not coincidentally, gave the show its strongest ratings.
For one, the idea of a working-class family sitcom has become anathema to prime time television. Compare and contrast what Roseanne's TV family looks like to the cast of, say, Friends, a group of people who live in expensive Manhattan apartments with no visible means of income that could possibly support the huge rents those apartments demand. Ever been to Manhattan? I have. For the price of, say, a BMW 5 series lease, you might possibly get to spend a couple of nights in a studio apartment in SoHo. But a three bedroom deluxe on the upper east side? You're either incredibly rich or you're humping the landlord.
The same can be said for southern California, where a Cheesecake Factory waitress by the name of Penny somehow manages to afford the rent on a one-bedroom apartment living next-door to a couple of research scientists who work at the local university. As popular as The Big Bang Theory is, no one would ever confuse those characters with everyday working-class people who struggle just to make a living.
In fact, with the exception of Roseanne, who'd have to go all the way back to the '70s to find sitcoms that represented an accurate portrayal of working-class America. All in the Family and Good Times, apart from being incredibly funny, were brutal in their depiction of what some families had to go through, particularly Good Times, which was a show about a black family in the Chicago projects that literally lived life on the edge. The father, James Evans, often worked two jobs at once just to pay the rent and put food on the table.
In All in the Family, the father, Archie Bunker, worked as a forklift operator during the day and cab driver on weekends just to support his family. In one of the more heart-warming episodes, Archie discovers that his employer is laying off some of its workers and we spend the entire half hour wondering if Archie might be one of them. Want to know how many times since that episode aired that a sitcom has dealt with that topic? The answer is never. Turns out reality-based TV isn't all that interested in reality.
But in everyday working-class America that scenario plays out more than you or I care to realize. Imagine a life where losing your job means you could be homeless in a month. Millions of Americans don't have to imagine that; for them it's a staggering reality. My wife and I talk about what to do with our discretionary income and when we will have enough money to retire. For these people the term discretionary income is meaningless. Every penny they make has already been spent. And retirement is a fantasy that for them will never happen. They will work until the day they die.
This is their life. The couch they sit on is worn thin. The TV they watch is a second generation open-box set they bought at Walmart. The car they drive is already on its second transmission and is held together by spit, polish and a ton of prayers. The clothing they wear is bought at bargain stores. A new suit or dress is almost unheard of. Sometimes, the food on the table comes from a church's food pantry. Every nickel and dime gets counted two or three times. The most valuable utensil in the home is a pair of scissors because of all the coupons that get clipped. Allowances? That's for rich kids.
Maybe you or I don't have to concern ourselves with these people or their problems; we have that luxury. For us, the blessings of life have been plentiful. We can afford to buy a new car when the old one becomes too expense to repair. We can take our family go out to a fancy restaurant every weekend if we wish. Our kids, those of us who have them, have the latest iPhone the moment it comes out. Delayed gratification is one of those terms we read about but hardly ever put into practice. We are not rich, but we are hardly in need. If we lose our job, it stings, but it isn't life or death.
This is the current state of America: a country that is defined by the haves and the have-nots. Or, more accurately, the elites and everybody else. The part of the country that the show Roseanne represents we mockingly call "flyover." The Conner family lives in a working-class neighborhood in Illinois, about as far from Manhattan or southern California as you can possibly get. They live day to day and face the kind of uncertainties and dilemmas that network executives have avoided like the plague. And much like its predecessor, All in the Family, the show manages to make us laugh while at the same time making us think.
The diversity of the characters isn't all that dissimilar to the Bunkers really. Conservatives butting heads with liberals is hardly a new theme. Back in the '70s it was Nixon; now it's Trump. Not much has changed, except that in the '70s, the audience was primarily liberal, whereas with this show, it's the conservatives who make up the majority of the viewers.
And that's both the rub and the challenge for Democrats. The backlash the show has gotten from the media may or may not be deserved. As I said, I didn't watch the reboot, so I can't offer my own assessment. But one thing I can say with certainty: if the strategy here is to demonize what this show is about, that would be a fatal error in my judgment. Maybe Roseanne isn't on a par with All in the Family, but it has all the same ripple effects in that it speaks to rather than at its audience. Yes, Carol O'Connor was a much better actor than Roseanne Barr could ever hope to be; he was also a much better person. But insofar as their characters are concerned, they speak very much the same language: plain and blunt. Just like the current president. No one who watched All in the Family could ever accuse Archie Bunker of being refined. The same can be said of Roseanne Conner.
If liberals end up dismissing the Roseanne show as yet another attempt to rebrand Trump supporters as decent human beings, they do so at their own peril. They're also missing the point. In a recent piece in which I criticized Hillary Clinton for her tone deaf remarks regarding the people who voted for Trump, a person commented that I should "stop my love affair with Trump voters. They're idiots."
Well, some of them are, but not all of them. Many of them are just like the Conners: hard-working and under appreciated. They didn't vote for Trump because they're racists; they voted for him because no one else gave them the time of day. The two-party system we have in this country stopped giving a shit about them a long time ago. So, out of desperation, they turned to a carpet bagger as their last hope.
Everybody needs something to hope for. For some it's a brand new car or flat panel TV; for others it's about getting through the entire month without being served an eviction notice or having the electricity turned off. Roseanne Barr is no role model, that's for sure; but Roseanne Conner sure as shit is. And it's about fucking time the rest of us got that through our thick, condescending skulls.
Know this much: there is no path back to the White House for Democrats that doesn't go through the Midwest. The flyovers have found their voice and their platform. They are, to coin a phrase from one of my favorite movies, mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore.