The 'Roseanne' Revival and the Sad Side of Nostalgia
I was eight when my mother and I caught a teaser for a new sitcom "coming to ABC" called Roseanne. It featured Roseanne Barr and John Goodman cuddling up to each other and making some caustic comment about their kids ruining their alone time. I remember my mother chuckling to herself. She then turned to me and said, "That looks good, doesn't it?"
Back then, in 1988, a blue-collar family sitcom with overweight parents and a home that was often in disarray was, simply put, revolutionary -- especially for a generation of TV viewers raised on the polished glean of shows like Growing Pains, Who's The Boss? and Family Ties.
Roseanne promised something different.
And it delivered just that. And more. (*NOTE: the below teaser is not the promo I'm referring to.)
"They're just like us."
That was my mother's reaction during the early years of the show. In fact, this was undoubtedly a similar remark made throughout millions of homes in the late 80s and early 90s -- hence the sitcom's warm reception and immense success. But we didn't consider ourselves blue-collar. We were squarely middle-class, and both of my parents worked hard to make ends meet and provide a comfortable childhood for me. (My mom's reaction was more about our family's plus-sized figures and boisterous demeanors.) And even though I never had siblings and grew up straddling two kinds of cultures on account of my mixed heritage, I still found Roseanne to be a TV show that closely resembled a family dynamic I was very familiar with.
The groundbreaking, Emmy-winning comedy went on to become a contemporary classic as well as one of the definitive sitcoms of my adolescence. Only in hindsight do I realize how much I related to the character of Roseanne and Dan Conner's middle child, Darlene. She was the one who was into creative writing and had dreams of leaving Lanford, Illinois to attend art school and create a life of her own in the big city (Chicago). For me, New Rochelle, New York wasn't far from Manhattan, so my aspirations weren't so different.
Now, after a 21-year "hiatus," we have the revival series. And despite Roseanne Barr's divisive, right-wing political advocacy, I was cautiously optimistic yet interested in seeing how the Conner clan was doing in 2018. Also? I am easily nostalgic and will revisit any book, film, or TV series that takes me back to a time before I had to pay rent and deal with other stressful challenges that come with adulting.
The new Roseanne kicks things off with the unemployed 40-year-old Darlene moving back into her childhood home with her sullen teenage daughter, Harris, and gender non-conforming son, Mark. Widow Becky, now 43, is a waitress at a Mexican restaurant, hoping to earn money by faking her age and being a surrogate. And the little-seen DJ is back from serving a tour in Syria, taking care of his young mixed-race daughter. As for Roseanne and Dan, they're still struggling -- financially and physically.
Going in, I knew I wanted to soak up enough episodes to make a fair assessment of this "tenth" season. And five episodes in, I started to notice something...disheartening.
Episode 5, titled "Darlene v. David," sees the return of Darlene's estranged husband and father of her two children (played by Johnny Galecki). David first appears in the window of Darlene's old bedroom. After climbing in, he looks around and says, "Aw, they kept everything exactly the same as it was when you guys were kids." To which Darlene retorts:
Cue the laughter from the live studio audience. It's a great punchline. Funny and painfully true.
The two then attempt to reconcile for the sake of their teen daughter's birthday. But after one night together, they realize they can't recapture what they had 20 years ago and agree to go their separate ways.
As for the rest of the family this season: Becky finds out she can't bear children, sees her dreams of buying a home get crushed, and casually mentions that she has a drinking problem. (Um, what?) Roseanne relies on pain pills for her bad knee and uses a motorized chair to go up the stairs. And Jackie and Roseanne's mother, Bev (the great, still-kicking Estelle Parsons), gets booted from her nursing home for being too sexually active. Great sitcom material, no?
Overall, it appears as though the Conners are still the same. And while that may provide joy for some, it's where I'm struggling with this reboot.
For me, watching these new episodes evokes contradictory feelings. At first, I am comforted to be reunited with this TV family that left an impact on me during my formative years, but I am also sad to see that not much has changed for them. Darlene continues to mope around in her plaid flannel shirts because apparently, her dreams of starting her own life in the city never became a reality. Roseanne and Dan apparently never had it in them to sell their home once their kids had flown the coop -- or even invest in a new couch (hence the above decorating joke). Meanwhile, Jackie apparently has no love life. (Also: where's her son Andy?) And as a result, the Conners apparently voted Republican in the 2016 Presidential election because the desperate, socioeconomic circumstances of their lives forced them to choose a wealthy, brash, reality TV star with no experience in politics whatsoever. (Which is heartbreaking, but also confusing; see Bill Maher's response in the below video.)
In other words, after two decades of being away from the Conners, it's somewhat depressing to see that their lives have had little or no improvement. And don't we all wish to see happy endings for our favorite TV characters? With this reboot, we're told this family never achieved that. Therefore, for the sake of producing more episodes, they are still in progress. Still scraping to get by. One could then argue that their current situation leaves room for a discussion on the widening economic gap within the United States and how it continues to keep families at near-poverty levels.
I also realize that my view on the new Roseanne has much to do with where I am in my own life. I no longer live in my hometown; neither do my parents. I swapped Main Street for Santa Monica Boulevard. I moved to a big city to start a career and create a life my family has always wished for me. That said, even though I am still scraping to get by in my own way, the new Roseanne may no longer reflect who I am. It doesn't resonate as much, but I understand and appreciate that it still does for a significant portion of the country.
Maybe it's also a matter of having been fed a steady diet of TV shows like Modern Family, Glee, black-ish, Will and Grace, and even The Real Housewives of New York City over the past decade. My taste in comedy has evolved and so have the storytelling methods and sensibilities on TV. Small-screen entertainment is more aspirational than ever, and Roseanne was never that. It was always written and produced to reflect the very real lives of Americans who prefer a six-pack of beer over a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. Any conflicts or problems faced by characters on a show like the aging Big Bang Theory or the critically-acclaimed Master of None seem superficial compared to what the Conners have to go through on a weekly basis.
Right now, my conflict lies within how to consume and enjoy this revival. At times, I find myself basking in the glow of nostalgia -- that harmonica-tinged theme song gets me every time -- but then it's clouded by the harsh reality of the circumstances that surround these characters. And as I write this, I realize my sadness may come off as pity for these characters, which is, in itself, a reflection of who I am at this point in my life.
Like Darlene and David, I may be trying to recapture something that reminds me of a time long gone, but like most trips to the past, it's a futile attempt. And if looking back at your life is supposed to help you measure how far you've come, then looking back at the Conners of 1988 doesn't provide that much distance from the Conners of 2018.