Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Roseanne: First Two Episodes of the Reboot (Carsey-Werner Productions, ABC-TV, aired March 27, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

At 8 p.m. I switched from MS-NBC to ABC for the first episode — the first two episodes, actually, since they told a two-part story — of the bizarre reboot of Roseanne, the TV series built around Roseanne Barr (who renamed herself Roseanne Arnold after she married Tom Arnold, then called herself simply “Roseanne” after she and Arnold divorced, and is now Roseanne Barr again) playing proletarian housewife and mom Roseanne Conner, with John Goodman as her on-screen husband. The series ran nine seasons, from 1988 to 1997, and at its height it was one of the most popular shows on television, rivaled only by The Cosby Show. I never watched it until just recently, when one of my home-care clients would have it on while I worked, and I found it essentially The Honeymooners with the genders reversed, a clever show that was occasionally quite funny but nowhere near as consistently amusing as its writers (or its laugh tracks) thought. It was hailed in its time as bringing the working class back to TV, and so someone at ABC and/or its original producing company, Carsey-Werner Productions, thought it would be a good idea to bring it back in the Trump era even though Roseanne’s real politics are quite at the opposite end from her character’s, who proclaims early on in the reboot that she voted for Trump and is quite proud of it. The real Roseanne Barr, says her page, “is a spokeswoman for various pro-choice groups, has asserted pro-choice views in publications such as The Advocate, and has appeared at benefits sponsored by pro-choice organizations such as the Fund for a Feminist Majority. In several episodes of Roseanne (1988) Roseanne Conner defends a woman’s right to choose.” (I guess she won’t be doing that in the new version!) 

This version of Roseanne not only reunites Roseanne Barr and John Goodman, it also brings back the same actors who originally played her kids, Sara Gilbert as Darlene and Alisa Goranson as Rebecca, though of course by now they’re adults and their characters have kids of their own even though financial reversals and marital breakups (a subject the real Roseanne should be an expert on by now, since she’s been through three of them) have forced them to move back in with their parents. The gimmick in the first episode is that Rebecca has agreed to become a surrogate mother for a well-to-do woman who’s offering her $50,000, not only to be a rent-a-womb but to use one of her own eggs for in vitro fertilization, since apparently the woman who’s hiring her is so reproductively dysfunctional she can’t use one of her own. “Is she going to watch while her husband has sex with you?” Roseanne asks her daughter in that peculiarly whiny, nasal voice she developed for this character (her own voice, as revealed in the PBS series Pioneers of Television, is several registers lower and nowhere near as annoying). “They don’t do it that way!” Rebecca says. Her big fears is that the parents-to-be will call the deal off if they find out she’s 43 — she lied and said she was 10 years younger than she was — and they’ve also wanted to meet her family, which means Becky wants to de-proletarianize the house and in particular to hide all the photos of her mom and dad so her employers don’t get the impression that she’s from a family whose members genetically run towards large size. 

The writer, Bruce Rasmussen, occasionally comes up with some lines that are genuinely funny — at one point Roseanne is rummaging through the garage and comes across a book manuscript about her life, which apparently she attempted to sell in the old days and which ended with the death of her husband (which was presumably the producers’ attempt to explain how John Goodman returned to the cast when the last episode of Roseanne 1.0 ended with his death). She mournfully regrets that she wasn’t able to get the thing published and says, “It needed bondage and wizards waving wands!” Mostly, though, it’s meet the new Roseanne, same as the old Roseanne except the leads are older and even less attractive, either as bodies or as characters, and there are some odd attempts to do All in the Family-style political clashes, as when Roseanne meets her sister — or is it her sister-in-law? Her kids call  her “aunt” but never make it quite clear which of their parents she’s a blood relative of — who tearfully confesses that Roseanne’s relentless attacks on Hillary Clinton’s honesty, trustworthiness and overall fitness for the presidency led her to change her vote … to Jill Stein. (“Who’s that?” Roseanne asks. “Some doctor,” is the reply. She was the Green Party candidate for President and is blamed by some Democrats for drawing enough votes away from Clinton to give Trump some key swing states, and hence an Electoral College victory.) 

For my money, by far the most interesting character in the new Roseanne is Mark (Ames McNamara), Roseanne’s nine-year-old grandchild who wears his hair long and likes to dress in women’s clothing — the first day of school in his new neighborhood he insists on going in a long, flowing knit scarf and a pair of skin-tight, sequined girl’s pants, and the second day he dresses in something that could either be a plaid skirt or a kilt — which of course makes Our Heroine and her clueless husband Dan (John Goodman) wonder about his sexual orientation and/or his gender identity, and leads Dan to give him a pocket knife, which he offers to give to the school bully who torments him at recess until he’s busted by school security and sent to the principal’s office. I guess I can identify with the character, not only because he has my name but because Roseanne’s advice to him is just what I ended up doing — if the cool kids at school won’t befriend you, find your fellow misfits and make friends with them (when I first saw the TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and they got to the “Island of Misfit Toys” scene, I thought, “That’s me! That’s where I belong!”). Mark’s plot line genuinely moved me in a show that otherwise, aside from the nice blues harmonica used in place of the usual bombastic orchestral score to signal changes of scene — a welcome touch from the original show re-used here — the new Roseanne is pretty pointless television, one of those retreads of something that (like the original Will & Grace) was well remembered but hardly as good as people remembered it!