LOS ANGELES – Roseanne Conner woke up the neighborhood three decades ago by smoking weed in the bathtub, helping her daughter secure birth control pills and making out with Mariel Hemingway. In next Tuesday’s return of “Roseanne,” she’s found a new way to court controversy: voting for Donald Trump.
Given the opportunity, past TV characters may have checked the same box. You can easily picture Archie Bunker labeling Hillary Clinton a dingbat, or Ralph Kramden sporting a “Make America Great Again” cap. But “All in the Family” and “The Honeymooners” have been off the air for decades, leaving the “Roseanne” reboot as one of the few sitcoms on the air bold enough to represent the large swath of the population — Midwesterners hovering around the poverty line, in particular — that Hollywood usually ignores.
“The show has always tried to be a true reflection of the society we live in,” said creator Roseanne Barr, who supported Trump in real life after deciding not to run for president herself, as she did in 2012. “I feel like half the people voted for Trump and half didn’t, so it’s just realistic. In fact, it was working-class people who elected Trump. So I felt that it was very real and something that needed to be discussed.”
At the very least, the revelation serves as a dramatic device to reintroduce characters and conflict that’s been sorely missed from television since “Roseanne” ended its decadelong run in 1997. Its ill-conceived “final” season had fans celebrating the Conner family’s lottery win, only to discover in the super-somber closing moments that the jackpot was only a dream and that husband Dan (John Goodman) had died of a heart attack.
The premiere swiftly dismisses that death (supposedly it was a plot twist in a novel Roseanne was toying with) before zeroing in on a feud between her and sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf).
Jackie shows up at the door in a “Nasty Woman” T-shirt and a pink pussy hat. “What’s up, deplorable?” she says to Roseanne, who is so fed up with her sister’s liberal lectures that she has built a shrine in the kitchen suggesting it was Jackie, not Dan, who passed away.
Jackie is entering a crowded house. Darlene (Sara Gilbert), the wisecracking free spirit, has grudgingly moved back in with her parents, along with her two kids: a daughter who inherited her mom’s stubborn streak and a son who prefers to wear dresses to school.
Her brother D.J. (Michael Fishman) has returned from military duty overseas while sister Becky (Lecy Goranson) is waiting tables to make ends meet and is contemplating being a surrogate mother for a prissy stranger. In one of the reboot’s winks to the past, that character is played by Sarah Chalke, who alternated with Goranson in the role of Becky during the original run.
“I think our show has a depth to it that’s unusual,” Goranson said. “The humor comes from reality and a deep place. I think that people want a meal and not a snack. They’ve had a lot of snacks over the past 20 years.”
Going deep on social issues of the day leads to plenty of conflict around the Conner dinner table — just like in real life.
“I think part of what’s going on right now is that people feel like they can’t disagree and still talk to each other,” said Gilbert, who orchestrated the reunion while producing CBS’ “The Talk.” “For me, this was an opportunity to have a family divided by politics that is still filled with love. What a great thing to bring into this country right now.”
Network executives probably didn’t have a social agenda in mind when they greenlit the revival; they were too busy salivating over the potential ratings.
Other reboots have fared well. Symphony Advanced Media, which measures viewership of streaming services, believes the 2016 premiere season of “Fuller House,” a continuation of the family-friendly favorite “Full House,” drew just as many eyeballs as “Monday Night Football” and “The Walking Dead.” The return of “Will & Grace” has helped NBC revive its once flailing Thursday lineup and has already been renewed for a second season. A “Murphy Brown” reunion, led by Candice Bergen, is also in the works.
“I’m happy that ‘Will & Grace’ did well because when anything works in broadcast, it’s a rising tide that lifts all the boats,” said ABC Entertainment’s president, Channing Dungey. “With ‘Roseanne,’ it really does feel like you’re picking up the characters that you had come to love all those years ago, in a new phase of life in a way that feels very specific to what’s happening right now in the world.”
Some of the issues faced by the Conners — gender identification, gun control, drug addiction — should resonate with viewers living in towns like the series’ fictional Lanford, Ill., places where the American dream can be as simple as having a job with full benefits, and where the notion of building a wall doesn’t seem wacky at all.
“I think there’s a population that is overlooked,” said Goranson, who grew up in Illinois. “I’m happy to say I’m a liberal Democrat, but I was making a film in rural Pennsylvania during the last election. That’s Trump country. I realized while I was there that I was living in a bubble in New York City, where you see gay people and African-Americans every day. There’s a large group of people out there that feel stuck. Sometimes they’re treated like a novelty, like TV and film is winking at white trash.
“I come from the Midwest and the people I know are intelligent, caring and funny, with depth of character. Those are the people I know and that’s who I think our show represents.”
That connection with Flyoverland helped make “Roseanne” the nation’s No. 1 show in its second season, and a consistent top 20 hit during its first eight years.
But while the series had its fair share of copycats — most notably “Grace Under Fire,” which revolved around a single mother in small-town Missouri — sitcom characters in the years since were more likely to hang at hipster coffee shops (think Central Perk from “Friends”) than “Roseanne’s” downscale Lanford Lunch Box. Of the nearly two dozen live-action sitcoms that cracked the Nielsen top 100 last season, only one — ABC’s “The Middle” — revolved around a Midwest family struggling to pay the bills. That sitcom will conclude its nine-year run in May.
Its departure will leave “Roseanne,” once again, on its own — just the way the star likes it.
“I don’t know if people are hungry for it,” she said. “I just think we were friends to a lot of people — if you can be friends on TV. But they did let us into their homes and maybe they missed us, and they’re happy to catch up with us again, I hope.”
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays
Where: KSTP, Ch. 5 (ABC)