'Roseanne' Reboot Falls Short Of The Groundbreaking Original Series

Mar 26, 2018
Originally published on March 28, 2018 11:20 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROSEANNE THEME SONG)

GROSS: In 1988, ABC premiered the sitcom "Roseanne," starring Roseanne Barr as the matriarch of a struggling but funny working-class family. It was a major TV hit and lasted nine seasons. Thirty years later, on Tuesday night, ABC begins a new Season 10 starring the original cast and picking up where the original "Roseanne" series ended. Well, sort of. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROSEANNE THEME SONG)

ROSEANNE BARR AND JOHN GOODMAN: (Laughter).

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: This new "Roseanne" sitcom is nothing special, but the first one was groundbreaking. The original "Roseanne" sitcom, which arrived with a bang in 1988 and crawled off with a whimper in 1997, showed up at a significant moment in TV history and in actual history, too. When "Roseanne" premiered on ABC, TV's most popular series was NBC's "The Cosby Show," a breakthrough sitcom about an upper-middle-class black family. Starring Bill Cosby, it was a return to the "Father Knows Best" sitcom sensibility of the 1950s.

But "Roseanne," which immediately became the second most popular TV show that season, was intentionally, aggressively different. Its central character, played by Roseanne Barr, was a matriarch, not a patriarch. Her family, the Conners, were solidly working class, struggling to get by with factory and odd jobs. And while, like the Huxtables on "The Cosby Show," the family members on "Roseanne" loved each other. They also took out their frustrations by bickering and wisecracking - a lot. And in a larger context, "Roseanne" the TV series arrived at the tail end of the Reagan administration, when some classes of society had emerged with more wealth and prospects than others.

The first seasons of "Roseanne" were explosive, giving voice to a viewpoint in terms of class as well as gender largely absent from TV entertainment at the time. And the show had two secret weapons - co-stars who were marvelously talented actors. John Goodman is Roseanne's loving and usually patient husband, Dan, and Laurie Metcalf as her flighty and very vocal sister, Jackie. But by the show's final season, "Roseanne" was a lukewarm mess. The Conners won the lottery, Jackie was romanced by a prince, and Dan died. Then in the series finale, Roseanne the TV character admitted that she'd been making most of that stuff up while writing a book and imagining a better life.

So "Roseanne" ended the way one infamous season of "Dallas" had, with a claim that a lot of what viewers had seen had been a bad dream and a chance to hit the reset button. The difference is, "Dallas" revived its dead character, Bobby Ewing, the next year. "Roseanne" waited two decades. But now it's back. Dan is alive, and he and Roseanne are still living in the same house along with one of their former teen daughters, Darlene, played by Sara Gilbert, who now has a teen daughter of her own. She's played by Emma Kenney and fits in perfectly. She's been playing Debbie Gallagher, one of the problem children of a very dysfunctional family on Showtime's drama series "Shameless."

In the new "Roseanne," the parents are now grandparents and watch with amusement the struggles of the next generation. They've even found a clever way to work in both of the actresses who played the other Conner daughter by giving one of them an entirely new role.

The series even returns and relaunches the same way that Bob Newhart's classic "Newhart" series ended, by playing with people's collective TV memories. In "Newhart," Bob woke up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette, who played his wife Emily on a previous series, "The Bob Newhart Show," and Bob dismissed his whole "Newhart" series experience as a bad dream. To begin this revival of "Roseanne," the central character also wakes up in bed with her spouse, who, happy to report, is wearing a CPAP mask and is very much alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ROSEANNE")

ROSEANNE BARR: (As Roseanne Conner, yelling) Dan. Dan. Dan.

JOHN GOODMAN: (As Dan Conner, yelling) (Unintelligible). What?

(LAUGHTER)

GOODMAN: (As Dan Conner) What happened?.

BARR: (As Roseanne Conner) I thought you were dead.

(LAUGHTER)

GOODMAN: (As Dan Conner) I'm sleeping. Why does everybody always think I'm dead?

(LAUGHTER)

BARR: (As Roseanne Conner) You looked happy. I thought maybe you moved on.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: With the new generations of Conners under the same roof, either living or visiting, it allows this new "Roseanne" to pull a page from the playbook of another working-class TV comedy classic, "All In The Family." In that hit sitcom from the '70s, every conversation allowed conservative patriarch Archie Bunker to debate politics and other issues with his liberal son-in-law, whom he called Meathead. In this new "Roseanne," it's still the central character, this time played by Roseanne, who fights for more conservative values. But this time, it's her sister, played by Laurie Metcalf, who challenges her beliefs and even her selection for president.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ROSEANNE")

LAURIE METCALF: (As Jackie Harris) How could you have voted for him, Roseanne?

BARR: (As Roseanne Conner) He talked about jobs, Jackie. He said he'd shake things up. I mean, this might come as a complete shock to you, but we almost lost our house the way things are going.

METCALF: (As Jackie Harris) Have you looked at the news? 'Cause now things are worse.

BARR: (As Roseanne Conner) Not on the real news.

(LAUGHTER)

METCALF: (As Jackie Harris) Oh, puh-lease (ph).

BIANCULLI: I like the idea of having comic debates about current issues in theory. But in practice, it's been done before so much better on "All In The Family." Talking about issues in a sitcom was brand-new then but feels somewhat recycled now. As revived sitcoms from an earlier eras go, "Roseanne" is a lot better than Netflix's "Fuller House" and a bit better than "One Day At A Time." But that's not high praise, and it's not meant to be. When it premiered, "Roseanne" broke new ground. This time around, it's good, but nowhere near required viewing.

GROSS: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching. "Roseanne" returns tomorrow night. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about gender bias in medicine and why women's symptoms are often dismissed or misdiagnosed by doctors. My guest will be Maya Dusenbery, the author of the new book "Doing Harm." She's also the executive editor of Feministing, a website by and for young feminists. I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

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