Black audiences are accustomed to finding ways to relate to television characters that do not look like us. This is mostly out of necessity due to the fluctuation of black characters and/or shows on TV, but also because universal themes transcend race when written well. This was the case for Roseanne during the show’s first run from 1988 to 1997: a family sitcom centered around a working-class white woman with a stereotypically black, “sassy” nature resonated with some black families at the time. This is especially true if you consider that the only black sitcom that matches the length and popularity of Roseanne during its run was The Cosby Show, which centered on the upper-middle-class Huxtables, whose parents were a doctor and a lawyer living in a three-story brownstone in New York City.
In 2018, however, prior political elections, prominent legal battles, and the internet have made it clear just how much Roseanne (and the demographic she represents) is willing to put race before the ties that made the show relatable to black audiences in the first place — ties such as class and gender. This makes it potentially more difficult for black audiences to be on board.
If there were questions over whether the Roseanne producers were worried about the black audience’s interest in the show’s reboot, we can look to the decision to make the matriarch a Trump supporter for answers. Instead of dancing around the politics of many families in middle America like the Conners, the show’s writers leaned right into it, attacking the Republican elephant in the room headfirst in the show’s premiere Tuesday.
Some could argue that they had little choice considering the strong political leanings of the show's star, Roseanne Barr, and the turnout of the 2016 presidential election, in which the white working class became a major point of discussion in determining Trump’s ascension to the presidency. (This point may be true, but also ignores that almost all white demographics voted for President Trump.) There's also an argument to be made that since Roseanne, there have been few if any network television shows that represent white, blue-collar families. And the combination of Barr’s politics and the 2016 election led media executives, and the advertisers they depend on, to cater to this underserved demographic in an attempt to win their viewership.
The same could be said about what happened during the Obama era, when we saw a rise in diversity in TV. ABC became the first network in over 40 years to have a drama starring a black woman when Scandal premiered in 2012. The network also made a statement by giving Scandal showrunner Shonda Rhimes a full night of television — three shows back-to-back, two of which starred black women. It was also during this time that the network green-lit Black-ish, a sitcom centered around a black upper-middle-class family and often described as the modern-day Cosby Show. And just last year ABC made diversity history again by being the first to air back-to-back black sitcoms (The Mayor and Black-ish) during primetime in almost a decade.
But that last feat was short-lived, since the network decided to cancel The Mayor and replace its time slot with Roseanne. Strictly speaking ratings, their decision to do so has paid off: Roseanne premiered with an astonishing 17.7 million viewers — that’s enough to make The Big Bang Theory gang sweat. These numbers might even be enough for the show's network to ignore any protests from black audiences if the content ends up being offensive or worse. (As of now, we don't know what the racial breakdown numbers are.)
If you let Twitter tell the tale, black folks who are happy with the show’s reboot thus far are in the minority (some even spent the evening tweeting against the show and Barr) but they do exist. Those who are into the show gave reasons varying from nostalgia to the importance of humanizing all sides of the political spectrum to arguing that the show actually displays a variety of beliefs. In reference to the latter point, it is true that the members of the Conner family are not all “proud deplorables” with one set of views. Roseanne not only has a black granddaughter (whom she seemingly adores) and a grandson exploring his sexuality (whom she defends from bullies in school in Episode 2) but also a sister, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), who hates that Roseanne voted for Trump.
It’s clear from her first scene that Jackie is supposed to be the character that represents liberal, white America. She enters the house wearing a “nasty woman” shirt and a pink pussy hat à la the Women's March. At the end of the first episode, she confesses she hasn’t spoken to Roseanne in a year since she bullied her into voting for Jill Stein because Roseanne made her feel stupid about supporting Hillary Clinton in 2016. While Jackie definitely gives the show some range, the debates that spark from her presence haven’t been given much depth, at least not in these first two episodes. When arguing their respective decisions, jabs about jobs, health care, Russia, and “a woman’s body being her own” come up, but Jackie never truly takes Roseanne to task for the policies that directly affect black people or other people of color, like immigration reform, police brutality, LGBT rights, or even just the racist remarks Trump supporters ignored and/or decided weren’t offensive enough in casting their vote for the current president. The latter are markedly alarming considering Roseanne's grandchildren on the show. Although, off-camera, Barr has gone on record saying she doesn't believe Trump is homophobic, so perhaps Roseanne Conner feels the same.
While Barr may decide to continue to ignore these issues, the show cannot if it truly wants to shine a light on the dialogue in households like the Conners', or if it, like one Twitter user said, wants to display the tough conversations white people need to have with the “Roseanne” in their families. In other words, don’t just throw in a joke where Roseanne asks Jackie if she wants to take a knee during the prayer said over dinner; force Roseanne to explain why black people kneeling during the anthem means more to her than black people being unjustly killed by police.
Sylvia Obell is an entertainment reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Sylvia Obell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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