Twenty Years Later, ‘Roseanne’ Is as Relevant as Ever

Roseanne is back and it was a ratings hit, and the second half of its premiere was one of the most-watched shows on television this season. The show debuted with two back-to-back episodes, the second of which scored a 5.3/21 rating with an audience of 18.6 million viewers. If you’re wondering what those numbers mean, it means 5.3 million people between the ages of 18 and 49 watched the show, and that 21% of people watching television at the time were watching Roseanne. Having one in five viewers tune into your show is pretty impressive, and both half hours of Roseanne scored higher ratings than the last new episode of The Big Bang Theory, TV’s highest-rated comedy.

In its heyday, Roseanne was never a show that backed away from dealing with serious issues. It was probably the first show to effectively mix comedy and drama, instead of relying on “Very Special Episodes” like earlier sitcoms, and it paved the way for shows like Scrubs and How I Met Your Mother to mix touching emotional moments with silly and often ribald humor. So with its return to the airwaves, it was no surprise that the new series dove head first into the hot topics of the day.

The show tackled Roseanne Barr’s real-life support of Donald Trump (who called and congratulated the former stand-up on her show’s success despite the memo marked “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” his staff prepared for him) by making her character a Trump voter, something that put her at odds with her sister Jackie. As the first episode unfolds, we find out the reason Jackie and Roseanne haven’t talked in a year isn’t because Jackie is mad Roseanne voted for Trump, she’s mad that Roseanne convinced her not to vote for Hillary Clinton and she instead voted for Jill Stein, an interesting twist on an old formula.

The show’s other focus was on Roseanne’s grandson Mark, the son of Sara Gilbert’s Darlene and her ex-husband David (played by Johnny Galecki, who didn’t appear but is slated for a guest spot in a later episode). Mark is nine and wears girl’s clothes, something that causes friction between Darlene and her parents. Dan and Roseanne are accepting of their grandson, but worried about him being bullied in school. The first two episodes of the show use Mark as a lens through which to explore gender and sexuality, and the show is nuanced and progressive in its politics.

I was worried that a show like Roseanne wouldn’t work in today’s political climate. I’m glad to say I was wrong. It did an admirable job in showing how people from different generations with different political views still remain a family. Neither side of the political debate today likes it when the other side of the argument is shown in a positive light, and neither side likes it much when they’re made the butt of the joke. Roseanne manages to show all its characters as sympathetic and finds humor in the views of both sides of the spectrum, so I was expecting it to turn off a lot of viewers, so I’m heartened by its success.

I don’t know that it’s a sign that we’re actually more willing to listen people who disagree with us, though. Roseanne‘s mix of comedy and drama helps us relate to the characters as if they were real people, and so we don’t need them to parrot our own world views. It creates fully dimensionalized characters, and that creates empathy for those characters, even when we don’t agree with them. This was always the strength of the show in its first run, and the show has managed to keep an emotional core that still resonates today, even across political ideologies.

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