They've debated the 2016 election, argued gender identity and made fun of both hand-wringing liberals and paranoid conservatives. In its most provocative and perhaps strategic move yet, "Roseanne" on Tuesday tackled the hot-button topic of Islamophobia in its latest episode, "Go Cubs!"
The Conners have new neighbors in their fictional Chicago suburb of Lanford. They're Muslim, which automatically gets Roseanne's (Roseanne Barr) antennas up. She's been watching them closely and noticed they're stockpiling "crazy amounts" of fertilizer in their backyard.
So what? argues her family, who have learned after 30 years to dismiss her general disdain for the human race. "This is what people from I-Rack and Talibanistan do," says Roseanne. "They hide out in neighborhoods like Lanford. Don't you watch the news?" Her self-professed snowflake of a sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) is quick to respond, "You don't mean the news. You mean Fox News."
Still, Jackie, as well as Roseanne's nonplussed husband, Dan (John Goodman), eventually question the new neighbors' intentions even after admonishing Roseanne for her unfounded accusations.
The 30-minute episode was intended to ruffle feathers, and it did, ultimately redeeming itself by making Roseanne's ignorance — not her neighbor's faith, religious attire or unpronounceable last name — the butt of the joke.
Civil rights groups and conservative bloggers immediately jumped into a debate over the offensiveness and/or bold truths of the installment, shocked and electrified by the lightning rod that is "Roseanne." The episode, however, is hardly emblematic of the general direction that scripted TV has been headed in when portraying people with last names like mine.
From 1997 until now, a stretch when "Roseanne" was in hibernation, series TV and its viewers grappled, together, with the horror of 9/11, the Iraq war, the fear of ensuing terror threats, the rise of ISIS and the heartbreaking imagery of desperate Middle Eastern refugees and Syrian war victims, including many children.
The learning curve has been steep, from the one-dimensional barbarians of "24" who lived to destroy America to the conflicted cell members of "Homeland" to the multifaceted depictions of Muslims in recent programming such as "The Night Of," "Master of None," "The Punisher" and "The Looming Tower." It's been one scripted step forward, a couple of Muslim-bashing Fox News segments back.
The "Roseanne" Muslim panic episode, as it's now been called, isn't the next progressive leap in demystifying an entire faith and people. It's a throwback to the bigoted rhetoric of Archie Bunker, but as offensive as many will find it, it serves a purpose. Ignorance, not hatred, underpins Roseanne's suspicions about her hijab-clad neighbor Fatima (Anne Bedian). And that's a distinction that matters, as evidenced by another big moment across TV on Tuesday — also the result of a rebooted story line involving rogue Muslims with weapons of mass destruction.
America's pullout from the Iran nuclear accord was announced hours before "Roseanne" aired. Not even Barr, the crafty master of controversy, could have planned such a serendipitous coupling.
John Bolton, the White House's newly appointed national security advisor, has spent decades referring to various Middle Eastern regions, Muslims and Islam as America's — and Christianity's — greatest threat. Unlike the "Roseanne" revival, Bolton hasn't revised his story line.
His "Muslims With WMDs" narrative first gained traction in 2002 as a prelude to the invasion of Iraq. As undersecretary of State for arms control and international security for President George W. Bush, Bolton ignored evidence to the contrary when telling the BBC, "We are confident that Saddam Hussein has hidden weapons of mass destruction and production facilities in Iraq."
And we know how well that information panned out. Millions of lives and several fallen civilizations later, Bolton is still shopping the same script.
Ignorance is not the reason Bolton and newly appointed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have spent the last 15 years stoking fears that Muslim-majority countries are out to destroy Christian civilization. Instead, both men, who have been affiliated with alarmist, anti-Islam groups, have been instrumental in promoting that "us or them" mind-set that drives Americans like the Conners to fear those who resemble, say, Aziz Ansari. An old, tired and debunked Death to America story line influencing foreign policy … and "Roseanne."
While that narrative's diplomacy-busting implications are terrifying for America and the world, they set the perfect stage for the sitcom to inspire a national conversation. "Go Cubs" is also the show's most direct response yet to the knee-jerk #BoycottRoseanne movement.
The Trump-extolling creator, Barr, uses the opportunity to throw a bone to her red-state voter base with terrorist jokes that play off campaign speeches by Trump and other Republican candidates and counters the cries of critics by pitting her shallow judgments with the deeper humanity of neighbors Fatima and Samir (Alain Washnevsky). She is shamed, for a change.
Less explored is when Dan claims that his work opportunities are being taken away by "illegals." The show is already renewed for a new season, so there's plenty of time to infuriate all sides of the immigration debate.
One of the best moments in Tuesday's episode — "Roseanne," not that other saber-rattling show out of Washington — came when Roseanne was forced to go to ask a favor of Fatima and Samir. The first time she meets them face to face she's armed with a baseball bat … and so are they.
It's a telling moment: No one trusts anyone. Roseanne knows what she knows from Fox News and its regular contributors like Bolton and Rudy Giuliani, and the Muslims know from experience that not everyone in the neighborhood is welcoming, such as the supermarket checkout clerk who wants them to "get on their camel" and go back to wherever they came from. It's Yemen, by the way, not "Talibanistan."
A simplistic learning moment may appear to have dragged the conversation backward, but as other events on Tuesday proved, it's a conversation worth having.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)