Review: The ‘Roseanne’ conversation: Critics Lorraine Ali and Robert Lloyd on the iconic sitcom’s reboot
“Roseanne” is back for a nine-episode 10th season after a break of nearly 21 years. Its absence is almost old enough to drink.
Although we are in a season of revivals, reboots and returns, “Roseanne,” for all its enormous success back in the 20th century, is not the first show one would imagine being called up again to serve – especially given skipper-star Roseanne Barr’s long years in the fringes of pop culture and a strange, surreal last season that left her TV husband, John Goodman’s Dan Conner, dead.
That and other anomalies are humorously treated in the new season with sidelong nods that let you know that they know that you know that this is a television show, without making too much of a point of it. The whole family is back, including both actors who played older daughter Becky, Lecy Goranson and Sarah Chalke.
In the new season, Chalke plays a woman paying Goranson’s Becky to carry a baby. Son D.J. (Michael Fishman), back in the states after serving overseas, has an African American daughter (his wife is still deployed).
Once the re-exposition is out of the way, and a few blunt sociopolitical points are made to pull us into Lanford, Ill., 2018, the show gets real again and relaxes into a portrait of complicated people scraping by together in still-difficult times.
L.A. Times television critics Lorraine Ali and Robert Lloyd are both fans of the new “Roseanne” and traded some thoughts on the subject by email.
Lloyd: Were you a fan of the original show? I watched it faithfully as an ordinary citizen (I started writing about television in its penultimate season, back in 1996), and hung on through its off-the-rails metafictional final year. I can tell you the exact moment I fell in love with it -- when Darlene (Sara Gilbert), in the seventh grade in Season 2, reluctantly reads her pain-of-being-young-and-unseen poem, “To Whom It May Concern,” at a school assembly. I had never seen a kid like her in a family sitcom. There were plenty of shows in which a child “had a problem,” usually something a parent helped solve by the episode’s end, but this was something deeper and less tractable. And Barr was great in this scene too, watching her, and learning something new about her child. (I just watched a clip of it again, and it still destroys me.)
Ali: I liked the show, but didn’t tune in religiously. Glad you brought up Darlene because, really, she was the anchor for me -- essentially the reason I watched the show when I watched it. She was one of us and embodied so much of the ‘90s nihilism my friends and I felt at the time. I was so glad to see upon the show’s return that she’s brought that arguably healthy sense of cynicism with her into adulthood, and now has a daughter who’s carrying that smoldering torch. The great twist is she also has a gender-fluid son who wears unicorn T-shirts and pink.
Darlene, like the other women on that show, broke the mold: Roseanne was like no other mom on TV. She was, and still is, brutally honest and was in sweats half the time. Her sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) was also a believable, fallible mess, which sounds like no big deal in the “Jessica Jones” era, but it was revolutionary back then. And the Conner family looked nothing like other TV families from the 1980s. They aren’t “Shameless,” but they are still several economic rungs below “Modern Family,” which makes the Conners a much more modern representation of the struggling American family. I’m glad they’re back, along with all their worn furniture and outdated appliances.
Lloyd: Well, the house. There are volumes to be written on the invented spaces in which people live on TV, where characters usually seem to be living way beyond their means -- though I suppose you could say as much of the Conners, given that their means sometimes disappeared completely. But that was a plausible space, economically, which would have looked more actual than aspirational to many viewers. Working-class, even lower-middle-class comedies have never been common on television, though they go back to its beginnings -- no one lived more humbly than the Kramdens and Nortons (“The Honeymooners”).
Now, there’s basically just “The Middle,” sadly in its final season, which in many ways seems inspired by “Roseanne” -- the couch on “The Middle,” with its complement of colorful afghans, is surely a direct homage to the earlier series. (The two comedies will be running side by side.)
Money is still a problem for the Conners. Roseanne and Dan are splitting the prescription drugs they’re able to afford; Darlene is living back home and needs a job; and Becky is trying to broker a deal as a surrogate mother (and lying about her age to do it) in order to pay off her credit cards and maybe put a down payment on a house that won’t be even as nice as her parents’. Which is why Roseanne Conner (like Roseanne Barr) is a Trump voter, if not necessarily a Trump supporter.
Ali: What I appreciate about the show now is that it’s provided a plausible story arc for the two-decade hiatus that makes it timely in the here and now. D.J. (Michael Fishman) is in the military and just returned from serving in Syria. Jackie has embraced her inner Hillary (though she’s mortified she voted for Jill Stein and blames Roseanne for sowing her seeds of doubt about Clinton) and everyone’s still broke because, well, what has really changed for working-class families in America except they’ve been further shafted?
And you must admit that the way they’ve connected the two Beckys is brilliant.
Plus Dan and Roseanne make jokes about how he’s always being referred to in the past tense, as if he’s dead. It’s a reference to him being killed off in the last episode of the last season. But more timely is him grappling with all the changes that 2018 brings – a grandson whose nails are covered in sparkly polish rather than spackle, a daughter having a baby who is not her own, his own skyrocketing blood pressure (thus the medication).
I think they’ve done a great job reviving the show without forfeiting its original appeal, which is no easy feat. Like the “Will & Grace” reboot, the return of “Roseanne” doesn’t just rely on nostalgia -- it makes fun of the fact that the Conners are struggling to keep up with a changing culture. Who doesn’t want to see characters who typified the ‘80s and ‘90s grapple with the modern world?
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Rated: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)
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