Television revivals are having a heyday at the moment, and while some people bristle at the idea of bringing back old favorites in lieu of creating something new — not that there is a shortage of new shows popping up every week — some revivals, like ABC’s Roseanne make a strong case for how they can be worthwhile. Of all the series to bring back, Roseanne probably wasn’t at the top of anyone’s list. The unexpectedness of it all, coupled with the fact that ABC was able to get the entire cast to come back, including Big Bang Theory star Johnny Galecki (though we’re still waiting for George Clooney to announce his return) speaks not only to the viability of TV revivals, but also to the idea that this one might have something interesting to offer.
Like when the series originally premiered, Roseanne’s revival is a bit of a special case. The original series delivered a blue-collar comedy in the vein of All in the Family and Sanford and Son that was not only insightful but not at all derisive of its characters’ economic status. The idea of revisiting the series after so much time has passed (never mind the death of John Goodman’s Dan in the original series finale), then, comes at a time when the show can capitalize on current events and the present-day political climate in a way few series, old or new, are so naturally equipped to handle. And, as the series makes evident from the get-go, Roseanne isn’t planning to shy away from the kind of storytelling it was originally known for.
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But the revival also acknowledges one other key detail: Everyone has gotten older and their circumstances are all different, some more remarkably than others, from when we last saw them. That puts Roseanne in a unique place as far as the growing landscape of television revivals is concerned. While Will & Grace has been very good and is a big hit for NBC — even garnering a third season renewal before the first (revival) season has ended — the series has mostly been praised for its ability to recapture the essence of what it was before ending in 2006. Yes, Will & Grance has made some changes (even retconning the original series’ ending, too) and shown a keen interest in addressing current events, but its characters are mostly in the same place and function as they did 12 years ago.
Roseanne, in contrast, ended in 1997, meaning its return has to acknowledge a much greater span of time for all its characters, and that, in part, is what makes the revival interesting. The first episode, ‘Twenty Years to Life,’ begins by addressing Dan’s death with a wry, self-referential exchange between Barr and Goodman. The scene serves a very specific purpose in that it has to acknowledge the past, erase part of it, and establish the characters in the present-day. It does so by letting Barr and Goodman deliver a pair of winking performances where the timing is a little off, the dialogue just a little forced, and the two seem on the verge of breaking character at any minute. In its own endearing way, it works. In this moment, Roseanne is capitalizing less on the idea of the Conners returning than it is on what it means to see Barr and Goodman in a scene together after two decades.
The rest of ‘Twenty Years to Life’ follows a similar path. The episode moves through introductions and re-introductions with charming efficiency, as members of the now-expanded Conner clan make their way to the family kitchen to start the day. In the midst of explaining why Sara Gilbert’s Darlene has moved back in with her parents, bringing her two kids, Harris (Emma Kenney, Shameless) and Mark (Ames McNamara) with her, the show gets reacquainted with some of its working-class roots, as Roseanne and Dan are forced to split their various prescriptions because insurance and their wages only go so far. After getting a few laughs, the scene deftly turns its attention to Darlene’s kids, particularly Mark, a gender-fluid child who flummoxes his grandparents and opens the door for the revived series to address the ways in which the world, and television in general, have changed since 1997.
Unsurprisingly, the episode finds its biggest laughs with the return of Laurie Metcalf’s Jackie. Along with Goodman, Metcalf is perhaps the show’s biggest scene stealer, which she demonstrates with a funny introduction that, as it turns out, also signals the most contentious aspect of the show’s return: Roseanne is a Trump supporter. Although Roseanne justifies her voting decision saying, “he promised jobs,” the wrinkle goes beyond the politics of it all, and wades into the waters of questionable character choices. That is to say, the promise of jobs or not, the choice feels contrary to what Roseanne Conner of old would have done. Perhaps the revival will address Roseanne’s motivations to a greater degree in future episodes, but for now the promise of jobs registers as too obvious an attempt to anchor the show’s working-class concerns in the context of the present-day political climate.
‘Twenty Years to Life’ is a strong return for the series, but it is perhaps the weakest of the three episodes made available to critics ahead of time. That bodes well for the revival, especially since it offers more for Darlene, Becky (Alicia Goranson), and D.J. (Michael Fishman) to do. The second episode, ‘Dress to Impress,’ involves Mark and the challenges he faces at a new school. The episode leads to a poignant moment from Roseanne that feels more in keeping with the character from the original series. Whether or not this leads to a greater discussion or exploration of the interesting contradictions surround the title character remains to be seen, but one things for sure: Roseanne still has what it takes to get people talking.
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Roseanne continues next Tuesday with ‘Roseanne Gets the Chair’ @8pm on ABC.