LOS ANGELES – Roseanne Barr looks more glamorous, John Goodman slimmer. But the mass-market plaid couch is a giveaway that ABC’s “Roseanne” revival hasn’t ditched its roots.
The blue-collar Conner family and the times in which they live are at the heart of the sitcom debuting at 8 p.m. Tuesday, as they were for the hit 1988-97 sitcom inspired by Barr’s stand-up comedy.
The prospect of updating “Roseanne” was exciting “as long as we were permitted to tell relevant and authentic stories” about working-class characters, said Tom Werner, a producer for both shows.
That focus, noteworthy in the ’80s when the show entered a relatively small TV universe, is still rare despite the swarm of broadcast, cable and streaming shows.
Profitability aside, the industry has scant artistic regard for such fare. “Roseanne” failed to earn a best sitcom Emmy in its long run, joining snubbed shows about the non-affluent including “Married with Children” and “The Middle.” (Barr and “Roseanne” co-star Laurie Metcalf received acting trophies.)
“It’s shocking that ‘Roseanne’ was never even nominated for best comedy series at the Emmys despite winning the Golden Globe for best comedy, a Peabody and being in the top 10 Nielsen ratings year after year,” said Tom O’Neil, author of “The Emmys” and editor of the Gold Derby awards website.
But the show’s perspective may carry more weight today.
The 2016 presidential campaign “was a wake-up call in that there were a large group of voters who were frustrated with the status quo” and being sidelined by the economy, Werner said. “What we’re interested in doing is just telling honest stories about a family that’s up against it.”
In “Roseanne,” it’s up to matriarch Roseanne, a supporter of President Donald Trump, and her sister, Jackie (Metcalf), a hard-core opponent, to handle the political jousting.
“He talked about jobs” and shaking things up, Roseanne says of Trump in one scene. “I know this may come as a shock to you, but we almost lost our house because of the way things were going.”
“Have you looked at the news? Because now things are worse,” Jackie retorts.
“Not on the real news,” says Roseanne.
Sisterly love defuses the tension, with punchlines aimed at doing the same for viewers. Whether a sitcom can double as meeting ground for a divided nation, as “All in the Family” once did, remains to be seen given the current din from social media and cable news shows.
During a Q&A with TV critics in January, Barr initially ducked a question about whether her own politics – she supported Trump – influenced her character’s. “Go ahead, Bruce,” she said, inviting series producer Bruce Helford to answer. But the usually forthright Barr, also a writer and producer on the show, finally dived in.
“I have always attempted to portray a realistic portrait of the American people and of working-class people. … And, in fact, it was working-class people who elected Trump. So I felt that was very real, and something that needed to be discussed,” Barr said.
The same holds true for “people actually hating other people for the way they voted, which I feel is not American. And so I wanted to bring it (the series) right down the middle, and we did,” said Barr. She added that she’s not an apologist for the president and doesn’t agree with all he’s said and done, including some “crazy” things.
Whether the White House or child-rearing are on the family table, the writing has the same zest and bite as the original series. Roseanne’s distinctive cackle-laugh is intact, although she’s less prickly. And if familiarity breeds more comfort for viewers, the largely intact cast is there to help.
The Conner kids are back, including Sara Gilbert as Darlene, Michael Fishman as D.J. and Lecy Goranson as Becky. Sarah Chalke, who played Becky in later seasons, is on hand as a new character, and guest stars including Estelle Parsons and Sandra Bernhard will reprise their roles.
Goodman’s return required sleight of hand, given that Dan was killed off by a heart attack in the original’s final season. The revision is handled with a wink in the season opener, and Werner offers no apologies for rewriting TV history (as the original “Dallas” did when it turned a character’s death into a dream sequence).
“I appreciate the microscope which the show is under, but I’d rather see John Goodman in these episodes than not,” he said.
Goodman’s reaction: “I thought it was a clever way to do it – to handle it and get it out of the way.”
If the nine-episode reboot proves popular, Barr and others have expressed enthusiasm for another season. Werner said he hopes the audience embraces what’s key to the show, beyond punchlines and current events.
It’s “emotional,” he said. “There are certainly some very painful moments which go along with the comedy.”
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