When the Roseanne revival debuted back in March, it immediately established itself as the surprise breakout show of 2018. An astounding 18.2 million viewers tuned in to find out what was going on with the Conner family. The show promised a nostalgic 1990s trip and a sitcomified journey into Trumplandia. Roseanne’s proud conservative stance, unusual for an actor, was leveraged to appeal to an audience largely ignored by network television, which has long tended to lean left, sometimes in subtle ways but often overtly. And that audience showed up in droves, so much so that the President cheered its early success.
Now that audience is shrinking rapidly. Less than two months after the show’s debut, its audience has shrunk by almost half. New episodes are attracting roughly 10 million viewers apiece. These numbers by no means spell disaster for the show — they are still higher than the majority of network comedies — but they do seem to indicate a deviation towards the mean. That’s appropriate given that the show, which initially seemed intentionally controversial, doesn’t actually seem to have much of a message at all.
When Trump won the presidency, it became clear to a large group of people that another large group of people, mostly white, middle-class people, had spent the Obama years growing resentful and feeling ignored by both political and popular culture. The new Roseanne was ostensibly supposed to depict members of this group with sympathy and kindness. That was exciting to a lot of people ready to see themselves represented in TV characters and many people interested in understanding perspectives they did not understand. This is at least part of why Roseanne had such a massive debut. Its producers, writers, and director had set out with a unique goal.
This being television, they were quickly distracted.
It has become clear over the first season of Roseanne the show that Roseanne the character isn’t a reasonable representation of a political faction. In fact, she’s mostly just lazy. The character, similar to the real Roseanne, doesn’t engage with other peoples’ opinions or reality in a constructive way. She sort of just says whatever comes to her mind and if anyone calls her out on her ignorance, she protects herself by shrugging her shoulders and laughing in a way that indicates the bare minimum of self-awareness. This feels like a pretty disrespectful depiction of a demographic. And if it’s not disrespectful, it’s certainly underwhelming.
To be fair, the show’s writers do seem to be aware of the issue. They tried to tackle the titular character’s own problematic tendencies in “Go Cubs,” an episode that featured a Middle Eastern couple moving into a house on the Conner’s street and Roseanne assuming the worst. Does Roseanne learn her lesson? Kind of. She figures out that these people aren’t terrorists, but that’s pretty much the end of it. She’s not curious about them and introspective about her hateful behavior. She makes what seems like just enough of an adjustment to not have to have a real opinion one way or the other.
And therein lies the entire problem of the show’s halfhearted attempt to speak on politics. Roseanne simply isn’t willing to put in the work and thought required to have a real conversation about the state of politics and identity in America. The character is never as likable or unlikable (depending on one’s perspective) as she would have to be for viewing to be a powerful or unique experience. While other sitcoms, notably The Carmichael Show and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, have featured uncomfortable discussions about race, Roseanne has offered nothing more than some riffs. And, sadly, once the initial shock factor wears off, the entire political angle of the show feels like a shallow gimmick and what remains is an adequate but ultimately unmemorable reboot.
To their credit, the minds behind Roseanne seem to realize the limitations of the show’s half-hearted stances, which seem to waiver in an advertising friendly, blowback avoiding sort of way. Earlier this week, ABC entertainment president Channing Dungey told reporters that the show plans to distance itself further from its “shocking” political takes in the second season. That’s a nice way of saying that if viewers thought, for whatever reason, the show had substance, they were misinformed.
“I think when you look on subsequent episodes of the run, the focus is not really on politics and much more on family and the everyday trials and tribulations that the family faces,” Dungey said.
For people who saw themselves and their loved ones in the Conner family, this must be deeply disappointing. For those that didn’t, it should also be deeply disappointing. The potential for real conversation and dialogue have been squandered.
This shift away from politics and towards a more traditional family sitcom is probably for the best. The show may have initially attracted viewers with its subversive political takes but that proved to be a Trojan Horse of sorts, as the show has comfortably settled into an adequate sitcom that focuses on the family. And while ratings will likely never match the historic heights of the premiere, the abandonment of the political angle is likely the best thing the show can do to stay on the air in the long run.