‘Roseanne’ Returns With a Twist on Social Relevance

When we last saw the Connor family, a generation ago, Dan died after the family won the lottery, and Roseanne converted the basement into a writing nook. ABC’s “Roseanne” broke considerable ground during its original run, from Oct. 18, 1988, to May 20, 1997. Roseanne Barr gave America a working class primetime sitcom hero as noteworthy and iconic as Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden of “The Honeymooners.” The return promises to continue its push against comic conventions without sacrificing a single laugh.

“Roseanne” does what it has always done best. It turns expectations back on themselves. Roseanne supports Trump. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, most of the people in the area where she lives voted for Trump.  Lanford, Illinois, hasn’t changed much since “Roseanne” last broadcast. The economy still sucks. There aren’t enough jobs for people, and every day is a struggle to make ends meet. The family never won that lottery. Dan Connor is still alive, he’d only been killed off in a story Roseanne never got published. To keep himself alive, on the family budget, he trades his statins for his wife’s anti-inflammatories in a morning ritual. Roseanne gets all the anti-depressants, because if she isn’t happy, no one is happy.

714 Delaware Street is still bursting at the seams. Darlene and her kids moved back in with Dan and Roseanne. D.J. (Michael Fishman) served in Syria while the show was on hiatus. He now has a biracial child. Becky (Alicia Goranson) is a widow now, the actor who played Mark died. For her latest attempt to make ends meet, the Connors’ oldest daughter is going to be a surrogate for $50,000.  She got the gig because of her “skin age,” which was probably determined at a mall kiosk. She was also chosen because she is the splitting image of the infertile woman, played by Sarah Chalke, who played Becky for a short while during the original run. All the best series incorporate self-referential humor, and “Roseanne” revels making even their production mythology part of the show. The surrogate premise itself is off-kilter for a sitcom, which is the point. But Becky really does look just like her doppelganger might, before she puts on makeup.

Jackie did not vote for the sitting president. She gave in to the same paranoia that infested “American Horror Story: Cult,” and voted for Jill Stein. The season opens with the debate at the forefront. Jacking enters wearing a pink pussy cap and takes every opportunity to turn the conversation left. Roseanne, of course, is always right. Laurie Metcalf continues to perfect her Barney Fife mimicry, but brings a depth to the ultimate sacrifices she has to make for having such a charismatic, infallible sister.

The best scene of the pilot is Darlene’s confrontation with herself. She does in the guise of admitting she’s a failure to her mother. Sara Gilbert is amazingly affective. The sequence almost doesn’t belong in a sitcom it’s so raw. Roseanne, of course, cuts through the tears to ground the scene back to the safety of unsafe comedy.

John Goodman can get a laugh out plain broth. He’s been in some of the greatest films of the past generation, in all genres, and his versatility is almost unrivaled. He even does a good Sammy Davis Jr. Whether he’s trying to remember where he hid his gun, now that the house is full of kids, or quietly stewing over the surrogacy, Goodman brings just enough humanity to the stylized sitcom acting to anchor the whole cast. Roseanne Barr endears and infuriates, but her comic timing is always impeccable.

“Roseanne” was always about empowerment. The show believes in the power of the people, and equality between the genders. The writers tried to show women can do anything, except maybe train cats to bark. The series’ return will make it an immediate favorite in the heartland, where “The Middle” has been trying to take its place. The show still represents the American working class, and while it apparently gives voice to an underrepresented side in entertainment, the subversion provides equal weight. “Roseanne” stays within the confines of the situation comedy, and expands it from the inside, like too many loose meat sandwiches. Even while the tightest of families are divided by politics, the deplorables can be adorable on prime time when the cackle is back.  

Roseanne” season 10 premieres on March 27 and airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.