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CULTURE ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES

Was There Really Ever Any Chance That “Roseanne” Could Be Great Again?

I grew up on Roseanne reruns, my weekend afternoons spent happily confined to the warmly shabby Conner family home. When I popped ABC’s screener DVD into my laptop back in January, a couple of months before the rebooted sitcom premiered, I didn’t know what to expect; by the time the familiar wail of the opening credits song began, I had tears in my eyes. I loved this show so much, and now, 21 years after it went off the air, it was back in my life.

It seems crazy now, in the wake of ABC’s decision to cancel Roseanne after its star and namesake tweeted a racist “joke” comparing former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett to an ape, but at the time I had forgotten about the sad, strange turn Roseanne Barr’s public life had taken since her show went off the air in 1997. She’d long been tweeting conspiracy theories — that tweet about Jarrett was followed by another one calling Holocaust survivor George Soros a Nazi who profited off the deaths of Jews during World War II — but it took the election of Trump to give her the megaphone she so clearly craves: In March, the New York Times reported that ABC executives met the day after Trump’s election to discuss how to reach out to the viewers they’d apparently alienated — those economically anxious, working-class, “heartland” Americans who, pundits have repeatedly assured us, are definitely not racist. Apparently, ABC decided the best evangelist for this mission was Roseanne Barr.

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On Tuesday, ABC president Channing Dungey abruptly announced the show’s cancellation with a one-sentence statement decrying Barr’s tweet. In retrospect, this unceremonious demise was inevitable, because the decision to revive Roseanne in the first place grew out of a cynical impulse: to cater to and placate Trump voters with a show that, as Trump himself boasted at one of his rallies, is “about us.” From my perspective as a liberal TV watcher (and critic), the revival also felt like a sneaky way to put viewers like me in a bind: Roseanne has been celebrated as a feminist working-class sitcom since its debut, and as I wrote shortly before the new season began, its reboot felt like a litmus test for the left — you say you can’t separate the art from the artist? What if the art is a beloved sitcom you grew up with and have deep affection for — one that featured openly gay characters, complex teenage girls, and Laurie Metcalf? By playing the nostalgia card, ABC seemed to be having it both ways.

Until it wasn’t. In time, I’m sure we’ll learn more about ABC’s choice to ax Roseanne. It can’t have only been about the tweet, which is just one of many abhorrent and unhinged statements Barr has spread among her copious followers — they now number over 800,000 — since joining Twitter in 2011. Executive producer Whitney Cummings had already left the show; after Barr’s tweet about Jarrett, consulting producer Wanda Sykes announced via Twitter that she, too, was out. Shortly after ABC announced the cancellation, Emma Kenney, who plays the teenage daughter of Darlene (Sara Gilbert) in the new episodes, tweeted that she had also been planning an escape route. These departures, along with declining ratings over the course of the season, might have helped contribute to ABC’s decision.

For me, though, the Roseanne reboot ended a long time ago. The nostalgic glow of the series faded around episode three. ABC hadn’t included this one in its screener package, which comprised episodes one, two, and four. Presumably they wanted critics like me to bask in the promise of those episodes before we reached the moment when Roseanne makes a cruel joke at the expense of two other ABC sitcoms, Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat: Roseanne and Dan have fallen asleep while watching TV, and when Dan points out that they “missed all the shows about black and Asian families,” Roseanne snidely reassures him, “They’re just like us! There, now you’re all caught up.”

It’s one thing to insist that Roseanne Conner is not Roseanne Barr, therefore any issues you may have with the latter shouldn’t affect your view of the former; but the revived Roseanne seemed to collapse the distance between the two, and it was never willing to truly challenge the character’s stubbornly ill-informed views (“He talked about jobs!”), which felt like a win for Roseanne Barr, too. The show could attempt to dress up Roseanne-the-character’s ignorance with liberal ornaments, like Darlene’s genderqueer son, or the black daughter of D.J (Michael Fishman). But Roseanne always got the last laugh.

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So I stopped laughing, and about halfway through the season, I stopped watching. It wasn’t a political choice, or even a fully conscious one. I didn’t take to Twitter to announce that I would no longer be tuning in. I didn’t even announce it to myself. My early enthusiasm just flagged; it felt flimsy all of a sudden. I felt like I’d been duped.

When the show was canceled, I thought I’d go back and watch the episodes I’d missed, but by Tuesday night Hulu had already scrubbed the new episodes, and streaming platforms that had housed the original series followed suit. ABC had even disappeared the show from its press site; when I searched “Roseanne,” no results came up, as if the whole thing was just a fever dream. Roseanne? Doesn’t look like anything to me.

This is a shame, and a woefully shortsighted decision. Having finally done the right thing, it’s as if ABC is trying to pretend the whole debacle never happened — that it never made a calculation on the day after Trump’s election to bob along the MAGA river so long as it could continue dredging up profits from it. (And can’t we leave the original Roseanne out of it?!) Already, viewers and critics are floating the idea of bringing back the show without its star, which seems like yet another attempt to purify something that has already been contaminated. And now that ABC has given Barr that megaphone, it’s not going to be so easy to take it away. The cancellation of her show has inevitably turned her into a martyr among right-wing fans who view ABC’s decision as a way to muzzle conservative voices. Roseanne ends its reanimated run as a cautionary tale about the dangers of trying to corral a volatile yet popular celebrity figure who will not be tamed. It’s one we’ve heard before.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES Theater TV ARCHIVES

Laurie Metcalf’s Four-Decade Overnight Success

On a cloudy Thursday in March, I climbed two narrow flights of stairs to reach Laurie Metcalf in her dressing room in the Golden Theater, on 45th Street, where she’s appearing in the Edward Albee play Three Tall Women alongside Glenda Jackson and Alison Pill. There’s something simultaneously awe-inspiring and humbling about the backstage bowels of a nearly 100-year-old Broadway theater. On the one hand, you’re standing on the same hallowed ground where Glengarry Glen Ross made its Broadway premiere, where Falsettos and Avenue Q opened, where Mike Nichols and Elaine May helped shape a new era of comedy. On the other, to get back there, you have to enter through a dank alley squeezed between two buildings and filled with dumpsters.

It’s a humble ingress, but that suits a workhorse like Metcalf. “It’s always daunting to tackle a classic, because in the back of your mind you see ‘classic’ and you think you should be precious with it,” she says. “That you can’t be a little bit goofy, or you can’t show a sense of humor about your character unless it’s dictated by this classic script. But it’s fun to throw that out the window and look for it.” She sits with her legs crossed in the small but cozy room outfitted with a grey couch and a vanity mirror above a narrow dressing table. A side table holds a half-finished jigsaw puzzle made from a photograph of her grown son plowing a snowy field in Idaho, where Metcalf, who grew up in southern Illinois, owns property. The heat pipes start coughing just as I’m about to turn on my voice recorder, and when I jokingly complain, she gets up to turn it off with a look of such genuine concern I immediately regret opening my mouth.  

True to its title, Three Tall Women — for which Albee won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 — features three women credited only as “A,” a wealthy but ailing woman in her 90s, played by Jackson; “B,” A’s caregiver, in her 50s, played by Metcalf; and “C,” a woman in her mid-20s (Pill) who works for A’s law firm. In the first act, set in A’s ornate bedroom, the two younger women listen and interject, with varying degrees of patience, as A reflects on her life in a series of monologues; in its second half, the play shifts to a more metaphysical space, and all three women debate the merits and drawbacks of the different stages of their lives. It’s both darkly funny and undeniably melancholy.

Three Tall Women’s director, Joe Mantello, has described Metcalf (favorably) as a “monster,” an actor who “supplies you with such a variety and wealth of choices, and she doesn’t need a lot of guidance.” But, sitting within the pale-yellow walls of her dressing room, in jeans, a grey hoodie with the play’s logo screen-printed on the front, grey slippers, and zero makeup, Metcalf doesn’t look so scary. She looks both attentive and deeply absorbed by the task at hand — this interview, sure, but mostly the evening performance that begins in just under two hours. She reaches for her dog-eared copy of the script, stuffed with loose-leaf pieces of notepaper. “It’s been slippery,” she says of the run of preview performances, which ends when the play officially opens on Thursday. “Some of the emotions go from high to low really quickly. They’re very jerky. We went down a lot of blind alleys, trying to make it more naturalistic than it wants to be.”

Making something inherently artificial look natural is Metcalf’s superpower. It wasn’t too long ago when it seemed Metcalf had already reached a summit in her career, achieving in just 18 months the kind of success most actors would be lucky to manage over the course of a career. She was nominated for three Emmy awards in 2016, for turns on Horace and Pete, Getting On, and The Big Bang Theory; nine months later, she won her first Tony award, for the role of Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House, Part 2, Lucas Hnath’s adaptation of the famed Ibsen play. But now, the 62-year-old is wrapping up another whirlwind month. Not only is she starring alongside one of her idols, Jackson, in a Broadway production of an Edward Albee play (her first); she’s also reprising her role of Aunt Jackie in the buzzy new reboot of Roseanne, which returned to ABC this week 21 years after the groundbreaking sitcom went off the air.

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And then there was the weekend earlier this month when she had to jet to L.A. to attend the Oscars, for which she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress — her first Academy Award nomination — in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, for her role as the title character’s devoted but brittle mother.

“Yeah, that was a tough one,” Metcalf says of the weekend of the Oscars, chewing on the drawstrings of her sweatshirt. “That’s like a dream. We did two shows, we did a two o’clock and an eight o’clock on a Saturday. The Oscars are on Sunday, so Sunday morning I went very, very early to the airport and my flight was delayed for two and a half hours. And everybody in L.A. is waiting for me to show up at this hotel room so I can get into hair and makeup and cost—” she stops herself. “I said ‘costume.’ It is a costume! So I landed, went straight there, went to the ceremony, didn’t go to any parties, came straight back to the hotel room, and got up the next day and came back.”

According to Metcalf’s co-star Alison Pill, the first day of rehearsals for Three Tall Women also happened to be the morning of the Oscar nominations. “I’m sure other actors would have brought some of that energy into the room,” Pill says. “But Laurie is an actor for whom the most important thing is building a character that serves the show and building an environment that serves the ensemble. So within minutes the Oscars were pushed to the side. I’m not sure many other actors would be capable of that.”

Metcalf lost to Allison Janney, who won for her performance as another tough mother in the Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya. But if Metcalf was disappointed, she didn’t show it. Frankly, she doesn’t have time for that. She’s more comfortable plugging away in a dark, cramped theater than sunning herself in the spotlight, and she approaches her career with the steely-eyed focus of a sharp shooter. Doing press for Lady Bird while rehearsing Three Tall Women, she says, was “distracting.” “But, you know, that came and went,” she adds. “I’ll never have another March like this in my life, I know that.”

Will Frears, who directed her in the 2015–16 Broadway adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery — she snagged another Tony nomination for that one — recalls directing a play in 2004 for the legendary Chicago theater company Steppenwolf, which Metcalf and a group of fellow actor-friends founded in the 1970s. He didn’t meet her then, but, he says, “People spoke of her in these hushed tones.” Years later, when Frears was preparing to cast Misery, he drove out to meet Metcalf in the Hamptons, where she was doing a play. He was stuck in traffic and tried frantically to call her, to no avail. Finally, he arrived at the diner where they had planned to meet, and she told him not to worry — and that she’d left her cellphone at home. “You’re already the most impossibly cool person I know,” he recalls thinking.

Once they were rehearsing Misery, Frears was struck by Metcalf’s levelheadedness. “There’s no airs,” he says. “I think she wore the same flannel shirt every day in rehearsal.” She writes down notes in a steno pad after run-throughs, and talks about moments in the play she hasn’t yet “problem-solved.” Metcalf doesn’t dismiss the recognition her work has received in the past couple years, but she approaches it gingerly, as if not to disturb the foundation of her labor that it rests upon. “It’s satisfying when you get compliments from peers,” she acknowledges. “It all depends on if you feel like whatever you’re being acknowledged for, that you actually did do a good job on it — that you gave 150 percent, you poured everything that you could into it.” She finds freedom in theater, where no one is shoving a camera in your face; she feels self-conscious when she’s being filmed, and for nine years on the original run of Roseanne, from 1988 to 1997, she’d “shut down a little bit” on tape day.

Laurie Metcalf in “Lady Bird”

All three actors in Three Tall Women give formidable performances, but when I saw the play, I was struck by how instinctive Metcalf’s performance looked — every word she spoke sounded like her own. When I mention this, her eyes widen and her face lights up. “Oh, that’s a huge compliment!” she says. “That’s the goal of interpreting, you know, is to make it look spontaneous and in the moment.” She pauses, pleased. “You didn’t see the typewritten words above my head!”

It takes a lot of sweat to make acting look so effortless — particularly comedic acting, which rarely earns performers the same kind of accolades as a dramatic role. But Metcalf is extraordinarily skilled at digging out the humor hidden in the most seemingly banal words. “She carves out every single moment to find the funniest delivery, the science behind the comedy or pathos of it,” Pill says. “These are small moments, but she will obsess and try things until it’s perfected.” Michael Fishman, who played youngest child D.J. Conner on Roseanne, was just six years old when the show began, and became close with Metcalf’s oldest daughter, Zoe Perry. (Perry’s father is Jeff Perry, another Steppenwolf co-founder; Metcalf has three other children with her now-ex-husband, Matt Roth, who played Jackie’s boyfriend Fisher on Roseanne.) Fishman told me he watched some of Metcalf’s best work on set take place when the camera wasn’t even on her, and he spoke of her meticulous method of adding layers of detail to a scene, even one in which she barely speaks.

“There’s an episode in the new season where she’s frustrated, and she’s cleaning up crumbs on the table,” he says. “She’s sweeping them into this little pile and you can just feel it building as the scene goes on, and as everybody walks away she’s building it and building it and building it, and she looks around and there’s nowhere to put them, and she takes the whole pile and just whacks it with the sponge and wipes them across the room. It was so perfect for the frustration she had throughout the scene, and it’s not in the script.”

Fishman adds, “I think she was underrated for a while because people didn’t fully grasp how detailed and nuanced she was. I think people have realized now. The secret’s out.”

I leave a few minutes before my time’s up, because Laurie Metcalf has a schedule to keep, and I’ll be damned if I get in the way of all that greatness. She goes over the script at 6:30 each evening before the show, saying every one of her lines out loud. “It’s very lonely,” she says. “But it’s a good mental and vocal warm-up.” I thank her for her time and slip back out into the alley.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES

Can Roseanne Make “Roseanne” Great Again?

In the words of its star and guiding spirit, the groundbreaking 1980s–’90s sitcom Roseanne, about a blue-collar family loudly making ends meet in the fictional town of Lanford, Illinois, was “television’s first feminist and working-class-family sitcom.” But in recent years, Roseanne Barr has — as is her tendency — gone down a strange and winding path, one that’s taken her from starring in a reality show about living on a Hawaiian nut farm to loudly shilling for Donald Trump and spreading Seth Rich conspiracy theories on Twitter. She has gone full MAGA. As her signature series is set to return, this raises the question: Can you love Roseanne and hate Roseanne?

As we’ve seen, again and again, in the last year, it’s not so easy these days to separate artists’ personal beliefs from their artistic output. That’s especially true when the artist has made her name playing a character based on herself and her experiences. That conversation has mostly concerned men who harass or abuse women and then ruin their careers, like Louis C.K., another comedian whose material is closely entwined with his personal life. The case of Roseanne is different, of course; Barr’s behavior doesn’t fit into a pattern of abuse that has shaped the entertainment industry.

But her mind, like Woody Allen’s heart, wants what it wants, which may make it difficult for some fans of the original series to get on board with the reboot. The first of Roseanne’s nine new episodes will air on March 27, but already the show’s producers have revealed, perhaps unsurprisingly, that Roseanne and Dan Conner (Barr and John Goodman) voted for Trump, which has created a rift between Roseanne and her sister, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf). Some fans have balked at that choice, but in terms of geography and socioeconomic status, it’s of course quite likely that Roseanne and Dan would be Trump voters.

In interviews and promotional events, however, Barr seems intent on collapsing the distance between her and her character. Speaking to the Hollywood Reporter — she appears on the cover of that week’s issue — Barr said she demanded the writers include a Hillary Clinton “slam” in the first episode, because, she explained, “I wanted to represent the country and how divided we are.” Fair enough, except anyone who’s been paying attention to Barr’s public remarks in the past couple of years knows she despises Hillary Clinton, which makes it difficult for me to hear that Hillary joke (I’ve seen the episode) coming from the character rather than the woman who plays her.

Of course, Roseanne Barr and Roseanne Conner have always been different entities. But in the decades since the show’s 1988 premiere, Barr’s life has veered pretty far from that of a Midwestern waitress and mother of three. She’s never been out of the spotlight — or off the air — for too long, which is why I take her political opinions with a whole pile of salt. The Trump era seems to suit Barr’s contrarian spirit: Reading her interviews and tweets, I get the sense she’s driven less by ideology than a juvenile impulse to throw sand in the gears, to “shake things up,” to set herself apart from the rest of the Hollywood sheep lock-stepping to the beat of the #resistance. After all, this is a woman who, in 2009, posed as Hitler in a magazine photo spread titled “That Oven Feelin’.”

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Sure, she’ll tweet out her Hollywood Reporter cover, but she’ll also tweet a celebratory piece on the Roseanne reboot from the far-right blog LifeZette, or an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post calling her “a moral giant” for giving a speech critical of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. (Barr, for the record, used to refer to Israel as a “Nazi state.”) The op-ed writer marvels that Barr spoke with “such moral outrage, truth and clarity that could have ruined her career and standing within the radical-left-controlled kingdom of Hollywood.” Like many media figures who support Trump, Barr seems to see herself as a courageous truth teller in a sea of pansy-ass liberal conformists.

Barr is certainly not the first celebrity to give over her platform to dumb ideas and dangerously uninformed people. I’m sure she’d agree with that LifeZette writer’s contention that left-leaning viewers simply “hate any sort of sympathy for Trump voters.” But beyond the maddening logic of this persistent argument — if that were true, would the New York Times still be running weekly stories on Joe Trump Voter at the diner in Idaho? — it’s an argument based on the assumption that what’s offensive to liberal viewers is the fact that a fictional character on a beloved show, and not Barr herself, voted for an unhinged con man who wants to rid the country of Muslims and immigrants.

So what are the non-deplorables among us to make of ABC’s reboot, and the fact that a woman who has spewed such inflammatory garbage over the past few years is back playing a paragon of blue-collar common sense? Roseanne’s politics have always been progressive, and Roseanne the character has always been a humanist. That’s true of the new episodes, at least the first two that I’ve seen; the show’s politics are still pretty liberal.

From the perspective of 2018, the old Roseanne is a relic of a time before conservative politics became all about resentments and enemies. In one episode from 1994, in which both Roseanne and Dan confront their own bigoted impulses, Roseanne says white folks who think they’re above black people are “just a bunch of banjo-pickin’, cousin-datin’, barefoot embarrassments to respectable white trash like us!” What defined the Conners politically wasn’t their tribal identity but their economic reality.

In the new season, money is still tight as ever, but the writers have filled the show with liberal signposts. Darlene (Sara Gilbert) has a middle school–aged son who identifies as a boy but likes to wear sequins and skirts, and D.J. (Michael Fishman) has a biracial daughter. The price of Roseanne and Dan’s medication has skyrocketed, and Jackie snickers about “the new health care all you suckers got promised.” Roseanne Conner may have voted for Trump, but she also sticks up for her grandson when the kids at school laugh at his clothes. The Conners appear to be that quasi-mythical family who really did vote for Trump because of “economic anxiety” and nothing else.

The politics of the new Roseanne speak to a kind of doublethink among a segment of white Trump supporters, who may love their one black co-worker but still feel comfortable explaining why black Americans have poor leadership that’s been holding them back all these years. Maybe the Conners, like so many subjects of those Times articles, truly believed Trump would bring back jobs and even entire industries. But that means they’d either have to believe in his demonizing of immigrants and minorities or be willing to overlook it — which maybe amounts to the same thing. There’s no such thing as a conditional vote. The Roseanne reboot is a rare Trump-era cultural product that epitomizes this contradiction, and from what I’ve seen, doesn’t try to soften or smooth it out. It may shock Barr to hear a liberal say this, but I think that makes for great TV. That doesn’t mean I would avoid trading this reboot for a Hillary presidency any day of the week.

It’s ironic, but entirely unsurprising, that Barr sees Trump’s supporters as a persecuted minority. Trump appeals to the pettiness in his followers, the perception that they’ve been oppressed. (I’m not sure what those followers would think of Barr referring to the time Roseanne dipped in the ratings and she could no longer get a last-minute table at the Palm as “a gut shot with a sawed-off scattershot, buckshot-loaded pellet gun.”) Barr doesn’t appear quite as concerned about the actual minorities who have been and will be targeted by Trump’s presidency, and that’s the noisy intersection at which Roseanne crashes into Roseanne.

During the Roseanne panel at the Television Critics Association Press Tour in January, one reporter, who is black, pressed Barr on her political opinions and expressed how disappointed she was to hear them, since the series — and Roseanne Conner’s forceful rejection of racism on it — meant so much to her growing up. The reporter pointed to a particular scene that appeared in a sizzle reel of old Roseanne clips before the stars and creators were brought onstage to answer questions. In the scene, from an episode called “White Men Can’t Kiss,” D.J. is supposed to kiss a girl in a school play, but he refuses, and his parents think they know why. “Is it because she’s black?” Dan asks. “You’ll be mad if I say yes,” D.J. replies.

“No, we won’t,” Dan says.

“Yes, we will!” Roseanne shoots back, to much laughter. “I didn’t raise you to be some little bigot!” Maybe not. But sometimes, people surprise you.

Roseanne returns to ABC on March 27 at 8 p.m.