When 'Roseanne' returns, will today's working class recognize her?

TV New Season
ROSEANNE – ABC’s “Roseanne” stars Michael Fishman as DJ Conner, Sara Gilbert as Darlene Conner, Roseanne Barr as Roseanne Conner, Alicia Goranson as Becky Conner, John Goodman as Dan Conner and Laurie Metcalf as Jackie Harris.

Roseanne was a funny, outrageous TV take on life featuring a turbo-snarky matriarch rat-a-tatting her nonstop patter of scorn, sarcasm, and love.

A constant theme of the show, which ran from 1988 to 1997, was the struggle of the working class — the efforts by good people of meager means to attain the American Dream, or something close.

Roseanne will be returning to the air for eight new episodes in 2018 with the original cast. ABC Network’s entertainment president, Channing Dungey, told a media conclave in June the show will be “tackling topics in the conversation today” and referenced the reboot in the era of Donald Trump.

For her part, star Roseanne Barr, who once appeared to endorse then-presidential candidate Trump and then said she did not, tweeted: “My new show is not about Trump! It’s about a Midwestern family.”

Given the squeeze that the working class is still feeling 19 years after the show first aired, that family may well still be scuffling.

For example, the median household income was around $52,000 in 1988, adjusted for today’s dollars; it’s only around $56,000 today, U.S. Census figures show. As wages remained stagnant during that time, the price tag of a college degree grew by more than 250 percent, U.S. News & World Report found, while spending on health care skyrocketed from $579 billion to $3.2 trillion, federal figures show.

And that says nothing about rising food, real estate, and automobile prices, added Robert Chase, deputy director of the Center for the Study of Inequality and Social Justice at Stony Brook University.

“It makes the working class imagine its inability to get hold of the American Dream,” he said. “They’re never quite making it.”

Workers are no longer the “proletariat” but the “precariat” — too precarious for comfort — noted University of Pittsburgh working-class studies expert Katherine Kidd.

The world of the first year of Roseanne seems so distant. In 1988, Ronald Reagan was president, the Berlin Wall was still standing, and Russians were universally regarded as an enemy.

At home, echoes of the post-World War II economic boom were dying as unions were collapsing and jobs were being sent overseas.

The Roseanne show was actually quite prescient, say observers who believe that the program foresaw the difficulties of inequality and working-class angst that have been given so much voice today.

“The Conner family in Roseanne were patriotic Americans getting the shaft,” noted Matt Wray, a Temple University cultural sociologist. “They were talking about plant closings, community-wide job losses, the foreclosure of opportunities for their kids, the failure of schools to provide new opportunities.

“It was explicitly or implicitly the backdrop for every episode.”

When the new Roseanne airs, it may have to address the difference between how we talk and think about the working class today as compared with 1988.

In 1988, the character of Roseanne Conner — factory worker, waitress, telemarketer — was a pro-union, liberal-leaning woman. She, her sister, and her husband smoke marijuana in one episode; in another, Roseanne kisses a woman in a gay bar.

Today, the very term working class has morphed, now evincing notions of white, rural, conservative, discontented people who voted for Trump, noted Brian Creech, a popular-culture expert at Temple.

“I would not be surprised if white working-class politics become much more apparent in the new Roseanne,” Creech said. “It could show the disillusion with elites, the distrust of government and civic life.”

The TV show most likely to be seen as representing the working class today — correctly or not — is the recently canceled Duck Dynasty, Creech said. The most-watched nonfiction series in cable history ran two years longer than Roseanne and ended in March. Themes of guns, manliness, and patriotism, as well as antigay statements by one of the show’s stars, were red meat for some red staters.

“Nowadays, our country has so many divides that were not as apparent back when Roseanne first aired,” said Ron Simon, curator of television and radio at the Paley Center for Media in New York. “The new show’s writers will have to relate to that.”

That’s not the only problem, Simon said. For the show to catch on, it can’t be seen as merely an exercise in nostalgia, appealing to Rosanne’s original viewers, but must captivate younger viewers, too. That’s a tough task, Simon said.

This is to say nothing of a more obvious difficulty: When Roseanne ended, the main character’s husband, Dan, played by John Goodman, was dead. Goodman is said to be returning to the new Roseanne.

To paraphrase Ricky Ricardo from I Love Lucy, another iconic sitcom, someone has some ‘splaining to do.