Poor, capable and funny: the return of Roseanne, the sitcom that broke all the rules
Why the return of the feminist, body-positive, working-class show is welcome in the era of austerity and aspirational TV
We're Americas worst nightmare, Roseanne Barr said, at the height of her fame. Were white trash with money.
It was true that the assorted voices of moral America, from TV critics to tabloid journalists, did what they could to clip Roseannes wings. Her on-set assertiveness (rifts with writers, effing and jeffing) was discussed in a pitch of pearl-clutching outrage that went on for years. Her failed first marriage was taken as proof of an age-old story: the social climber who ditches her loved ones once she gets what she wants. All the mud stuck: at the time, her public image was that of a difficult person. It didnt make any dent on her sitcoms popularity. For its first two seasons (in 1989 and 1990), Roseanne was the most-watched show in the US.
What was extraordinary about Roseanne is that it was allowed on TV at all. Laurie Metcalf, who played Roseannes sister Jackie, said afterward: Before [Roseanne], it was people walking around in expensive sweaters. I dont remember people ever looking as realistic as our cast did.
When'd white trash ever been allowed on television? Not as a reality TV car crash. Not as the feral grist to a police-show mill. Not as the carnivalesque backdrop to a dystopia. As real people, making their own jokes, describing their own reality?
In the very first episode, the oldest daughter Becky starts rifling through the cupboards for a food drive at her school. Roseanne says, Tell them to drive some of that food over here. Sometimes you can only see the taboo when it breaks: decent people aren't supposed to be skint. Nice families aren't supposed to ever think about money, the way heroes of novels never have jobs. Having to haggle with your boss and have your pay docked, to get to a meeting at your kids school? This stuff didnt happen to decent sitcom families before Roseanne. It hasnt really happened since.
Minimum wage back then used to buy a reasonable life if you werent an incredibly shiftless, feckless person, said Linda Tirado, author of Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, an author who broke an extraordinary cultural silence in 2013, when she challenged the idea that, in the US, people are poor because they make bad decisions. The cultural environment has changed because the economic one has. Since wage stagnation has made the condition of poverty so much harder, it's no longer allowed to be just happenstance, a fact of life. Someone has to be at fault, otherwise it'd be unjust.
Put simply, you're still allowed to be poor on TV, you can even be poor and sympathetic. Long as you're demonstrably useless. Youre just not allowed to be poor, capable and funny. That was the holy trinity that Roseanne embodied, able to mock her own weaknesses because of her palpable strengths. Yet clearly TV wants that family back: hence its return in the US (a new series is planned for 2018) and why there have been several attempts to create something similar for the UK.
A producer, who wanted to remain anonymous, was working last year on a British version of Roseanne for ITV. There are so few blue-collar voices on TV, we settled on Roseanne as a perfect template, because it was so out-there, they told the Guide. Ours was a woman in Northern Ireland, trying to juggle her kids and working as a cashier. But its very difficult to get this stuff away in Britain, because theres a sense that we've soaps to do that for us. The soaps do the working classes and the other drama does everything else. Theres a note you often get when youre developing scripts: Thats a bit soapy. Its used as a disparaging term.
Nobody says what it means. Everybody knows. Then theres the idea that people want to watch aspirational telly like The Replacement and Apple Tree Yard, our insider continued. Glamorous women who live in nice houses. Then theres the Kes tradition, the poverty you expect in British film that you wont accept from British TV.