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[OPINION] - The ‘Roseanne’ Debate: Is ABC Spitting In The Face of Their Brand & Audience?

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With the reboot craze in full swing, it was probably always just a matter of time before Roseanne returned to our screens. In its heyday, the series was the #1 program on TV, and it remained within the top 20 for eight seasons. Acclaimed for its realistic portrayal of blue-collar families as well as progressive takes on everything from race to sexuality, Roseanne opened the door for countless sitcoms that came after it.

One thing that was also notorious about the series during its initial run was the backstage turmoil and constant presence in the press; star Roseanne Barr famously quit three times, often clashing with producers and writers. There was also the infamous 1990 MLB incident where, after screeching through a performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner", Barr grabbed her crotch and spit. Still, the series – aside from its often-maligned final season – stood the test of time, finding new life in syndication and remaining near the top of any credible ‘Greatest Sitcoms of All Time’ lists. A lot has changed since it went off the air in 1997, however. Notably, Barr has become a contentious political voice, isolating a large portion of her former fan base over the years.

Always outspoken, Barr has gone from being a liberal hero to radically right wing. Her Twitter account, in particular, is a point of contention for many. So much so that other major voices in entertainment, from Kumail Nanjiani and Chelsea Paretti to Chrissy Teigen, have spoken out against the reboot and the platform that ABC has given to Barr. News of the series’ revival sparked a resurgence of discussion regarding Barr’s behavior over the past several years, which included dressing as Adolph Hitler in a photoshoot that depicts her pulling a tray of burnt ‘jew cookies’ out of an oven. On Twitter, she’s made derogatory statements about the transgender community (regarding the trans bathroom debate, Barr tweeted “If she has a penis, she is not allowed in!”), Hillary Clinton (“hillary is a pedo monster”), and most recently the young Parkland shooting survivors, referring to activist and student David Hogg as a Nazi after misrepresenting a photo of him at the March For Our Lives. She also liked tweets insinuating that some of the survivors are 'crisis actors'.

Here’s the thing: the reboot itself wasn’t quite as problematic as I had anticipated given Roseanne’s rhetoric. The first two episodes, in fact, were quite funny and seemed to attempt to understand both sides of the political aisle, with Roseanne Connor, like her portrayer, being a Trump voter and her sister, Jackie (the fantastic Laurie Metcalf) having voted for Jill Stein. Several prominent critics and writers have voiced their own unique issues with the series, all of which are just: from the lack of representation of poor people of color on television to the propaganda-like humanization of the intolerant Trump voter. I actually thought that the reboot did a good job of bringing the progressive ideals of the original series into 2018, with a few sweet moments and enough laughs to keep things afloat. I also understand that there’s very little on television in terms of scripted fair that even attempts to give voice to Trump supporters, which depending on your stance is either a good thing or totally unfair. Whether or not viewers care to watch is up to them. With a writing staff that includes Wanda Sykes and Whitney Cummings, I have a hard time believing that the intent of the series would be to normalize hated or bigotry. But intent isn’t always everything.

My issue here is with a network as massive as ABC, which is owned by Disney, standing behind a woman like Roseanne Barr, who even after the new series premiered continued to peddle ludicrous and dangerous conspiracy theories on Twitter. ABC is home to some truly innovative and important series that strive to represent often-ignored minorities, both onscreen and behind-the-scenes; from Grey’s Anatomy featuring lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters and producing topical stories about race and religion to Modern Family and How To Get Away With Murder including predominant gay couples, to Black-ish telling significant stories about the African-American experience and delivering social and political commentary with grace, heart, humour, and intelligence.

Roseanne Barr spits in the face of all of that, and ABC has remained largely silent when it comes to her personal off-screen antics.

The bottom line seems to be that money talks. Roseanne was, and is again, the most-watched show on TV. Time will tell how ratings hold up, as it’s yet to be seen if viewers simply tuned in out of curiosity and whether or not they’ll stick around. Regardless, the reboot has already been renewed for a 13-episode second season. Barr, meanwhile, is experiencing a career resurgence of sorts, getting ready to embark on a stand-up tour across the U.S. and Canada. After word of the premiere scoring record ratings broke, she received a call from the ratings-obsessed President himself.

Many audience members, myself included, fear that by giving Barr this platform, ABC is adding to the growing normalization of hatred in the country. From the Nazi march Charlottesville, Virginia (after which the President referred to “very fine people on both sides”), to the continued marginalization and vilification of minorities by a large percentage of the Republican party, there’s growing anxiety from Americans that people in power are choosing to look the other way when it’s convenient. There has to be room for tolerance and free speech on both sides, but Barr’s online antics are beyond radical – they’re hateful and, frankly, dangerous (let’s not forget that the ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy theory resulted in a shooting... and Barr was a proponent of that theory).

The question here is whether a few laughs and some money in the bank is worth the stain on both ABC and Disney. I often wonder how some of Barr’s fellow cast members, not to mention others employed by the network, feel about Barr's politics and online presence. Sara Gilbert is a proud gay woman, and much of the cast and writers are vocally liberal. I imagine that, to them, Barr is a bit like a kooky grandma or cousin who says crazy things that you cringe at but love her in spite of. The difference here is that this kooky grandma has a global platform, and the crazy things she says could have massive, dangerous implications given her reach.

ABC, meanwhile, stands to make a prophet from their silence.

Did you watch the Roseanne reboot? How did you feel about the series’ political commentary, and do you think that ABC standing behind someone like Roseanne Barr is an issue given that they’re often championed as a network that strives to empower minorities and celebrate diversity? Share your thoughts in the comments below. For more of my work, you can follow me on Twitter HERE and check out SpoilerTV’s official Instagram page HERE.

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