Roseanne revival: Cast talks politics and going home again at Paley Center
Nearly 30 years after audiences were first introduced to the blue-collar Conner family, headed by an unforgettable matriarch named Roseanne, her groundbreaking sitcom is returning to ABC.
Ahead of the Tuesday night premiere, the returning cast from the original series — Roseanne Barr (Roseanne), John Goodman (Dan), Sara Gilbert (Darlene), Lecy Goranson (original Becky), Michael Fishman (D.J.), and Sarah Chalke (second Becky) — along with executive producer Tom Werner joined Entertainment Weekly TV critic Kristen Baldwin at the Paley Center for Media in New York City to look back on highlights of the old series, and ahead at fun to come on the revival.
“I just personally have never had an experience quite like doing Roseanne,” said Gilbert, who also serves as an executive producer on the revived show. “Just the level of talent that I got to work with and that particular character. … So personally I wanted to do it, and it did seem like the right time in our country to have a working-class family on TV. In times that are so divided, this felt like the kind of family that could, in some small way, try and help unite people.”
Werner agreed that the talent level was so high, it seemed wrong not to reunite the cast. “We wanted to honor the original series, and that bar was very high,” he said. “The level of talent deserves great writing, which I think we did. I don’t want to get too political, but there can be no better time to talk about the issues that we talk about in these episodes. The election in 2016, no matter how you voted, was a wakeup call, and people who are like the Conners, who are living in Middle America and who are struggling — it’s a way to tell their stories that are both funny and relevant.”
Speaking of getting political, Barr previously made headlines when she told the media that Roseanne Conner was a Trump supporter. Naturally, some people assumed that going into the new series, Roseanne’s political views would be a big through-line, but in the first three episodes, her politics are only mentioned once, in passing. “I always wanted to have a realistic depiction of people in this family, and people are divided over the election,” Barr said of the character choice. “Every family I know has that same thing going on, so I wanted to show that. That was what I cared about most. I wasn’t trying to prove anything.”
Dealing with real issues faced by everyday American families has always been at the crux of the series, and the new season is no exception. In the second episode, Darlene’s son is bullied at school for not dressing in a way a boy might be traditionally expected to, and later storylines will tackle issues including Big Pharma, opioids (“Yeah, those will constipate you,” Goodman joked), and D.J. adjusting to post-military life and parenting his biracial daughter.
To help with all those timely and topical storylines, Bruce Helford, who served as an executive producer on the fifth season before he was quickly dismissed, was brought back into the fold. “I talked to Rosanne about it and I thought we had a lot of great years, but season 5 we had a lot of very special and important episodes,” Werner said. “Bruce felt it was important to come back and he was excited. … I think this is probably the best writing staff of any of the seasons. From the very beginning, it was a special room.”
Barr agreed, adding, “I thought he could run a writers’ room without a lot of drama or ego and he could give other people a chance to step forward and participate… and I was right. We picked the right person.”
One interesting plot point for the writers to tackle was that Goodman’s character, Dan, was seemingly killed off in the final episodes of the original series. But if you think that issue is dealt with quickly and comically in the opening minutes of the premiere, you could be under-thinking it. “It’s not what you think it is at all, and a lot of people have missed it,” said Barr. “Since the ninth season I’ve always wanted a 10th season so, I’ve always had it in my mind how it would resume. It’s the same idea that I had a long time ago. The truth is told in the first episode with Dan and Roseanne in the garage. People think it’s in the beginning of the show, but the truth is it’s in the garage scene.”
Goodman was less concerned about how they’d bring his character back. “I didn’t care,” he joked, going on to describe an imagined outcome for the Conner patriarch: “I figured after Dan lost his job at Goldman Sachs and none of the apps he created took off, he had to divorce his trophy wife.”
Dan might be back, but don’t hold your breath for the return of George Clooney’s season 1 character, Booker Brooks. “We did ask him, but he lives in Italy,” said Barr. “We always have our door open for George. I didn’t give any thought to Brooker. He’d probably be a big-ass movie star now.”
So, yes, years later there are some big changes afoot for the Conner clan (including a stint as an Uber driver for the titular character), but at its heart Roseanne still has the same spirit and tone it always did. “There aren’t enough shows on television with identifiable characters,” said Werner. “There’s a lot of wonderful shows on television, but this series was honest and funny, and sometimes I think that’s the best way to deal with issues so they can be cleansed.”
“It was like going home,” Barr added. “You know how people say you can’t go home again? I was thinking, ‘That’s a lie.’ You can, and it was a blast.”