Roseanne — the comedy and its star — has never been one to shy away from socially-debated topics. Case in point: The premiere of its revival this week, which didn’t shy away from the 2016 election, Roseanne Barr’s (and Conner’s) support of Donald Trump, or her dislike of Hillary Clinton.
But in its original run, the actress fought ABC over the March 1, 1994 episode called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” in which Mariel Hemingway guest-starred as Sharon, a lesbian who plants a three-second kiss on Roseanne in a bar. And it almost didn’t air.
“We didn’t know if it was actually going to be on television until minutes before it actually was,” episode co-writer James Berg tells EW. Adds co-writer Stan Zimmerman: “Roseanne and Tom Arnold – when they were still a couple – said they would buy the episode back and put it up on HBO.”
“They were amazing. Of course we were shocked and realized how ridiculous and stupid it was because we knew that the episode was much more than about the stupid one-minute kiss – less than one minute. But the powers that be just were afraid,” Berg says.
“Being on that set, you realized that Roseanne was extremely powerful in the television world,” Hemingway told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview published this week. “She got to do what she wanted, and she was used to getting what she wanted. She probably threw some hard punches. I am not sure what those were, but I am sure that she did, and I am sure they took notice.”
While controversial at the time — it was a sight rarely seen on network TV (21 Jump Street, L.A. Law, and Picket Fences had all showed a same-sex kiss) — the writers and producers, whose credits also include Gilmore Girls, The Golden Girls, and Rita Rocks, say it was a “victory” and a moment they’ll “never forget” as they watched with several hundred people who “erupted into this cheer” at a GLAAD fundraiser in West Hollywood.
“Whatever we feel about Roseanne today given the political situation, we have to remember she really furthered the cause of gay rights with that episode,” Berg admits.
“I think that’s why it’s so disheartening to see her love Trump and some of the comments that she has made online,” Zimmerman continues. “It’s very complicated for us, for this show to be successful, but it just hurts that she would not see how he and his policies are hurting so many people, specifically trans members [of the military] recently.” (Last Friday, Trump issued an order banning most transgender troops from serving.)
When the Roseanne revival premiered earlier this week, along with the politi-talk came new characters, such as Darlene’s (Sara Gilbert) son Mark (Ames McNamara). Though he’s not gay or transitioning, Mark prefers to dress in girl’s clothes. “He’s based on a few kids in my life that are boys who dress in more traditionally feminine clothing,” Gilbert, an executive producer on the revival, previously told EW. “He’s too young to be gay and he doesn’t identify as transgender, but he just likes wearing that kind of clothing and that’s where he is at this point in his life.”
Zimmerman and Berg — who just announced they’ve written and are developing Silver Foxes, a Golden Girls-esque comedy about two gay men in Palm Springs who rescue another re-closeted friend from his assisted living facility — watched (along with more than 18 million others) and had mixed feelings. Mostly focused on the Trump of it all.
“I was pleasantly surprised, but there were certain aspects that, if we were on staff, we probably would have brought up,” Zimmerman begins of his critique. “I don’t know why they made Sara Gilbert have to say ‘I’m not gay’ three times. And I think they probably hit on the election part too far. They could have just said ‘we voted differently’ and moved on, but that they had to go all past that and to Jill Stein and put Hillary down, that seemed a bit much.”
“But the fact that it’s the only network television show — and maybe cable as well — that was willing to tackle the issue head on, the issue which has galvanized our country, it’s important,” Berg says. “We’re working to separate our feelings about the actors from our feelings for the character, but I still think it’s very progressive that she did that, and we’ll see where the rest of the series takes it.”
Zimmerman sees the silver lining in Roseanne’s candidness, though. “It’s provoking discussion,” he admits. “We can… go off into different political corners or if somebody does something bad we ban them for life, and here, let’s put it out, let’s shine a light on it and really talk about it, and maybe that’s how we can come together and figure it out.”
Roseanne airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC. Read Hemingway’s interview with THR here.