Roseanne revival: When bad people happen to good shows
Hello, Internet. Thank you for reading past the headline. With ABC’s decision to cancel the Roseanne revival after Roseanne Barr sent out a blatantly racist tweet, some members of the Twitterverse have scolded me for giving the revival two positive reviews. (You can read, or hate-read, them here and here.)
It’s a difficult thing when bad people make entertainment. While I don’t regret the positive reviews I gave Roseanne — after covering TV for more than 20 years, I can say with certainty that the revival was funnier, better written and better acted than the majority of broadcast sitcom offerings — I do have some regrets about the situation.
Roseanne Barr has always been a controversial figure, and certainly, in the years since her ABC sitcom initially went off the air, her views have become increasingly bizarre and extreme. I suppose my biggest mistake, when writing about the revival, was not taking those past tweets — conspiracy theories, pro-Trump lies, ignorant attacks on school shooting survivors — seriously enough. I viewed those tweets as obvious lunacy, the easily-dismissed ramblings of an unhinged personality. Yes, they were offensive, but they didn’t have anything to do with the content of Barr’s ABC sitcom. Rather than judging Roseanne the show based on what the star was like off camera, I chose to judge the sitcom by what I saw on the screen — separating the art from the artist, and all that.
For me, and for ABC, the racist tweet about Valerie Jarrett crossed a line. But there were many people who believed Barr crossed a line with her previous tweets — and that is context that should have factored into my reviews. It’s a lesson I will take with me moving forward — and one I’ll no doubt have to draw on frequently over the coming years, as more and more of the people behind the entertainment we consume are revealed to be deeply flawed, or worse.
Plenty of you may disagree with the assertion that the Roseanne reboot itself did not incorporate or reflect the controversial views of Barr herself. There was, of course, the jab at ABC’s “shows about black and Asian families” — which to me seemed more “edgy” for edgy’s sake than deliberately hateful — and in the recent episode about the Conners’ new Muslim neighbors, Dan laments about losing a contracting job to “illegals.” Was the use of that ugly term provocative? Absolutely. But are we truly going to pretend, in Trump’s 2018 America, that there aren’t citizens of these United States who regularly refer to undocumented immigrants as “illegals”? The fact that many Americans use that word is an unpleasant reality, but it is a reality nonetheless. And if Roseanne‘s take on that reality offends you enough to avoid the show, that’s your right — but using it to paint the entire series as a hate-speech machine on par with Alex Jones’ InfoWars is divisive and unproductive.
This debate — what are we allowed to enjoy, and what are we morally obligated to avoid — was going on long before Roseanne, and it will continue long after screens disappear and we all have Netflix queues uploaded directly to our brains. Is it okay to listen to The Beatles, knowing that John Lennon admitted in a 1980 interview with Playboy that he had been physically abusive to women? Is it okay to read Dr. Seuss to your kids, knowing that Theodor Seuss Geisel drew racist propaganda cartoons during WWII? Does the fact that Bill Cosby is a convicted rapist negate everything The Cosby Show did to advance African-American representation on TV? We’re never all going to agree about these questions, but let’s hope we can get to a place where it’s possible to have a respectful discussion about the many issues at play. Maybe if we practice having civil discourse about entertainment, we can apply those skills to issues that matter even more.