Roseanne ended its revival season just as it began, on a controversial note. But, in spite of (and perhaps partly fueled by) an era of boycotts and viral Twitter critiques, the series dominated the national dialogue and enjoyed blockbuster ratings, and it has everything to do with Donald Trump — even if the 10-episode series never once mentioned him by name.
Much like the president, the show's titular actress, Roseanne Barr, seems to thrive on political discord, while packaging her approach as one of unity and peace.
"I just wanted to have that dialogue about families torn apart by the election and their political differences of opinion and how we handle it," she told The New York Times in March. "I thought that this was an important thing to say at this time."
By demonstrating that a blue collar Midwestern family could set aside their ideological differences and coexist respectfully, she, and some of her co-stars, believed the show could be a catalyst for repairing the vast political divide in the United States. Ultimately, however, it may have contributed to making that chasm wider by playing into the current administration's agenda.
It all began in the premiere episode, when Roseanne Conner told her left-leaning sister, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), that she voted for the (unnamed) president because he promised he'd bring back jobs and make life better for the American worker. She wanted change, and she believed the winning candidate was the guy to make it happen. Viewers anticipated Roseanne would tout the "Make America Great Again" message, and both his supporters and opponents (as well as simple fans of the beloved, enormously popular original show) tuned in. The episode received the highest rating for a comedy series in four years, attracting 18.2 million viewers (that number soared to 25 million after three days); Trump personally called Barr the following morning to congratulate her on the show's success.
Barr – whose own problematic tweets have furthered Trump's most divisive and inflammatory conspiracy theories, among other things – doesn't mind that Trump applauds himself for boosting her ratings.
"I do the same with him, like, he's the president because of the things I said," she told Vanity Fair. "We're show-business people."
Despite claims that viewers would no longer support the series, The Hollywood Reporter writes that an average of 19.2 million viewers (including a three-day lift) tune in each week to watch the Conner family grapple with everything from gender-fluidity to immigration. Conversations about employment, a central talking point in the series dating back to the '80s, were now met entangled in discussions on undocumented workers, whom Roseanne and Dan (John Goodman) fear are making it more difficult for blue collar construction workers to find work. Their fears aligned with everything Trump said on the campaign trail: "Illegal aliens" (as Dan referred to them in the series) were coming into the country to steal jobs, leach off of the welfare system, and ultimately hurt middle America.
Roseanne played up other campaign themes, too, by criticizing the Affordable Care Act and including a brief opioid storyline, in which Roseanne appears to be hooked on prescription pain medication to treat her knee (they're initially unable to afford surgery). Much like Trump, the characters didn't shy away from discussing race, centering an entire episode on how fearful Roseanne and Dan are of their Muslim neighbors, whom they suspect are building a pipe bomb. This season finale, as well as one in which Roseanne quips about ethnically diverse shows, claim to send the message that people are more alike than they are different, but there remains a distinct "otherness" undertone.
In Tuesday night's episode, the unnamed president tweets that he's going to send FEMA money to the Conners' home state, Illinois, after a flood destroys hundreds of properties. The family rejoices that they will now be able to fix their flooded basement and fund Roseanne's desperately needed knee surgery; middle daughter Darlene (Sara Gilbert) points out that the president misspelled "Illinois" in his tweet. (As hopeful as the ending was, it was hard not to think of the millions of Puerto Ricans still living without power in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria). Will the inevitable second season applaud the president as much as the first? To quote one of Trump's favorite lines, "We'll see what happens."