Many have applauded ABC’s “moral courage” for canceling the highly rated “Roseanne” after the show’s star, Roseanne Barr, went on an offensive Twitter rampage. Yet while Barr’s firing may have been justified, American viewers should also mourn the disappearance of her character, Roseanne Conner, one of the few female conservative and outwardly Republican characters in network television history.
Historically, network executives have avoided highly partisan characters for fear of alienating half of their audience. Yet current shows “Black-ish” and “Will and Grace” feature ardent Hillary Clinton supporters who were left devastated and reeling by Donald Trump’s election. They do not take Trump supporters seriously, rendering a respectful exchange of ideas between liberal and conservative America impossible.
But “Roseanne” did, allowing the show to build on a long-standing tradition of using entertainment to broach political divides — something that has proven to be not only positive for civil political discourse but also good business.
Initially, networks steered clear of political commentary. In fact, Ronald Reagan was fired from his gig hosting “General Electric Theater” in 1962 after he complained that the Tennessee Valley Authority, one of GE’s most important customers, represented the problems of “big government.” But Norman Lear’s “All in the Family,” which aired from 1971 until 1979, broke new ground. It pitted the conservative Archie Bunker against his daughter, Gloria, and her husband, “Meathead,” two hippie baby boomers, in a number of political and cultural debates. Each side showed both sensitivity and foolishness in their attempts to reach mutual understanding on issues involving racism, feminism, the Vietnam War and homosexuality. Archie usually discovered that his bigoted ideas did not apply to the individuals he met, while Gloria and Meathead’s idealism did not prevent them from turning to her parents for financial support.
“Family Ties” in the 1980s inverted this successful model. In a nod to the rise of conservatism, Michael J. Fox played Alex P. Keaton, a Wall Street Journal-reading young Republican being raised by liberal parents, Steven and Elyse. Former Peace Corps volunteers, they were often concerned by Alex’s materialism and obsession with getting into Princeton. Yet Alex proved to be sensitive and open-minded, often defending his sister Mallory from sexist overtures, volunteering and dating feminist women — thereby defying stereotypes of conservatism.
The political drama “The West Wing,” starring Martin Sheen as liberal President Josiah Bartlet, portrayed an alternative fantasy during George W. Bush’s presidency. But conservative viewers had characters like Ainsley Hayes, played by Emily Proctor, to root for. The only Republican in the administration, the quick-witted Hayes engaged in memorable debates with fellow staffers over such issues as the wisdom of resurrecting the Equal Rights Amendment, the usefulness of the United Nations and the overreach of the federal government.
Most recently, the comedy “Last Man Standing” featured Tim Allen as Ted Baxter, a conservative marketing executive for an outdoor sporting goods chain. Although the comedic theme of the show originally rested on Ted being the only man in a household of women, during the second season it became more political. Ted frequently sparred with his hipster son-in-law over the ethics of hunting and gun ownership, environmental issues and parental discipline. Canceled after six seasons by ABC, it has reportedly been picked up by Fox for the fall 2018 season because of viewer demand.
Popular and critically acclaimed, these shows were huge moneymakers for their networks. Were they popular because of their political crosscurrents? Other factors, including great writing and acting, certainly contributed to their success. What is clear, however, was their value as thoughtful entertainment that offered constructive debate about generational and political differences. They showed a civil, if often comedic, exchange of ideas, gave credence to the other side’s views and often surprised audiences by showing dimensions to their characters that defied negative political stereotypes.
The current entertainment landscape needs to take conservatives more seriously. It is good business that can also benefit our political discourse.
The “Roseanne” reboot did this by showing a perspective otherwise unseen on television today. The Conners lived in a small town in the Midwest. Most TV families are coastal and wealthy, or at least comfortable, but the Conners constantly struggled with the economic challenges of the working poor, especially when it came to the health costs associated with aging. They were trying to save the $5,000 to pay the health insurance deductible for Roseanne’s urgent knee surgery. In the meantime, Roseanne and her sister, Jackie, grappled with finding housing for their cantankerous mother so that she wouldn’t have to live in a county institution.
“Roseanne” also featured constructive dialogue between conservative and liberal perspectives, and unlike most shows, neither side came out looking foolish. Significantly for television today, the show also portrayed Republicans as open-minded, not as mindless reactionaries, as they confronted issues that notably polarize America: health care, Islamophobia, debates on gender norms and, of course, the 2016 election.
And the show challenged partisan stereotypes. Roseanne supported abortion rights, defying the typical profile of a Republican. But she was also uncomfortable with the notion of her daughter Becky being a surrogate for another woman and “giving away our grandchild.” When her husband, Dan, gave their grandson Mark his knife to defend himself from bullies at school, Roseanne asked, “What idiot gave him a knife?” Indeed, the show offered relatable themes and gave nuance to the real-life application of often polarizing ideological issues. With around 18 million viewers tuning in each week, it was an approach that had a lot of appeal.
This handling of sensitive material reflected a diverse creative team of liberals and conservatives, including Whitney Cummings, Morgan Murphy, Sara Gilbert and Wanda Sykes, as well as Barr herself. Having so many women at the helm was another important achievement, given the dearth of female producers in Hollywood. The recent #MeToo movement has shed light on the problematic aspects of this reality, and the very makeup of the show defied the mischaracterization of #MeToo as solely liberal.
Barr’s personal behavior ultimately sabotaged the goals she had with the show. She had hoped to give voice to real Trump voters, who she felt had been unfairly maligned by the media, but she ended up furthering the negative stereotypes with her social media presence. While few will likely bemoan Roseanne Barr’s promised absence from Twitter, Roseanne Conner’s absence from network television will create an unfortunate void.