On Roseanne and the Difficulty of Separating the Art From the Artist

A look at why the star of ABC's massively successful revival is getting a pass so rarely afforded to others

By Billy Nilles Apr 03, 2018 1:00 PMTags

Roseanne Barr has always been a lightning rod for controversy. 

Ever since the self-professed "domestic goddess" took the field at Jack Murphy Stadium (now known as San Diego County Credit Union Stadium) in 1990 for an unforgettable—and, to some, unforgivable—performance of the National Anthem, she'd remained an artist who has the capacity to throw at least half of the country into a tailspin over her latest display of unorthodox behavior. 

As her eponymous sitcom ruled the airwaves for nine seasons, the lines between Roseanne Barr and Roseanne Conner grew increasingly blurred, forever connecting the two in the minds of the generation who grew up watching the hard-scrabble and wickedly sarcastic Conner family try and make ends meet week after week. Barr's Lanford, Ill. was not a pretty place, but it felt like a real place. And the show's insistence on diving head-first into issues that many of its contemporaries avoided like the plague helped to peel back the layer of artifice that attaches itself to most sitcoms. Roseanne wasn't a documentary, but the way Barr approached it and wrote so much of herself into it, it could've been.

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Throughout its nine original seasons on the air, Barr and her series—which she memorably had to fight tooth and nail to reclaim ownership of in its early days—were championed for their feminist forward-thinking, their progressive social ideals when it came to race and sexuality, and the heart that shone through even the thorniest moments. A TV show may be the finished product of many, many collaborations, with a collection of writers and producers and actors responsible for what finally makes it to air, but it was clear that this was Barr's show. And for those who weren't turned off by Barr's off-screen behavior, she benefited from that perception. Even after the show went off the air in 1997, she remained the people's champion.

And then Twitter came along.

While the social media network has, in a lot of ways, become the great equalizer between celebrities and the general public, allowing us to converse with stars in as direct a way as possible, it's also allowed us a greater look into the hearts and minds of the people who make millions of dollars thanks to our interest in and adoration of them and their projects. And sometimes, that peek behind the curtain leaves us with a bitter taste in our mouths. Could the person we've welcomed into our living rooms week after week for all those years really think this way, we're left to wonder.

In recent years, Barr's Twitter behavior seemed to be working overtime to undo what love was left for her amongst fans of her show. She likened the LGBT community to pedophiles and denied the existence of transgender people. She said she believed lizard people were running the government and believed Nancy Pelosi to be one of them. She likened both President Barack Obama and Muslims, in separate instances, to Nazis. She claimed that Palestinians owned slaves. She promoted the Pizzagate theory, an insane conspiracy born out of the darkest corners of the internet that claimed high-ranking officials in the Democratic Party were running a child-sex ring out of a D.C.-area pizzeria. And that's not to mention just the outright cruel and nasty attacks she's aimed at regular folk who dared to challenge her, like this one where she alluded to the Twitter user's father being a rapist just because.

As alarming as all of those expressed beliefs may be, if they were simply the musings of a former TV star-turned-conspiracy theorist, they'd seem relatively harmless, right? Sure, they're not helping the general political discourse in the United States in any healthy way, regardless of which side of the aisle they stem from, and some of them are deeply upsetting, but everyone is guaranteed free speech (at least, to a point) in the United States, so for fans of Roseanne Conner left mortified by Roseanne Barr, the solution was simple: Block her, move on and maybe think twice about sitting down for a marathon the next time you come across one on basic cable.

But then ABC announced it would be reviving Roseanne with the entire original cast in tact and that's where things got tricky.

Because it's one thing to let a former TV star-turned-conspiracy theorist rant on Twitter to her heart's content, but it's yet another to put said conspiracy theorist back on television—with all the money and elevated platform that brings—with nary an apology for the segue into some sort of 4chan troll in recent years. But that's exactly what's happened.

In the ramp up to the revival's March 27 premiere, much attention was paid to Barr's public support of President Donald Trump—and the decision to make her character a supporter as well—while her years of inflammatory tweeting went relatively overlooked. At the very least, ABC seemed to have no qualms with the behavior, as nostalgia for beloved properties and a desire to tap into the audience that put Trump in office colored their thought-process to the point of putting blinders on the execs. They saw green—and not with envy—and resumed doing business with a former star whose current musings have transcended simple partisan politics and careened into dangerously unstable territory.

And it paid off. In the show's first week, Roseanne premiered to 18.5 million same-day viewers, beating the numbers for its original series finale. The one-hour premiere added 6.6 million more viewers with three days of DVR viewing and streaming, marking the largest L+3 growth for a show ever. With an additional repeat airing on the following Sunday at the out-of-primetime 7 p.m. hour bringing in 4.3 million more viewers, the premiere currently stands at a total to-date tally of 29.4 million viewers, outpacing even this year's Oscars telecast.

But Barr's continued Twitter use has at least some fans re-considering tuning in for week two and wondering how ABC is OK with their now-biggest star's alarming behavior. (For an answer to the latter, we point you directly to the numbers above.) On the very same night that her show was returning to the network, in a now-deleted tweet, Barr called David Hogg, one of the survivors of the Parkland massacre, a Nazi. 

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In the same week that Fox News host Laura Ingraham saw advertiser flee her program after she attacked Hogg on Twitter, mocking his grades, and just months after Kathy Griffin saw every career opportunity once afforded to her—as well as a friendship with Anderson Cooper—taken away for posing for a photo as she held a bloodied and fake Donald Trump head by the hair, removed from its body, certainly Barr would face some sort of fallout, no? (And lest you think Barr has no ill-advised photo shoots in her past, let us point you in the direction of this 2009 photo series wherein she posed as Hitler, removing a tray of burnt gingerbread cookies from the oven, which the accompanying Heeb magazine article referred to as "burnt Jew cookies.")

Far from facing any fallout, Barr and the rest of the Roseanne team earned a second season and a congratulatory call from Trump himself.

In her own defense, Barr sent out a tweet arguing that "diversity of opinion is diversity," though that specious argument does very little to explain or justify her incendiary language. And while ABC is certainly focusing on the ratings resurrection Barr and her show have brought to their network, they must be aware that the nostalgia and the novelty will wear off. And with Barr seemingly digging her heels in, it'll likely happen sooner than ABC thinks or wants. And then what are we left with?

If Roseanne Barr and Roseanne Conner are as inextricably linked as Barr led us to believe when we fell in love with them both in the '90s, how do we watch the one without replaying the words of the other? How do we watch and believe Roseanne Conner defending her gender non-conforming grandson to the bullies in his class when we can't get Roseanne Barr's railing against transgender bathroom rights on Twitter out of our heads? And how do we reconcile the notion that the biggest star on TV sees no problem verbally attacking children who've survived school shootings? Free speech only goes so far, and it doesn't come with the absolute right to keep amassing fame and fortune.

Figuring out what to do with Roseanne is complicated because nostalgia is one hell of a powerful thing. Just look at the current wave of unstoppable revivals. We're almost intrinsically designed to crave the days of yore, and when something comes along that threatens to topple the apple cart and smash our rose-colored glasses responsible for romanticizing the past, it hurts. But when people reveal themselves to you, sometimes the best thing you can do is believe them.