The news that Roseanne Barr is doing a new sitcom for NBC is the most interesting development in the TV racket in ages. And, I put it to you, the relevancy has as much to do with political and social tensions as NBC's need for some hit shows.
An announcement about the Barr project – called Downwardly Mobile and synopsized as an ensemble comedy about "a family and friends living in a mobile home community" – arrived the same weekend that The New York Times, in an editorial, went all lefty. On Sunday, the Times issued a thundering denunciation of income inequality in the United States. Essentially, it endorsed the Occupy Wall St. movement.
Also on the weekend, the most read item on the Washington Post's website was a column headlined "The backlash against the rich" by Robert J. Samuelson, which tackled the issue of the "undeserving" rich who "succeed through self-dealing or activities lacking broad social value."
Coincidence? I think not. Roseanne Barr is very rich now, thanks to the success of Roseanne, which ran from 1988 to 1997 and for many of those years was the most-watched program on U.S. network TV.
But what's relevant is that the show was a huge hit because the character Roseanne Conner came swaggering onto prime-time television like a character let loose from a Grace Paley story, radiating the sort of skepticism that comes from experience as a member of an underclass. Most successful TV shows grab a large audience share because they reflect in some way the prevailing social and political values, and the Conner family was the ideal vehicle for exploring the doldrums of working life in post-Reagan America. Their stories and milieu were ideal, resonating recession-era pop-culture entertainment.
The Conners took over TV just as the insufferable Alex Keaton (Michel J. Fox) of Family Ties and the cloying Cosby clan declined in popularity. Family Ties and The Cosby Show reflected the twin tenets of the Reagan years – an unquestioning obeisance to wealth and a misty-eyed longing for a family life that never existed outside of Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best. On TV, the Keatons and the Cosby brood gave way to the Conners – people who toiled a real workplace and struggled to pay the bills every week.
For several seasons Roseanne Conner and her pals worked the assembly line at Wellman Plastics. Then, when they took a stand against an exploitative boss, Roseanne and her friends were jobless. There was nothing cute or treacly about that moment.
If there is anyone in the TV business that has any authentic experience creating a show that reflects hard times, it's the cackling, shrieking and overbearing Roseanne Barr. And she's needed. Look around the TV schedules right now and you'll find little that actually reflects the tumult in the United States. On 2 Broke Girls there is a vague sense that the rich-girl-bonds-with-poor-girl dynamic is connected to the economic collapse that happened in reality and deprived the rich girl of her wealth. But mostly, it's all about sex jokes. The HBO series Enlightened has Laura Dern as a corporate success story who has a breakdown, believes she achieves "enlightenment" and returns to work as lowly corporate drone. She rails against the nastiness of the corporation, especially its HR department. Mainly though, the show is about the character's foolish narcissism.
There's plenty of paranoia and doubt evident on many network and cable series, but little or nothing about the marginalized, the barely-working and the angry people at the bottom of the economic ladder. Sure, viewers often want escapism, but the original Roseanne show stands as an example of finding escapist laugher in characters and situations that reflect hard economic reality.
If the new Roseanne Barr project comes to fruition – and NBC sounds very committed to it – it will be next year before it airs. By then, will things have gotten better or worse for Americans worried about unemployment and debt? It won't matter. The original Roseanne show aired after the worst of the eighties-era recession. And it's going to take a very long time for the issues raised by the Occupy Wall Street movement to fade away.
That movement essentially articulates a profound anger at the downwardly-mobile trend for the 99 per cent of Americans who aren't rich. Sounds like Rosanne Barr is about to articulate the same thing on network TV. Again.
Also airing tonight
Frontline: The Anthrax Files (PBS, 9 p.m.) has as its starting point what happened exactly ten years ago. That's when a photo editor in Florida died shortly after being diagnosed as having inhaled anthrax. Envelopes carrying deadly anthrax were delivered to U.S. Senate offices and to network news divisions. Four more people died. It was a new kind of terrorism from within the United States. Frontline looks at the long and often meandering FBI investigation into the anthrax attacks and finds it wanting. The wrong suspect was pursued for years, and eventually, after what the program says was the most expensive and complex investigation ever undertaken by the FBI, an Army scientist was named sole perpetrator of the attacks. The man had taken his own life. Frontline says there are numerous doubts and questions about the case.