Photo: Adam Rose (ABC)

Dad, will you tell her how dumb she’s being?
That’s never worked out for me.

That exchange between Darlene (Sara Gilbert) and Dan (John Goodman) comes in the first five minutes of the Roseanne season 10 premiere, in the same open-concept kitchen where we first met the Conners some 30 years ago. It’s one of too few examples of how well the cast still works together after all these years, as “Twenty Years To Life” offers a bumpy reentry for fans of the beloved blue-collar sitcom. Their dialogue would also seem to point to how the show will deal with the real Roseanne’s rhetoric—by reminding everyone of the matriarch’s stubbornness (on and off screen), as well as the times she’s actually come around.

Although it’s full of rough spots, “Twenty Years To Life” does quickly dispense with at least one worrisome holdover from the series’ original run. In the cold open, an anxious Roseanne calls out to Dan, who, as it turns out, is not dead. He may need a CPAP machine to sleep, but he’s alive and still good-natured. “Why does everybody always think I’m dead?” he wonders while also seeming perfectly aware of the season-nine finale (no word yet on whether he did in fact have a heart attack at Darlene and David’s wedding).

“You look happy. I thought maybe you moved on,” Roseanne fires back in one of her better volleys this episode. Oddly, it’s the heads of household who look shakiest in the premiere; they’re mostly in character, but Barr and Goodman have a tendency to look off camera even when they’re the only two people in the room—or garage, which has the refrigerator that also acts as storage for the pistol Dan briefly waves around at one point. When they’re not in sync, it creates a disconnect and inadvertently serves as a reminder of the mixed reception of even those revivals that aren’t operating in the shadow of the president’s combover. Their hesitation is warranted—Barr hasn’t exactly acquitted herself well in all the press ahead of the show’s return—but we shouldn’t be able to see it from our own couches.

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Barr’s always been a bit self-conscious as Roseanne, which I guess is to be expected when you create a show based on your own stand-up act. I don’t mean a clumsiness in her acting, but an awareness that the dialogue matches her own phrasing and beliefs. For example, when she stood up to her boss (played by the late Fred Thompson) in “Let’s Call It Quits,” her frustration felt relatable and authentic. The actress still looks like she means exactly what she’s saying, but that quality is cast in a different light when Roseanne’s mocking her sister, Jackie (that’s Oscar nominee Laurie Metcalf to all of us), for supporting universal healthcare. While trying to patch things up after a year of not speaking to each other, Roseanne gives Jackie the following backhanded compliment: “You want government to give everyone healthcare because you’re a good-hearted person who can’t do simple math.”

The reason for their falling-out has been well-publicized and is the other elephant in the room: Like Barr, Roseanne is a Trump supporter, while Jackie—oh, Jackie. Despite proudly sporting a pink pussy hat and matching “Nasty Woman” shirt, Jackie totally botched the landing and voted for Jill Stein in the 2016 federal election. It’s not quite impossible to laugh through the pain at their “Who’s that?” “A doctor!” exchange, and the justification that Jackie gives for not going through with voting for Hillary Clinton kind of rings true. Roseanne made her doubt herself for the umpteenth time, which is why Jackie threw her vote away. For someone as historically flighty as Jackie, the last-minute change of heart makes sense, but it’s hard not to look at the scene as an example of Barr getting her digs in. She’s never been the only voice in the writers’ room, and Bruce Helford (who worked on the show in its original run) and Whitney Cummings are the showrunners for the 10th season, but the resolution of the Roseanne-Jackie spat ends up feeling one-sided.

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It’s not the most heartening sign of how the show will handle political division going forward—and make no mistake, it’s going to go there—but there’s lots to like about Roseanne’s return. The cast slips right back into bickering mode while adding new prickly layers. D.J.’s no longer a brooding kid brother; he’s now a married veteran with a biracial daughter, Mary (Jayden Rey, an adorable addition to the family), who prefers to watch the fighting from the sidelines. Becky (Lecy Goranson) is still struggling financially, but instead of trying to seem more mature, she’s pretending to be at least 10 years younger than she actually is. That’s necessary if she’s going to act as a surrogate for Andrea (Sarah Chalke, a.k.a. Second Becky), though. But Sara Gilbert, who is also executive producing, is the early standout. Darlene’s quips have lost none of their acidity, but they have been repurposed to protect her two kids, Harris (Shameless’ Emma Kenney) and Mark (Ames McNamara). She’s clearly picked up some parenting tips from her parents, but Darlene’s story is her own—she’s hit with a double whammy of divorce and job loss. I have a feeling her storyline is going to take precedence in this brief revival (there are only eight episodes), which, from where I’m sitting sans colorful throw, seems just fine.

Photo: Adam Rose (ABC)

“Dress To Impress”

As predicted, Darlene’s family takes center stage in the second episode, which also gives Sarah Chalke a proper homecoming, inviting her back to the lovably shabby Lanford home she grew up in on screen. Of the two installments airing tonight, “Dress To Impress” is the stronger offering; it successfully updates the setting and hearkens back to some of the best classic episodes. It nods to the revival’s legacy of issues-oriented comedy, while carving out its own niche in a landscape of increasingly sophisticated sitcoms. It also happens to have an early contender for favorite revival zinger: “If you look younger it’s because you’re embalmed in Mike’s Hard Lemonade.”

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And let’s not kid ourselves—the episode is also an attempt to contain the effects of Barr’s real-life beliefs and barbs by having Roseanne act in (good) character. Although the B-story is all about Becky and Becky—I mean, Andrea—getting to know each other better as they prepare to conceive together, the main plot involves Darlene’s gender-nonconforming tween Mark. Although he identifies as a boy, his penchant for colorful clothes—which he poignantly notes make him feel more like himself—worries his open-minded yet old-fashioned grandparents.

Self-described “weirdo” Darlene doesn’t bat an eye, and neither does her daughter, Harris, though the teen seems generally uninterested in her younger brother. The show implies that Mark didn’t catch any flak in Chicago for pairing plaid skirts with knee socks and glittery nails, but as Roseanne and Dan point out, Lanford is no liberal bastion (neither is Chicago, when you get right down to it). So Darlene finds herself at odds with her parents once more as she defends her kids’ rights to do what they want. While Dan and Roseanne are clearly shown to be wrong for objecting to Mark’s wardrobe, the show doesn’t frame them as small-minded, small-town folk. “God did not give me this big a head to hold a narrow mind,” Dan tells his daughter. “We’re not bigoted.” But he does thinks she’s “dreaming if you think he isn’t in for a world of hurt.”

On the surface, the older Conners’ response suits them and even seems innocuous. But “Dress To Impress” challenges them to come up with an offensive strategy as well as a defensive one. Roseanne’s ploy is better, because she just tells off Mark’s class instead of giving him a pocketknife, which is what Dan does. Darlene’s rightly pissed, which leads to a confrontation in which Dan whines about “masculine” becoming a dirty word, something that isn’t true on TV or in the real world. Although Darlene doesn’t challenge him here, she’s already chewed him out for having a double standard about the gender binary. As Darlene points out, being a tomboy is accepted, even encouraged, especially since it keeps girls from growing up too soon. She gets some backup from Jackie, which is ham-fisted but at least it gives Laurie Metcalf an opportunity to talk this episode. She already looks underutilized and we’re only two episodes into the season. Do I need to remind the writers she was nominated for an Oscar for her flawless portrayal of a demanding mother in Lady Bird?

There’s no easy resolution, as Mark and the rest of the family acknowledge that he might be bullied just for being himself while vociferously defending him. But the fact that Dan is able to channel his own discomfort into support of his grandson is a sign of growth for the character and the show. Roseanne has a history of progressivism, and while this shift doesn’t quite compare with, say, Roseanne scolding D.J. in season seven for balking at kissing his black classmate Geena*, the episode does share the layered storytelling of “White Men Can’t Kiss.” In that season seven episode, Roseanne doubted her lack of prejudice after being frightened by Geena’s father, despite him having done nothing to scare her. In “Dress To Impress,” it’s Dan who’s left to question his stance on gender.

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As for Darlene, Sara Gilbert continues to shine in her new role of protector. She shows her own stubbornness by refusing to acknowledge that Mark could have trouble in school for being gender-nonconforming. And she’s right that any issues are the responsibility of the narrow-minded jerks who have them, but her behavior is also yet another nod to her similarities to her mother. Gilbert is a more nuanced actor, though, so the beat she takes before summoning words of encouragement is devastating. She then deftly lightens the mood with her straightforward advice: “Find the weird kids for protection.” It’s really starting to look like Darlene is going to provide the emotional through-line for season 10, just as Gilbert is establishing herself as the new head of Roseanne’s household.


Stray observations

  • Welcome to TV Club coverage of Roseanne! Though reviews be but few (only six remaining!), they be fierce—or at least, enjoyable, I hope.
  • We don’t have to worry about little Jerry Garcia—he’s now a twentysomething working on a boat off the Alaskan coast, which sure beats whatever happened to Judy on Family Matters.
  • Season nine was all an unsold manuscript.
  • Weaker attempts at updating the show include references to Harry Potter and 50 Shades Of Grey. HP’s relevance is undeniable, but if you’re going to shout out Twilight fanfic, you should just shout out Twilight.
  • Favorite Dan line that also acts as a great callback: “I ain’t seen that movie in 20 years! Classics really do hold up.”
  • “Tag me in. You’re babysitting.” Roseanne’s still able to quickly stamp out teen rebellion.
  • I will push back a bit on the “either/or” phrasing of Roseanne’s question about Mark’s gender. If you ask me if I’m feeling more sad or happy on a given day, I’ll pick one of those instead of telling you the real problem is I’m hungry.
  • Jackie’s Ever-Expanding RĂ©sumĂ©: The former cop/truck driver/restaurateur is now Lanford’s most prominent life coach, according to the words coming out of her mouth when she meets Andrea.
  • It’s going to be weird to hear everyone saying loving and supporting things about “Mark,” right?
  • I wasn’t sure where to note this in this double review, but I just want to say that, just as the show isn’t operating in a vacuum, neither will my coverage. As much as I loved the show in its original run and acknowledge that there are multiple minds at work here, I don’t think we can ignore the real-life Roseanne’s political beliefs. I was in the room during the TCA winter press tour panel in which she tried to derail questions about Trump’s racist comments and her support of him by raising the specter of unfounded rumors about the Clintons and Haiti. But I see this as an opportunity for us to talk about the same issues raised on the show, including that other specter—economic anxiety—and the spurious notion that identity politics are creating more rifts than bridges. So, on that note, I look forward to reading your thoughts. Let’s, please, just be civil.
  • ETA: Regarding Geena, there’s a theory that D.J. married the girl he refused to kiss as a kid because Geena is also the name of his wife. I heard the rumor a while back, but the name drop in the premiere suggests the show might be moving forward with the idea.

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