Great TV shows tend to be the product of a specific time in the lives of three groups: the characters on the show, the people making it, and the people watching it. When shows get brought back from the dead years later, one or more of those groups is different, yet too many shows in the recent flood of revivals try to go about business as usual, assuming the old material will work no matter the context, when instead the new episodes at best come across as pale imitations of what these shows used to be.
The handful of revivals that have creatively justified their existence have tended to be the ones that acknowledge those changes. The first revival season of The X-Files plowed forward as if no time had passed, stumbling badly along the way, but the season that just wrapped up last week mostly returned to early form by telling stories explicitly about Mulder and Scully being much older, and the world much scarier than the one where they first went looking for the truth that was out there.
Of all the classics being resurrected, few return with as many changes to the three key groups as Roseanne does. The original run was an all-timer onscreen, but tumultuous off it: a blunt, thoughtful, and bittersweet story of a blue collar family barely scraping by, inspired by the life of a star who fought constantly with the people in charge of the show until she took charge herself, for good and for ill (that final season where Roseanne won the lottery in particular). It’s been almost 21 years to the day since the original series finale, and in that time Roseanne Barr has very publicly gone through a lot of changes, the country is more bitterly divided than ever on many of the issues the original series raised, and all the members of the Conner family are two decades older. Wonderful as so much of ’80s and ’90s Roseanne was, few revivals have had higher potential for feeling wildly out of step in the current environment.
Instead, the three episodes ABC gave to critics — including both of tomorrow’s installments and one that will air later in the season — smartly lean into everything that’s different from when we last left the Conners, much less from when we first met them. It’s the rare revival that not only justifies its existence, but draws most of its strength from how much time has passed and what’s happened in the interim.
Run by Bruce Helford, who was part of the original show’s revolving door approach to executive producers, and Whitney Cummings, who was a teenager when the last new episode aired, the revival is fully aware of what’s different, and makes frequent nods to the changes. Some of this comes in the form of meta jokes designed to undo that awful final season — including that year’s one saving grace, a coda revealing the entire series as an unpublished manuscript of Roseanne Conner’s, which has to be tossed out with the rest because it killed off John Goodman’s Dan, who is very much alive this time around — and to incorporate both Lecy Goranson as eldest daughter Becky and Sarah Chalke, who replaced Goranson for most of the show’s later years and here plays a new role.
But the self-referential punchlines are less important than the nods to the passage of time, and to the evolution of all involved. Most notably in the premiere, we learn that Roseanne Conner, like her real-life alter ego, is now a die-hard Trump supporter who refers to Hilary Clinton as “the worst person on Earth.” You can argue about whether the fictional Roseanne — feminist, pro-gay, pro-labor — would have voted for Trump, but we all know people whose political allegiances seemingly did a 180 later in life, and a good chunk of Trump’s voting base was made up of “economically anxious” older white voters. And if both Roseannes are pro-Trump, the show itself allows for more viewpoints, starting out with the notion that Roseanne and her sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) have barely spoken since the election, a rift that younger daughter Darlene (Sara Gilbert) tries to heal after she moves back home with her own kids, daughter Harris (Emma Kinney from Shameless) and son Mark (Ames McNamara). And even once we’re done with jokes about taking a knee, nasty women, and making America great again, the new episodes feel very plugged into the America of 2018. Mark identifies as a boy but likes wearing skirts and other feminine clothes and makeup, which causes confusion at home and fights at school. There’s constant talk of medical costs and other financial concerns — Darlene has to consider taking a job she finds mortifying because it’s the only one available with benefits — and one character has a problem with opioid dependency.
Yet for all the necessary and welcome acknowledgments of what’s changed for the Conners and for America, these episodes also provide strong reminders of what’s exactly the same: the warm and jovial rapport between Barr and Goodman that leavens so much of Roseanne’s caustic wit; the loony gusto with which Metcalf still plays Jackie, even after she’s spent the last two decades (up through Lady Bird) demonstrating so much more of her range; and the sly timing of Sara Gilbert’s delivery, which feels even more natural from an adult Darlene than it did when she was a smartass teenager. The show heavily leans on those four actors — Goranson’s primary function is to let the other characters insult Becky, and Michael Fishman appears briefly here and there as son DJ, whose wife is a soldier serving a tour overseas while he takes care of their daughter — and if they all look and act older, the skills and chemistry they had two and three decades ago are still very much intact.
As one of the better shows to get a revival in this wave, Roseanne has had more of its legacy at risk from a potentially bad revival than, say, Full House or Heroes or Prison Break. And the potential for calamity was high, given Barr’s very erratic behavior over the years. But if it’s not at the level of peak original recipe Roseanne, it’s the platonic ideal of what a revival should be: one that doesn’t just scratch a nostalgic itch or answer some half-considered question about what the old gang must be up to today, but one that feels as vital and germane to its new era as it was to its old one.