DYSTOPIA AND THE ROSEANNE REBOOT
I caught up with the Conners last night on my streaming service. The first two episodes, which premiered to blockbuster ratings (something I’m surprised the POTUS hasn’t tweeted about yet, though according to Roseanne herself, he did call to congratulate her) reintroduce us to the Conners. Twenty years have passed, but the more things change, the more they seem to get worse. Dan and Roseanne cannot afford their medication, so they have a cute little scene as they divvy it up. Roseanne has a bad knee and probably needs surgery, but they can’t afford it. Darlene's moved back home with her children, Harris (who is basically Darlene 2.0) and Mark, her non-gender conforming son. Darlene tells everyone she’s moved back home to take care of her parents, but eventually the truth comes out: she’s been fired from her job. Meanwhile, DJ has recently returned from a tour of duty in Syria, and his wife and the mother of their biracial child is still there. Jackie and Roseanne haven’t spoken for a year, driven apart by the 2016 election, in which, as we all know by now, Roseanne voted for Trump. Lastly, we see Becky, who is a waitress and is working on a scheme to act as a surrogate for a rich woman for $50,000.
A lot of digital ink has been spilled about Roseanne being a Trump supporter. Roseanne Barr is a Trump supporter, and it’s hard to understand why unless it has to do with money and a general enjoyment of chaos. Roseanne Barr attempted her own runs at the presidency on a fairly insane libertarian platform centered around legalizing drugs. The argument behind Roseanne Conner’s Trump vote basically boils down to “He talked about jobs. And making things like they used to be.” All of that is what it is. Many have pointed out that this narrative about the white working class flocking to Trump is, in fact, fake news. Again, it is what it is.
But I’m here to talk about something more disturbing, at least to me. These characters, sitting around that old familiar table, plopped on that old familiar couch, are actively watching their lives and society deteriorate. Roseanne and Dan can’t afford decent healthcare, and are forced to divide their prescriptions up between themselves. There has been no generational progress--the one Conner child who seemed to have a shot at something, Darlene, has been fired from her job, but we don’t even know what she was doing, except that it was in Chicago. DJ and his wife are veterans of one of our many endless wars. Becky is actively selling her body in order to climb out of credit card debt and maybe put a down payment on a house.
Becky and DJ are pressed into service by the higher classes, who can’t bare their own children and have no wish to fight in conflicts that are spiralling out of control and/or quagmires. Darlene has a job interview, but the job pays nine dollars an hour, doesn’t offer benefits, and fifty other people were applying for it. If the American Dream includes some hope that each subsequent generation will have a better life than the previous one, that seems to be dead as a doornail in the Conner family. The myth of upward mobility is laid bare in these first two episodes.
Roseanne (and maybe Dan, but we don’t know how he voted) has voted against her own interest, lured by the populist babblings of an orange fucking idiot. A wannabe demagogue, a puppet of a hostile power, as if merely saying jobs jobs jobs made jobs return. Magical thinking, if there ever was. Meanwhile, Dan and Roseanne are being ravaged by their age and their lifestyles (although they both look great, for the record.) They are one health crisis away from complete disaster. Dan seems to still be working, although Roseanne is probably retired. Their household is as close to the financial brink as it ever was in the original run, and Darlene’s return, children in tow, threatens it even further.
The only character that has perhaps bettered herself is Jackie. Roseanne and Jackie have not spoken since the election, when politics bitterly divided them, but Darlene brings Jackie back into the fold. When Jackie knocks on the door, she’s all dressed up in her pink pussy hat and Nasty Woman tee-shirt, and the two sisters go at each other in the way that many of us with politically non-homogenous relatives have in the past year and a half. Healthcare is brought up more than once, and Roseanne just waves it away. Jackie brings Russian dressing for dinner (which made me lol, for real.) Jackie also brings a pretty typical liberal response to members of the armed forces when she talks to DJ, nervously saluting him and thanking him repeated for his service. (The one lesson we’ve seemed to have learned from the Vietnam era is honoring our troops, even if we fundamentally disagree with what they had to do.) Jackie, as she reminds us many times, seems to have gotten a degree in Life Coaching. It’s played as a joke, but it’s really not that bad of a profession. She’s gotten an education in the intervening twenty years, and while she still needs to do her laundry at Roseanne’s, she’s getting along pretty well. When the sisters make up, we learn that Jackie wasted her vote on Jill Stein, mostly because Roseanne bullied her into being afraid of Hillary. (Although Jackie can rest easy--Illinois went to Hillary anyway.) Jackie apologizes and Roseanne forgives her, and peace is brokered. Great.
This morning, at the gym, I was listening to an episode of Slate’s Trumpcast, in which the host, Jacob Weisberg, interviewed Timothy Snyder, the author of On Tyranny and The Road to Unfreedom. Snyder specializes in Russian and Eastern European history, and he made a strong case for the Russian worldview as championed by Putin. He calls it the politics of eternity, which stands in direct opposition from the politics of inevitability (basically, that things will continue to get better) which was the controlling ideology of most of the 20th century. I’m going to quote directly from Snyder’s March 13th article in The Guardian:
The collapse of the politics of inevitability ushers in another experience of time: the politics of eternity. Whereas inevitability promises a better future for everyone, eternity places one nation at the centre of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past. Within inevitability, no one is responsible because we all know that the details will sort themselves out for the better; within eternity, no one is responsible because we all know that the enemy is coming no matter what we do. Eternity politicians spread the conviction that government cannot aid society as a whole, but can only guard against threats. Progress gives way to doom.
Time is a flat circle in this worldview. The politics of eternity are steeped in a deep cynicism--nothing really matters. Everything is returning to the same shitty place from which it came. Progress is a lie, and nothing will ever change. Humans trudge along, caught in machinery that eventually grinds them down. You could draw a line between this and Orwell’s 1984, and I invite you to do so in my summer literature course. Hey, it’s online!
The rebooted Roseanne is an artifact of the politics of eternity. The children return, crippled and demeaned by the economy, forced to sell their bodies, not to get ahead, but to climb out of a hole. Cynicism reigns. The jokes are mostly even handed politically, but really, instead of punching up or down, it’s basically punching sideways. The problem with punching sideways is that you are only hurting the people closest to you: your sister, your children, your parents.
Watching the reboot, I was struck by how starkly dystopian it was. Bodies as commodities, the collapse of the worth of knowledge, endless wars that divide families, politics breaking those families apart, and the feeling of being trapped in a system designed to ruin you. I mean, you could write about four dystopian novels out of that material. Instead, we are invited to watch it unfold in front of us, in what amounts to real time. Instead, we are encouraged to laugh. Instead, we are fed this pablum of the eternal return, of the death of progress. The Conners always struggled, but they fought a good fight. Roseanne and Dan were both union members at points in their careers, and one of the main fights between Roseanne and her daughters was about Roseanne pushing them towards education and away from the dead end pink collar jobs she took. (I mean, DJ was always a lost cause. I’m just glad he’s not a serial killer.) In the reboot, none of this matters. The circle returns us to the couch, to the table, and everything is as bad or worse than it was before.
One last thing: Roseanne Conner would not see Hillary Clinton as a monster. She’s a powerful woman, and so was Roseanne Conner. The original show was progressive, and tackled everything from domestic abuse to unions to same sex relationships. This reboot is only here to sell the American people not a sense of comfort but instead a sense of doom. We’re all circling the drain in this worldview.