Each year now, as the number of TV outlets expands, more and more shows rush in to fill the space. And those products that stand out from the crowd because they arrive on the market with brand familiarity – “Dynasty,” for example, or “Gilmore Girls” – are at a premium. So a few old shows get pulled out of obscurity and put back to work, one more tour of duty on the prime-time schedule. Their immediate familiarity to audiences lowers the financial risk for networks and streamers, as it triggers a deluge of nostalgic stories in the media that double as free ads.
Yup, it’s the era of redux. And it’s the mini-era of revivals, which — unlike reboots and remakes — bring the original casts back together in an effort to recapture the magic, and the ratings. Next up: “Roseanne,” which returns to ABC with most of the cast intact, on March 27. It’s TV doing what the world of entertainment loves to do — giving you more of what you’ve liked, whether or not it’s the most creative choice. Indeed, in many cases — “24,” “The X-Files,” I’m looking at you guys — it’s creatively bereft, a business decision and little more. These returning shows may be called revivals, but they’re often more like embalments.
By now, you can probably tell that I am not inclined toward revivals. Why bring back stories — even “Murphy Brown” is returning — that were played out during their original multi-season runs? There can be a variety of reasons to reboot a show such as “One Day at a Time,” or the forthcoming “Party of Five,” if you change the cast, bring in an ethnic family history, and add in some new relevance. In those cases, the show serves as a franchise that’s bigger than the original actors, and the material has been updated to chime somehow with the present tense. In most reboot cases, though, there’s no added resonance, no sense of them being founded on new ideas.
I see very little reason to bring back shows such as “Will & Grace” and “Roseanne” with the original casts on hand, and not just because their returns negate the breakups and deaths portrayed in their original series finales. We know upfront that there will be very little character development and discovery; after eight and nine seasons, respectively, all of the characters have been explored about as much as any sitcom character can be. “Will & Grace” is still well-written, in that it’s filled with character-based jokes and timely zingers. But the premise of the show, once groundbreaking in a pre-gay marriage world, is no longer edgy, and the best the NBC sitcom can do right now is serve as comfort food.
Will that be the fate of the “Roseanne” revival — a bit of nostalgia for viewers, as well as a pre-sold product for advertisers? I hope not; the original series was pioneering in the way it delivered a realistic portrait of a working-class family while avoiding sitcom stereotypes. Over the years, since “Roseanne” premiered in 1988, many domestic comedies have followed in its footsteps, such as “According to Jim,” so its premise isn’t particularly fresh.
Roseanne Barr, in promoting the series, has made it clear that her character will be a Donald Trump supporter like her. “I’ve always attempted to portray a realistic portrait of the American working-class people and, in fact, it was working-class people who elected Trump, so I felt that was very real and something that needed to be discussed,” she said earlier this month, “especially about polarization within the family and people actually hating other people for the way they voted, which I feel is not American.”
Sara Gilbert, who plays daughter Darlene (and is an executive producer on the revival), echoed Barr’s sentiments at the same event: “The working class has been underrepresented in politics and on television, and this just felt like a wonderful time and opportunity to give a voice to some people in this country.”
With that story line, will “Roseanne” become a kind of apologist for Trump? Or will “Roseanne” be an “All in the Family” for the Trump era — especially since one of Roseanne’s grandchildren on the show will be a 9-year-old boy who likes to dress in girls’ clothing. Let’s see how things shake out in Lanford, Ill., 11 years on.
Starring: Roseanne Barr, John Goodman, Sara Gilbert, Laurie Metcalf, Michael Fishman, Lecy Goranson. On: ABC, March 27 at 8 p.m.