It’s hard to judge TV revivals such as “Roseanne” and “Will & Grace.” On the one hand, the fact that they’re revivals is a turnoff even before we see their familiar title sequence. These serialized stories ended years ago, often after so many seasons that their creative wad was spent — the ninth and final season of “Roseanne,” for example, a mess that turned out to be a dream. The shows are being pried out of their peaceful rest — OK, exhumed — to provide the TV market with recognizable brand names.
On the other hand, when these revivals show up, it can be like finding lost friends. They trigger the old feels, and for an instant we can believe that we’ve somehow defied death, that finality isn’t really a thing, at least when it comes to TV, that we can see Lorelai Gilmore once again.
“Roseanne” pulls from both of these directions, and the end results are mixed. The show has been revived 21 years after cancellation to join in ABC’s family sitcom obsession, and to give us the sight of the Conner family — including John Goodman’s Dan, whose death in the final season is dismissed with a joke — in the Trump era. There are many efforts to update the story lines, some of them painful and others more interesting and successful. The show returns with two back-to-back episodes on Tuesday at 8 p.m.
On the painful end, there’s the misguided decision to make Roseanne Barr’s Roseanne Conner — who we know as a pro-choice and pro-gay feminist — into a Trump supporter like Barr is in real life. It feels out of character with what we know of Roseanne, who would probably dislike a man whose track record with women and the LGBT community is as lousy as President Trump’s. And it means Roseanne and her anti-Trump sister, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), haven’t spoken in a year, and when they finally do, they spit now-tiresome phrases, including “Deplorable” and “Snowflake,” at each other, with Jackie in a pink pussy hat and a “Nasty Woman” T-shirt. More than a year after the presidential election, their digs are played out, and, after the premiere, the subject doesn’t come up again in any of the three episodes available for review. So Roseanne and Jackie were passionate enough to stop talking for a year, but now they’re over it?
Yes, “Roseanne” has always been a political series, but in a more stealthy — and powerful — way. When the Conner family arrived on TV in 1987, they represented the struggling blue-collar people who weren’t generally the subjects of network sitcoms. They wrestled with money problems, and we saw the way our elected officials’ decisions played out in their home. When the new “Roseanne” does that — a comment about Roseanne not being able to afford a $3,000 deductible for knee surgery, for example, or Dan’s inability to pay for a hotel room — it’s much, much more effective.
Other updates work better, including the plot about Becky (Lecy Goranson), a waitress who is thinking of becoming a surrogate mother for a $50,000 payday. There are, perhaps, too many issues crammed into the Conner family now, but the logic of each works well. Darlene (Sara Gilbert), raising two children on her own (including the perfectly cast Emma Kenney from “Shameless” as daughter Harris), moves back home. Her son, Mark (Ames McNamara), is non-gender conforming and wears feminine clothes and says things such as “I like colors that pop, it’s more creative,” a twist that challenges Roseanne and Dan nicely. One character, a little later in the nine-episode season, will believably face opioid addiction. D.J. (Michael Fishman) is a veteran raising his mixed-race daughter while his wife is still serving in the military. And — the perfect joke — Jackie has become a life coach.
Throughout it all, despite the flaws, regardless of the sense that all involved probably should have let “Roseanne” alone, it’s pleasing to see this gang having a good time together again. When I finished three episodes, I was ready to sit down with three more. The relationship between Dan and Roseanne appears to be quieter, befitting their age, but Goodman and Barr continue to exude warmth and chemistry with each other. It’s great to see Gilbert as the cool Darlene again, but older and with more emotional potential; she is more central this time around (Gilbert is now one of the executive producers). There are plenty of good zingers in the scripts, as always, many of which are deeply embedded in character — and none of which have anything to do with the president.
Starring: Roseanne Barr, John Goodman, Sara Gilbert, Lecy Goranson, Laurie Metcalf, Sarah Chalke, Emma Kenney, Michael Fishman, Ames McNamara, Jaden Rey
On: ABC, Tuesday at 8 and 8:30 p.m.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.