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Matthew Gilbert

ABC played with fire, and got burned by Roseanne

Roseanne Barr at the premiere of "Roseanne" on March 23 in Burbank, Calif. Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP/File

ABC played with fire when it brought Roseanne Barr back to TV this year. And the network got burned, big-time. It was a quick conflagration: The star of ABC’s “Roseanne” revival tweeted out a racist comment Tuesday morning, and ABC — without any hemming or hawing — canceled the hugely successful show in the afternoon.

Long before Donald Trump brought his incendiary reality show to D.C., Barr had been a master at winning attention through provocative stunts. So when ABC decided to bring back “Roseanne” this year, its executives knew all about the star’s incessant need to abrade, her desire to agitate through social media, her embrace of far-right conspiracy theories.


But on Tuesday, she went too far. Barr attacked former Obama White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, a black woman, with a racial smear, tweeting: “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj.” After a weak effort to dismiss the tweet as “a joke,” she issued a dutiful apology a few hours later, to Jarrett “and to all Americans.” But there was no denying it: Barr had thrown out a detestable slur on ABC’s watch, and, if the network didn’t take decisive action, it would pay the price in public rejection and, possibly, an advertiser boycott.

It wasn’t the first time that Barr had compared a black member of Obama’s team to an “ape.” In a 2013 tweet, she used the term in a profane description of Susan Rice, who was US national security adviser.

ABC certainly could have foreseen Barr would someday go public with more bigoted statements. Consider the political climate: With Trump — a passionate promoter of the claim that Barack Obama was not born in the United States — calling undocumented immigrants “animals” and blaming people “on both sides” for a white nationalist clash that led to a woman’s murder in Charlottesville, Va., racists who support Trump are out in the open. As a kind of avatar for the president, who called to congratulate her for her big ratings after the premiere of “Roseanne” this spring, Barr was destined to echo the beliefs and language of some of his most extreme supporters.


But still, bravo, ABC, for putting your mouth where your money is — and I’m talking a lot of money. The new version of “Roseanne” has been a massive hit, drawing some 18 million live viewers per episode and ending its nine-episode season as the top scripted series on broadcast TV. It had already been renewed for a second season, and its success has ABC and the other networks trying to devise the next Middle American sitcom hit. That’s part of the reason Fox picked up Tim Allen’s “Last Man Standing” for next season, a year after ABC dropped it. Now ABC will start the fall season without its flashiest success.

Back in March, when Barr began tweeting again after a break, Ben Sherwood, the president of Disney-ABC Television Group, told The New York Times: “You can’t control Roseanne Barr. Many who have tried have failed. She’s the one and only.”

But Channing Dungey, ABC’s entertainment president since 2016, wasn’t having it on Tuesday. “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show,” she said in a statement that was stunning for how swiftly it was delivered. Dungey, by the way, is a woman of color, the first to head a major broadcast network.


After Barr’s tweet about Jarrett, but before the news of the cancellation, consulting producer Wanda Sykes, who is black, announced she’d be leaving the show. Cast member Emma Kenney said she called her manager to quit, too, but found out “Roseanne” had already been canceled. Barr’s agents cut ties with the star later in the day.

This is not the first time a series has met its demise due to its star’s offensiveness. The Food Network severed its relationship with celebrity chef Paula Deen and canceled her shows after she admitted to using racial slurs. And TLC dropped “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” when reports surfaced that June Shannon, Honey Boo Boo’s mother, was dating a convicted child molester. But, since Barr is bound up with Trump, the “Roseanne” cancellation has added political layers. On social media, Trump supporters are accusing ABC of being politically correct, of caving in to liberals, of being anti-Trump.

Since its premiere, I’ve defended the “Roseanne” revival because none of Barr’s personal nastiness seemed to have made it into the scripts. I also don’t think an actor’s or a writer’s political choices should necessarily dictate our opinions of their work. In the 2018 version of the show, there was a clear line drawn — as there was during the show’s first nine-year run — between the offensive Roseanne Barr and her character, Roseanne Conner, who is a loving mother to a racially diverse family and a gender fluid grandson. Oddly enough, despite Barr’s support of Trump, this season of “Roseanne” delivered a harsh view of life for the lower middle class in the current political climate.


But active bigotry and racial hatred are inarguable, and ABC appears to understand that. Rather than bending over backwards to somehow justify Barr, taking the “on both sides” approach, the network is doing the right thing by cutting the cord, and quickly, in the same way NBC quickly disowned Matt Lauer and CBS and PBS quickly sacked Charlie Rose for their #MeToo offenses, once they became public.

Sara Gilbert, who plays daughter Darlene and is an executive producer of the series revival, tweeted her regrets: “This is incredibly sad and difficult for all of us, as we’ve created a show that we believe in, are proud of, and that audiences love — one that is separate and apart from the opinions and words of one cast member.”

Alas for Gilbert, that’s one cast member who can’t be replaced.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.