Watching someone considered the best in the world at what they do can be a thrilling experience. It’s why we obsess over the Olympics and swoon for The Joffrey Ballet; why LeBron James is so captivating; why we’re fascinated by people like Itzhak Perlman, Viola Davis, Kendrick Lamar and Bernadette Peters. There’s a slight downside to watching these living legends, however: any missteps stick out just a little more. Not mistakes, per se—everyone occasionally hits a sour note or flubs a punchline. It’s when someone goes the wrong way, makes a choice that seems wholly at odds with otherwise peerless instincts, and it’s like a car horn in the middle of a symphony. Yes, it’s fair to compare “Roseanne” to a symphony, and yes, it has a handful of loud, atonal honks.
Not every revival and reboot currently storming the airwaves has a vital reason for being. That’s not the case for “Roseanne,” which may feel even more relevant now: the world is more chaotic, our societal ills more frequently (and fervently) discussed. But in the three episodes provided to critics, the most jarring notes are those aiming hardest for relevancy. When “Roseanne” is just “Roseanne,” it’s every bit the show it was decades ago, from the wilting couch and acidic barbs to the uncanny ability to swing from smiling to somber at a moment’s notice. When it’s consciously trying to be the new, Trump-era “Roseanne,” it’s reductive and silly, feinting at even-handedness and doing a poor job. In those scenes, it’s a mean-spirited mess, and perhaps more damningly, it’s not even funny.
Luckily, those moments are few and far between. For the most part, the series is concerned with dispensing with the formalities and getting right back to broke, loud, loving life with the Connors. Exposition is handled nimbly, both for those who remember the original series and those who don’t: Dan (John Goodman) didn’t die, and he and Roseanne (Roseanne Barr) both have some health issues with which they’re struggling; Darlene’s (Sara Gilbert) moved back home to help them with kids in tow, and there’s no David (Johnny Galecki) in sight; Becky’s (Alicia Goranson) still in town, dealing with her own personal losses and waiting tables; DJ’s (Michael Fishman) a veteran with kids with a wife who’s still off serving her country. And then there’s Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), whose early (and extremely brief) absence is conspicuous, and whose extremely welcome reappearance leads to most of the aforementioned “topical” scenes.
The best thing that can be said about those moments is that they’re short, though they don’t feel that way. They’re also altogether easy to forgive, because the rest of what’s offered is such a stellar example of what can be accomplished in the wrongly maligned multi-camera format. Goodman and Metcalf are LeBron-level experts of this kind of work, lending immediacy and honestly to every joke and wry, sad humor to even the heaviest moments. Goodman radiates warmth, as he did in the initial run, and it’s something of a thrill to see Metcalf dip back into the anxious, oddball, good-hearted well that earned her three consecutive Emmys in the early ‘90s. If anything, they’re both even better now, each finding quiet moments to let all the history we haven’t seen sneak into the room. And as always, they’ve got a knack for working a good old-fashioned “live studio audience.”
It’s a knack shared by Gilbert. It’s not as though she hung up her spurs when “Roseanne” first wrapped, but Gilbert is probably best known currently as a co-host (and co-creator) of the CBS daytime talk show, “The Talk.” Perhaps her day job has increased her ease with an audience, which wasn’t exactly shabby to begin with, so it should come as no surprise that she remains the most reliable font of punchlines in the “Roseanne” ensemble. What’s more surprising is that she has become in many ways the heart of the series, anchoring many of the show’s hardest-hitting moments with a vulnerability and warmth that don’t remotely inhibit her ability to nail a joke. Goodman and Metcalf are legends, but it’s Gilbert who’s the new MVP.
That brings us to the Roseanne of “Roseanne.” If the show has a weakness outside of its off-putting “topical” moments, it’s Barr’s portrayal of the still-compelling central figure. She’s as charismatic as she ever was, with great timing and that terrific laugh, but there’s a hesitancy to her performance, particularly in the first episode, that was rarely, if ever, in evidence the first time around. That’s a quality that does eventually seem to fade—in the second episode, she’s back in fine form—but whether due to nerves, a little rustiness, or some other factor entirely, the spark is somewhat diminished.
The same can be said of both Goranson and Fishman, though like Barr, Goranson seems more at ease as the series progresses. And while you couldn’t call the newest Connor kids rusty, the young actors recruited for this go-round lack the relaxed quality that made the young Goranson and Gilbert’s performances so memorable. Still, they all have a quality that’s essential to the show’s DNA: they can layer in the world-weariness, sorrow, or slight touch of bitterness that allow the jokes to land all the harder, because they feel so real. These characters are funny. They find life funny. But the reality isn’t funny at all.
At the height of its powers, that’s what “Roseanne” did best. Dan and Roseanne would hem and haw about entering a country music songwriting competition, then finally pluck up the courage because the $100 prize would make a hell of a difference for them; they’d get their hopes up, then lose, and it would still somehow be pretty much what they expected. Here, they realize they’ve got credit card points to burn but don’t prepare for the inevitable restrictions; their health insurance suddenly covers less, so they playfully split their pills between the two of them (and Dan gives Roseanne all the antidepressants, because that’s the best way to keep them both happy.) The Connors find plenty to laugh about, but Barr and the “Roseanne” writers never let the series enter the realm of the sunny multi-cam fantasy. Happiness comes from the people you love. The world is another matter.
What’s so frustrating about those on-the-nose “political” arguments is that they’re nowhere near as interesting as the actually topical stories in which they’re abruptly plunked down, like a dumbbell on the dinner table. “Roseanne” still grapples with everyday realities: the harsh world awaiting a kid who’s passionate about dressing outside the gender binary; the terrifying realization that a loved one is struggling with addiction; the acceptance of a job you hate because the benefits package can’t be ignored. Even when it’s just something as simple as a hotel requiring a credit card, it’s a thousand percent more compelling than Jackie shouting “deplorable” or Roseanne slipping out a “liar liar, pantsuit on fire.” Worse even than the fact that it’s so dull is that it feels so inauthentic, and authenticity was, and is, key to what makes “Roseanne” so special.
It’s great that Barr wants to get into some messy stuff. It’s a messy time. There’s room for it, and perhaps a need for it. In the grand scheme of things, those scenes don’t matter much, not when John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf are back in our living rooms, when Sara Gilbert is once again lending acidic heart to the series and Roseanne Barr’s ready to land punchline after punchline with a stare of disbelief or a cackle. Let’s hope that in the rest of this limited run, Barr and company choose to ease up on the “nasty woman” shirts and focus on the business at hand: bringing one of the best sitcoms in history back to life, and doing so right on time.