It’s been a while since we sat down and talked about something that has become so important to our lives, politics, and entertainment: nostalgia. It is the single biggest impulse that has propelled us over the past decade, everything from Ghostbuster reboots to political campaigns. And perhaps the latest and moist poignant example of nostalgia is the revival and cancellation of Roseanne. In fact, this whole episodic tale is beginning to look a lot like an allegory for our current political and cultural times. Let us explain.
A Very Special Episode
Roseanne was a TV sitcom that ran from 1988 to 1997, which seems like prehistoric times, right now. It was a show about a blue collar family facing real life problems, and it was a hit. It propelled Roseanne Bar and John Goodman to stardom, and it resonated with families coming off the promised prosperity of the Reagan times. It was about two working-class parents and three -and later four- children just trying to get by in the Midwest. It was the flip-side of the 80’s, not the colorful buoyant big hair-side, but the socio-economic dynamic that became all too common for families in the later half of the 20th century. The show did not shy away from tackling real and sometimes controversial issues in between its crass and realistic humor. It glorified the working-class family while not hesitating to show its flaws and challenges.
There is something noble and memorable in that depiction and it changed TV in the same way other landmark shows had before it, but like most things in the age of nostalgia it was only a matter of time before it came roaring back. Roseanne Barr championed the show’s revival in 2018, amidst the age of Trump and the inescapable polarized politics of our time. Part of the concept was that the Connors were a Trump family, which ultimately makes sense. Midwestern blue-collar voters are exactly the type of people who propelled the Orange Man into the White House, and who -to this day- remain some of his most loyal supporters. It also fits with the characters and it was a hit for ABC because it gave a voice to people who felt they were underrepresented in Hollywood. There was only one problem, nostalgia.
Roseanne Barr tweeted a racial slur which caused ABC to cancel her show, but the warning signs were already there. Roseanne had already run aground with some of its episodes, especially in its portrayal of race and politics. The episode in question portrayed Roseanne accepting her Muslim neighbors only after they proved to her that they were some of the “good ones” and not “terrorists” as she said they were in the beginning of the episode. There is all sorts of problems with the depiction of the “useful minority” in entertainment, but when you look at the structure and layout of the episode it is actually a pretty standard 90’s sitcom plot. Main character makes assumption, has assumption challenged, and then changes attitude at the end of 23 minutes of runtime. Its a formula that works with teaching Michelle Tanner to like ice cream, or Roseanne Connor to like Muslim people. In 1992 it probably would not even have raised an eyebrow, but that is the problem with nostalgia, revivals, and tat yearning for something from the far off ancient 90’s. The world is different, it has socially evolved and moved on. Roseanne has not. The thing that is wrong with the show is that it is a relic of a past that has not gone beyond the older ideas of a time when the most diverse thing on TV was Steve Urkel.
A Situational Complacency
Nostalgia is an odd friend. It comforts us and tells us sweet lies about the past, but look too close and it can become a bitter enemy. “Make America Great Again” is basically a slogan distilled in, and drunken with, nostalgia. Roseanne follows in that very trend. It is an idea that people think they want because they think they remember a time in the past when things were better. So, we instinctively yearn for that imagined past. It was how Trump won the White House, and even how our kind -nerd-kind- came to dominate the pop culture landscape.
Research has shown that nostalgia is an evolutionary trait. It is a form of self-delusion that allows us to feel connected with our past and close with our social connections. It could very well be the thing that first caused humans to bind together into larger societies, but there is also a darker aspect to it. The past is never as good as we remember. We add our own layers of nostalgia and fuzzy feelings to it because it helps us feel better about who we are and where we came from. Of course, riding bikes on a warm summer’s night as a child is better than working 8 hours at a office desk or cleaning out the garbage disposal, but all the bad? What about forgotten homework, and puberty and bullying… just because you looked or felt different. You see there is good and bad in equal measure of the past and the present. That doesn’t change because we choose to remember the good over the bad, and if we keep pursuing a feeling that never really existed than all we really get is stuck in a cycle of depression and disappointment. You can’t reach for something that was never truly there in the first place.
Now we are not saying that nostalgia is bad, -heck, we have built our careers on it- but sometimes things are meant to be left in the past: like polio, or racism, or dial-up internet. Wanting to Make America Great Again implies that it was once great or that it somehow stopped being great, and those are just outright lies. America is different to everybody, and it is great or not-so-great to varying degrees for everybody. Roseanne was great for its time, but bringing it back is just going to be a disappointing exercise in recapturing something that we remember fondly because of ourselves, not because of the show itself. That is why all these reboots of shows or movies never seem to really work. They are temporary shots in the arm of something personal, but once that wears off all you are left is with a mediocre movie.
The Serious Finale
It’s worth taking Roseanne as a cautionary microcosm of our greater culture at the moment. There is a lot about the past to be admired and remembered fondly, but trying to Make America Great Again by reviving that past will only lead to some ugly truths about us and where we came from. Roseanne Barr gave us exactly what we asked, a revival of her old sitcom, and that was the problem. Now, we personally believe those ugly truths of our past must be faced and overcome by moving forward. Yet, they should not be celebrated or yearned for, like some imaginary safe space from some long forgotten era. No they must be confronted with clear hindsight and a better hope for the future.
If we try to make America what it was, than we are ignoring all that America is today. The past you are trying to recapture never really existed in the first place. It was full of fond memories, but it was also full of bad ones, and tragedies, and permissible bigotry and sexism. So be warned, because returning to the past means taking the good with the bad, the light with the dark, and the funny with the racist tweets.