At an infrastructure event in Ohio Thursday, President Donald Trump touted the surprisingly strong ratings of the premiere of ABC’s “Roseanne” revival, which featured its lead character defending a vote for him, mocking Hillary Clinton, and dismissing the mainstream media as not “real news.”
"Over 18 million people! And it was about us!” Trump said. “They haven't figured it out! The fake news hasn't quite figured it out yet! They have not figured it out! So that was great. And they haven't figured it out. But they will. And when they do, they'll become much less fake."
The hour-long premiere, bringing Roseanne Barr’s Conner family back to television for a tenth season nearly 21 years after its finale aired, drew a total audience of 18.2 million Americans, averaging a 5.1 rating in the key 18-49 demo. It was the highest-rated sitcom broadcast since September 2014 and ABC’s top-rated hour telecast since 2006.
The audience exceeded even optimistic expectations for the latest in a trend of reboots of a long-dormant hit series, outperforming other recent returns like “Will & Grace” and “The X-Files.”
The show earned its best ratings in midwestern media markets where Trump performed strongly in 2016 like Tulsa, Cincinnati, and Kansas City. However, it also drew more viewers than last September’s “Will & Grace” premiere in Los Angeles, New York, and Boston.
Experts say the stunning ratings are likely a result of several elements: nostalgia, star power, politics, and quality.
“For the nostalgia factor, we are just in the sweet spot of reboots and ‘Roseanne’ was very popular back in the day,” said Alison Dagnes, a professor at Shippensburg University and author of “A Conservative Walks into a Bar: The Politics of Political Humor.”
The pre-show buzz about her character’s support for Trump generated some interest, but Tobe Berkovitz, a former political media consultant and a professor of advertising at Boston University, expects the revival would have been a hit regardless with a star of Barr’s caliber at the helm.
“It’s Roseanne, who had one of the all-time hit quirky sitcoms…. All the to-do about Trump is the icing on the cake,” he said. “The show probably would have done fine anyway but probably did finer because of all the publicity.”
On Wednesday, Trump called Barr—who voted for him and has often defended him in interviews—to congratulate her for the success. In an early scene of Tuesday’s opener, Barr’s Roseanne Conner defended Trump, making the economic case for supporting him.
"We may not have it all together, but together we have it all." @RoseanneOnABC sets record ratings as the Conners come roaring back to primetime, and we speak LIVE to @therealroseanne about her phone call with the President and the return of the show: pic.twitter.com/CEBMfnnBAx— Good Morning America (@GMA) March 29, 2018
“He talked about jobs, Jackie,” she told her sister, who voted for Jill Stein because Roseanne filled her with doubts about Clinton. “He said he’d shake things up. I mean, this might come as a complete shock to you, but we almost lost our house the way things are going.”
Elsewhere in the hour, which included the first two of nine episodes, Roseanne joked about Russia, national anthem protests, and Clinton’s pantsuits. She also expressed support for her young grandson’s gender fluidity.
“By the time it got to the second episode, it goes much more into the old Roseanne territory of much more progressive types of things…,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “That second episode was more about the gender identity and tolerance of the grandchild who likes to wear dresses.”
The ratings have been celebrated by Trump’s media allies. His son, Donald Jr., tweeted that Barr should bring her perspective to late night because the numbers prove “there’s some demand for an alternate point of view.”
Fox News host Sean Hannity applauded Barr as a “proud deplorable.” Also on Fox, “The Five” co-host Kimberly Guilfoyle suggested Barr’s patriotism and love for the president contributed to the “monster ratings.” On the same show, Greg Gutfeld observed that the show’s ratings in the 18-49 demo surpassed Sunday’s “60 Minutes” interview with porn star Stormy Daniels about her alleged 2006 affair with Trump.
The conservative enthusiasm is predictable, Dagnes said, because the right rarely achieves this kind of popularity in entertainment. She noted the contrast between Clinton’s big-name celebrity supporters and people like Scott Baio and Antonio Sabato Jr. who spoke at Trump’s convention in 2016.
“With that glaring disparity between the number of A-list celebrities versus D-list celebrities, it does not surprise me that President Trump and his surrogates were very excited to get a thumbs-up in pop culture,” she said.
The show portrayed a Trump voter in a more positive light than a lot of mainstream comedy does, but it was not unsympathetic to liberal perspectives.
“In reality, there’s something for everyone,” Berkovitz said. “The focus was on Roseanne and her pro-Trump attitude, but you name a contemporary social issue and it was brought up, sometimes sympathetically, sometimes not so sympathetically.”
The show’s producers have stressed that, while political clashes between Conner and her family will continue to play a role, audiences expecting a full-on MAGA-com every week may be disappointed.
“I'm really happy with the balance in the show,” co-showrunner Bruce Helford told the Hollywood Reporter. “Roseanne said that [the revival] ‘can't be my bully pulpit, it has to be everybody.’”
Though Helford said they intentionally addressed Barr’s Trump support up front, politics does not dominate the rest of the season and “everybody is going to find something that they love and believe in.”
>>Anyone who watches "Roseanne" should see tht we know life is a struggle for most Americans & it did NOT get easier during th 20 years we were off the air! Let's face the issues we have in common, & help our families, neighbors & leaders pull TOGETHER toward SOLUTIONS! PLEASE?— Roseanne Barr (@therealroseanne) March 29, 2018
ABC has had mixed results with working-class family sitcoms in recent years. It has had a few mild hits like “The Middle” and “Speechless,” but nothing nearing the success “Roseanne” appears poised to be.
Last season, the network canceled its long-running Tim Allen sitcom “Last Man Standing” a decision the conservative comedian and his fans blamed on politics. While the show drew nearly as many total viewers as “Modern Family,” the network’s top-rated comedy that year, it was outperformed in the 18-49 demo by all of the comedies ABC renewed.
The success of “Roseanne” is already driving “Last Man Standing” fans to call for its resurrection, something ABC has so far shown no interest in. TMZ reported Thursday that Fox is considering it, though.
“One thing ‘Roseanne’ did 20 years ago that other shows don’t do is that it’s authentic to its blue-collar setting,” Dagnes said.
Shows that present a working-class family in a respectful way and do it well have long found audiences, and some have endured for years. Thompson pointed to “The Honeymooners,” “Good Times,” “Sanford and Son,” and even “The Flinstones” as examples.
“You can tell stories about regular working class people that can be compelling and moving and funny,” he said.
As is often the case these days, appealing to one audience risks alienating another.
The Advocate chronicled the struggle of LGBTQ audiences who once praised Barr for the original show’s inclusive storylines, like her 1994 on-screen kiss with another woman.
Tracy Gilchrist, the publication’s feminism editor, said even the involvement of co-star/producer Sara Gilbert and writer Wanda Sykes did not outweigh Barr’s support for Trump for her.
"At this point, to me, Barr is a privileged white woman with a lot of money who can afford to burn it all down while claiming to be revolutionary, to the detriment of not only LGBT people but women, immigrants, people of color whose lives he’s put in danger with dog whistles to the white supremacists and so on," she said.
James Berg, the gay writer who co-wrote “Roseanne”’s 1994 same-sex kiss episode, told the Advocate it was refreshing to see characters talk honestly and laugh about these issues in the revival.
"If you’ve seen the show, it’s trying to emulate what’s going on in real life across the country. Families have been broken up and aren’t speaking because of this issue," he told the Advocate.
According to BuzzFeed, some black viewers who related to the show in its original run were wary of its return. Others bluntly rejected it as an attempt to normalize bigotry.
“It wasn't ‘in your face’ and ‘tell it like it is’ and presenting both sides,” tweeted Crooked Media podcast host Ira Madison III. “Jackie's Hillary voter was a shrill caricature. Roseanne's Trump voter was masturbatory NYT profile cliché of someone who's just struggling working class.”
Not all conservatives are thrilled to see this particular pro-Trump, blue-collar matriarch in the spotlight either.
“There’s something else going on in ‘Roseanne’ that should disturb conservatives: the redefinition of Trump supporters as blue-collar leftists rather than conservatives,” wrote Ben Shapiro in the Daily Wire. “Roseanne’s character is pro-gay-marriage, pro-abortion, feminist, and pro-transgenderism — and the implication is that she is a good person because of these views.”
The support for the skirt-wearing grandson in particular irked Shapiro. He describes Conner as “a class heroine, not a cultural one,” suggesting she could easily have been a Bernie Sanders supporter instead.
“The only kind of Trump supporters Hollywood will tolerate are those who cheer small boys dressing up as small girls,” he wrote.
It's actually a Hollywood fantasy of what Trump voters are: people who agree with Hollywood elites on values, but just disagree on economics because they're old white factory workers. (/4)— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) March 28, 2018
Shapiro’s disappointment underscores the rift that Trump cleft into the conservative movement.
“The president of the United States has been married three times, has had numerous affairs,” Dagnes said. “What exactly are conservative values these days?”
A midwestern family that is feminist, pro-choice, and pro-LGBTQ but is suffering economically does not strike her as being out of synch with Trump’s base, even if it does clash with more traditional Republican positions.
“It does indicate a shift, and I think it is a shift that is reflective of President Trump making the presidency about him and not about a political ideology,” Dagnes said. “He doesn’t have a guiding political philosophy.”
Roseanne Conner’s balance of Trump-friendly economic frustration and social liberalism also reflects Barr’s own politics. She told Jimmy Kimmel that keeping Trump in office was critical to preventing the more conservative Vice President Mike Pence from ascending.
“I think Pence is not as good as Trump, not as accepting, and not as, you know — I think that he’s way more radical,” Barr recently told the New York Times.
The focus on Trump in the last 48 hours obscures what some see as a more obvious reason for “Roseanne”’s success: it is a funny show with a talented cast.
“The lesson there is have known talent—and even that isn’t always the panacea—have good writing, and have something that people have a yearning to watch,” Berkovitz said. “She fulfilled a need and a desire that a lot of people had for a certain type of sitcom.”
Relatability helps, but Thompson suggested the likely flood of efforts to replicate the “Roseanne” formula in the years ahead will need more than a Trump-loving blue collar family to become hits.
“A good show is a good show…. It doesn’t have to be about us,” he said, noting that consistently top-rated sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” is about extremely intelligent scientists who work at a university in Los Angeles.
Barr and the show’s producers are already talking about another season, which seems like a foregone conclusion. Berkovitz will be watching to see if the ratings and the quality hold up in the weeks ahead.
“It was a comedy,” he said. “This is not King Lear. It’s there to make the audience laugh.”