How 'Roseanne' Had the Most Disastrous Endgame in TV History

One racist tweet later, TV's most popular show is no more – but the new 'Roseanne' had already done irreparable damage before that

Rob Sheffield on how 'Roseanne' had the most disastrous endgame in TV history – and why its creator's racist tweets were just the tip of the iceberg. Credit: ABC

Roseanne no longer holds the record for the ugliest endgame in TV history. The new champion is ... Roseanne. Back in 1997, America's favorite family flamed out with an "it was all a dream" final season that insulted any fan who ever loved the Conners. But then, like so many stories, this one got even nastier in 2018. Roseanne Barr, now a far-right pundit fond of racist tirades and conspiracy theories, rebooted the show, and Roseanne 2.0 shocked the industry in late March by blowing up into a ratings blockbuster – the biggest hit on TV. 

That is, until it got the axe yesterday, when her latest bigoted rant provoked a "previously oblivious" ABC. What could sum up the state of America right now better than a celebrity compressing this whole sordid epic rebirth-and-crash arc into eight damn weeks?

The short and unhappy afterlife of Roseanne has been sheer torture for anyone who loved the original series. It was no fun to see this once-revolutionary every-American portrait revamped into loathsome Trumpist propaganda. But it's even less fun to watch it burn. The cancellation isn't any kind of moral victory or sic semper tyrannis; it's more a case of "mission accomplished." The new show did everything it set out to do, then got cancelled for political reasons, which is probably also what it set out to do. "She went too far" is the punch line she must have craved all along. The legacy of New Roseanne is just beginning.

On Tuesday morning, Barr tweeted about Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett: "muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby= vj." It wasn't the first insane thing she published that day. It wasn't even her first morning cup of racist swill – she'd already posted anti-Semitic accusations about George Soros, promptly RT-ed by the President's son Donald Trump Jr – but it was the one ABC was waiting for. After a hasty "it's a joke-," Barr went into uncharacteristic fits of contrition, apologizing "to all Americans" and proving her acting chops don't improve when she's typing.

It didn't work. ABC axed the most popular show on television. By Tuesday night, Barr was in victim mode, cranking out excuses. As she posted last night, "I was ambien tweeting [damn you, liberal pharmaceutical barons!] – it was memorial day too." Hey, what red-blooded American hasn't topped off a Memorial Day weekend with hot dogs, burgers and racist Zolpidem binges?

When the reboot dropped in March, I went into detail about how wretched the first two episodes were. Unfortunately, that was before shit got really bad. Like the Very Special Episode wherein she heroically befriends her new Arab neighbors, who aren't terrorists after all – it was like an ICE remake of the Sanford & Son where Redd Foxx tries sushi. At the end of the season, the Conners face ruin from a flood (oh no!) and surgical bills (eek!), except there's a happy ending: The flood touched President Trump's heart and he's sending them thousands of dollars in FEMA money. Seriously, that was last week's season finale – and as of today, the series finale, though I'll believe that when my FEMA check clears.

The new show did everything it set out to do, then got cancelled for political reasons, which is probably also what it set out to do. "She went too far" is the punch line she must have craved all along.

Laurie Metcalf, after nearly stealing the Oscar for Best Actress from Allison Janney, was humiliated as Roseanne's fantasy of a Hillary voter, i.e. an idiot who stomps around in a pussy hat and a "Nasty Woman" t-shirt. Considering Clinton got more votes than any candidate in U.S. history, this was perhaps a slightly narrow picture of the American mainstream. But Barr could only allow Jackie in the story as a cartoon – probably because she realized she wasn't up to battling an enemy who could talk back.

That phony smarm seeped through the whole cast. After Barr's Tuesday tweet, Sara Gilbert announced, "I am disappointed in her actions to say the least," which really WAS the least. Emma Kenney, who played the granddaughter, did what she could to make it worse by claiming, "As I was calling my agent to quit working on Roseanne, I was told it was cancelled" (quelle coinky-dinks!) and took credit for "standing up for morals and abuse of power," having stood for nothing right up to the minute her boss got canned. Kenney's previous tweet, before she knew her job was over, was a Gilbertian case of the disappointeds. Sorry, but "disappointed" is when the Rockets miss the finals, not when your proudly bigoted paymaster hits send on her quarter-hourly abuse of power.

Even after the cancellation, the delusion of her castmates was a marvel to behold. Gilbert, from whom we all once expected so much, shared hurt feelings: "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." Any three-word sequence in this quote is hilarious, but "all of us" might take the cake. (No, maybe "are proud of." "One cast member"? "As we've created"? Tough call.)

How did this happen? Old Roseanne couldn't be more different from New Roseanne. Back in her Nineties heyday, she was a fresh kind of blue-collar feminist hero, with an edge of danger in her comedy. It's not that you always liked her; it's not that you agreed it was a groovy idea for her and Tom Arnold to sing "The Ballad of John and Yoko" at Farm Aid. But she sure made it fun to be on her side, and she made it even more fun to share her enemies. Barr pissed off the people everyone else was too chickenshit to offend, starting with the Reagan-Bush axis. When she sang the National Anthem at a ballgame, spitting and grabbing her jock, then-President George H.W. Bush declared it "disgraceful."


This scandal might look tame by today's standards, but it was a bombshell in the grim summer of 1990, as every corner of the media was gearing up for war in Kuwait. It was so startling to see any TV star refuse to back down to Bush, even over a petty skirmish like this. There weren't a lot of rich and powerful and visible people expressing our perspective; she was on our side and stayed there. (The fact that people now casually talk about this unbearably awful Bush as a moderate is a measure of how far the extreme right has pushed the middle.)

And Old Roseanne never failed to court controversy, but she always made it count. Can we talk about how brilliant she was hosting the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards? "Tonight we secretly replaced a lot of the bands' heroin with Folgers Instant Crystals" – nice. "I'm not upset about my divorce, I'm only upset that I'm not a widow" – classic. Her big scandal was a quip about the conservative VJ named Kennedy "blowing Rush Limbaugh." The MTV employee's response was to mime fellatio on her mic while standing onstage next to poor Mayor Rudy Guiliani, who didn't notice because he was presenting the Viewer's Choice Award. (As Kennedy wrote in her 2013 memoir, "Yes, the mic did reach climax, thank you. I'm that good.") In the Nineties, this passed for a vigorous bipartisan debate.

After Roseanne fell apart in that final season, Barr went into hiding; over the next couple decades, she was nowhere near as visible as former husband/protégé Tom Arnold, which was kinda weird. (Did anyone else notice her big racist meltdown came on the 14th anniversary of his 2004 film Soul Plane, where Tom played token white passenger Elvis Hunkee?) Like most fans, I remembered her fondly yet had no idea she'd flipped politically. But even if I'd known, I couldn't have guessed what a debacle the New Roseanne would be.

Executive producer Wanda Sykes, who was just dandy with having her name in the opening credits until yesterday, defended the show this season, in strikingly lame terms. "Extreme anything is nuts," she told Metro Boston. "Extreme left is just as nuts as the extreme right. The only way that we're going to patch things up in this country is the people in the middle got to start talking to each other instead of just battling it out on Twitter." Note: She said this in April 2018, not October 2016. What kind of rabid both-sides apologist is still clinging to "just as nuts" equivalences at a time like this? A statement like this says a lot about how a disaster like Roseanne happened in the first place.

New Roseanne was designed to normalize the extreme right by presenting it as the safe middle. It did a good job with that. As the unflaggingly controversial Bill Maher warned a few years ago, it's pointless to suck up to the moderates on the other side, for one reason: "There are no moderates on the other side." And that was 2010, when the GOP was far more moderate, i.e. it still allowed members to badmouth Nazis. You can't claim the middle ground when there is no middle ground. Roseanne played to the far right and argued that it WAS the middle, a feat not even Trump could achieve. It helped make the country a palpably shittier place to live, in just a couple of months. It's going to keep right on doing so. How much better for our nation if this once-great show had never existed.