“Roseanne” returns to ABC on Tuesday looking much as you probably remember it. There’s that couch. There’s that quilt. And there are Roseanne (Roseanne Barr) and Dan Conner (John Goodman), lovingly busting each others’ chops.
Granted, they’re older and achier, and Dan now sleeps with a mask for sleep apnea. But he’s alive, so he’s got that going for him. The original sitcom’s 1997 finale killed him off, an ending the revival laughs off as the two wake up in bed. “I thought you were dead!” Roseanne says. “You looked happy. I thought maybe you moved on.”
Airs Tuesdays on ABC
Oh, Roseanne! In TV today, no one moves on and nothing truly dies. We’ve resurrected “Will & Grace,” “Twin Peaks” and “American Idol,” with “Murphy Brown” on the way. If all you need from the new “Roseanne” is Barr’s materfamilias sarcasm, the crack team of comedy actors surrounding her and an update of the show’s working-class gallows humor, it has you covered.
But the new “Roseanne” also has the potential to do something a little deeper and more ambitious than your average nostalgia-fest.
It memory-holes the sitcom’s final year, a bizarre flight of fantasy and pop-culture parody in which the Conners won the lottery and Roseanne was revealed to have become an author. By resetting, the new season does more than hark back to the show’s better years. It re-establishes a continuity in which life has gone on, yet no one’s life has really panned out.
Roseanne never became a professional writer. Neither did her daughter Darlene (Sara Gilbert), who’s boomeranged back home with her two kids. Roseanne’s other daughter, Becky (Lecy Goranson), is a widow waiting tables, never having gotten a college degree. (Glenn Quinn, who had played Becky’s husband, Mark, died in 2002.)
The Conners aren’t just preserved. They’re stuck. And they’re stuck in a way that underlines the show’s original mission of representing the kind of paycheck-to-paycheck life that other, more upscale sitcoms of the era left behind.
In 1988, Roseanne and Dan were in their 30s, stretching to pay the mortgage. Now they’re in their 60s, swapping pills because their insurance doesn’t pay enough to fill all of their prescriptions. Dan lets Roseanne have all the anti-depressants: “If you’re not happy, I have no chance of being happy,” he says.
Close your eyes, and you could be listening to vintage “Roseanne.” This is good and bad. The series’ voice is intact, but the zinger-based dialogue and rhythms can feel dated.
But the beauty of the show’s language is how many feelings those zingers can communicate. The Conners use insults to express love and test old wounds. A conversation can shade from friendly chain-pulling to actual fighting and then back again.
In the first episode, the big fight is America’s big fight. Roseanne supported Donald J. Trump in 2016, as Barr vociferously did. This has alienated her from her sister, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), who greets her, “What’s up, deplorable?”
Roseanne’s Trumpism has alienated her from some fans too, who say it doesn’t sound like the feminist who stood up to her bosses and shot down sexist pigs. “All human beings connect sex and love,” she once told Darlene. “Except for men.”
Personally, I wouldn’t have predicted it. But I buy it. First, the election left a lot of people stunned at the choices of (actual, nonfictional) friends they thought they knew. Second, Roseanne has always been a version of Barr, re-imagined in different circumstances. And finally, well, people are complicated — “weird” is the Conners’ preferred self-description — and a strength of the show has always been its refusal to put people in neat boxes.
In any case, the storyline is confined to one episode of the three screened for critics. The original series rarely talked politics openly; it just lived the country’s realities in all the little ways that matter. As Barr told The Los Angeles Times in 1992: “We do it. We don’t talk it.”
The other plots are more about personal struggles — work and school, bills and pills. The Conners’ son D.J. (Michael Fishman) is back from the Army, raising his young daughter while his wife serves in Syria. (The youngest Conner son, Jerry, is off somewhere working on a fishing boat.)
Becky, meanwhile, is applying to be a surrogate mother for a well-to-do woman — played by Sarah Chalke, who took over for Goranson as Becky in the show’s original run. It’s another meta joke, yes, but with a kick: Becky is trying to better her prospects by having a baby for another, more fortunate version of herself.
In one of the stronger new stories, Darlene’s son, Mark (Ames McNamara), a spirited 9-year-old who likes to wear skirts, discovers that Lanford, Illinois, is not as tolerant of daring fashion choices as his old home in Chicago. It’s a nuanced episode, pitting his grandparents’ worry for him against the Conners’ constitutional mandate to be defiantly different.
It also echoes the third-season episode “Trick or Treat,” in which Dan fretted that D.J. would get bullied for dressing as a witch for Halloween, while Roseanne went to the bar in a convincing beard and passed herself off as one of the guys. (In the end, Dan broke up a bar fight she was about to get into: “He’s my husband!”)
There’s a lot more here that recalls earlier “Roseanne,” which I mean as a compliment, but also points up a limitation of today’s many revivals. In the best-case scenario, they can approximate the original. (Metcalf and Goodman fall back into their characters seamlessly.) But they’re too wed to expectations to improve on it.
This “Roseanne” at least has reasons to exist beyond, “Why not?” One of them is the same reason it was refreshing 30 years ago: There are scant few sitcoms now about working-class families, like “The Middle,” about to end its run on ABC, and “One Day at a Time,” just renewed at Netflix.
“Roseanne” is a revival that’s willing to grapple with the time that’s passed rather than deny it. It’s feisty and funny and a little sad. And like that old couch you can’t throw out, it may just have a good year or two left in it.