In Hollywood everyone is talking about the spectacular ratings of the newly rebooted Roseanne show. Until its premiere, the idea of bringing back a sitcom from 20 years ago was further proof that the networks were out of ideas. But then the new Roseanne premiered to enormous numbers. Something like 20 million people saw the first episode; 18 million the second — so everyone in the industry went through the traditional phases of reacting to an unexpected success.
The first phase was corporate: the image of ABC, the network where it appears, went from tired and desperate to brilliant and shrewd — 20 million viewers is comparable to a $200 million opening for a movie. That is, as we say here in Hollywood, a non-trivial amount. In fact, until the new Roseanne took off, conventional wisdom said the days of 20 million viewers were over, that streaming video and the internet had made the idea of that kind of an audience quaintly out of date.
We now know that this isn’t true, and what’s worse, so do the CEOs and shareholders of the large media companies who own the big TV networks. This week there have been a lot of hot-tempered conference calls where terrified underlings tried to explain to disembodied, furious overlords why a competitor has managed to do what everyone thought impossible. So of course network executives across Los Angeles are right this minute scouring past series to reboot, frantically drumming up new and equally outlandish old TV shows for the Roseanne treatment. When something works in Hollywood, it won’t be alone for long.
The second phase was personal: most people in the TV business insisted they weren’t surprised at all. Walking through sunny restaurant terraces in Los Angeles, you could hear lunch companions boasting that they had predicted this, that barely one month ago they had begged this-or-that network to do the same, that it was all very clear from the beginning. When something works in Hollywood, everyone thought of it first.
The third phase was political: Hollywood is a liberal town, a reliable cash source for Democrats and left-wing fringe groups, a place where venal, zillionaire sociopaths ‘care deeply’ about a plastic sack in the ocean but think nothing of screaming obscenities at their employees. Hollywood is a place where — this is a true story — an internationally famous movie star fired her assistant when the assistant timidly asked for one day off while travelling to a political rally advocating better working conditions for illegal immigrants.
Hollywood is a place that loathes and fears the kind of people Roseanne depicts — whom Hillary Clinton dismissed as ‘deplorables’ in the 2016 US election — even as it tries to lure them in front of a screen. So when 20 million viewers sit down to watch a TV show in which the lead character is an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump, Hollywood asks itself this question: does anyone know who these awful people are and what else they might want to watch? Learning the wrong lesson is something we do well here in sunny LA. The mistaken lessons being learned around town are: we need more right-wing comedies, we need more nostalgic reboots, we need more working-class characters, we need to give more money to the Democrats so they can evict the cretin in the White House. All of those things may be useful — though it’s hard to argue that the Democrats’ political failures stem from a lack of funds — but they all miss the point.
In its first incarnation, Roseanne was a comedy about a working-class family in the Midwest. It appeared in the boom years of the 1980s and ’90s, and showcased the kind of Americans — the fat, coarse, unrepentantly tacky kind — who rarely appear on any form of US entertainment. In its second incarnation, it’s basically the same show, except now there’s one of them in the White House. The new Roseanne seems political because it’s the only show to acknowledge the existence of that kind of America.
It is a hit because it’s timely and relevant, but mostly because (so far) it’s funny. There are jokes about sex and the transgendered, race, money, the military, war and peace, parents and children — in other words, all of the subjects most ripe for juicy comedy, and all of the subjects most networks prefer to ignore or sanitise. Hollywood forgot about funny, preferring to aim for ‘quirky’ and ‘wry’, all very fine qualities if aiming for an audience composed mostly of baristas. But if you’re looking for the big score, you have to be funny. Eventually, you have to give the people what they want, even if the people are fat and revolting and what they want is a show about a Trump supporter.