I was 13 years old the first time I saw Roseanne on Nick at Nite, six years after the iconic ‘90s sitcom aired its series finale. I came to the show late, but it could not have found me at a better time: I was an awkward and angry teenager struggling to fit in with friends who always seemed to have it better than me. My family was working class, but at the time, I didn’t know what that meant. All I knew was that sometimes, the lights went out if the bills weren’t paid; other times we would have to play a game of “Hide and Seek” with my dad’s truck and the bank’s repo man. All I knew was that my family was poor, and my friends were not.
It didn’t take more than the opening credits sequence of Roseanne to get me hooked. As I sat in my dark living room, hours past my bedtime, and watched those first few moments, I saw my family come to life on screen. The Conners’ kitchen was cramped and messy, their table was covered in bills and snack food and nail polish, and around it sat a group of people who yelled as often as they laughed. I was transfixed. Sure, the first episode aired two years before I was born and it was nearly 15 years before I ever laid eyes on it, but the outdated ‘80s fashion and outmoded technology (or lack thereof) was nothing in comparison to how accurately Roseanne captured my precarious existence.
The now-iconic working-class sitcom just got me. Like my family, the Conners lived paycheck to paycheck, never sure if they’d be able to pay the mortgage or keep the truck running. Roseanne and Dan weren’t the only ones who understood their unstable financial situation, either. All of their kids — the smart and rebellious Becky, the sarcastic and witty Darlene, even the dopey but loveable D.J. — were hyper aware of how much money came in and out of their cluttered home, and lived in a space of insecurity. There were no secrets in the Conner family, because they couldn’t afford them. Analogous with my family’s real-life conflicts, personal, familial, financial, or otherwise, episodes of Roseanne didn’t always have a happy ending. More often than not, the show left viewers unsure of anything other than the fact the Conners would be back at it next week, trying to make it work.
More than just understand my kind of life, Roseanne found joy in it. The Conners may not have been able to afford designer jeans, their house might have been the biggest eyesore on the street, and even their dream vacation to Disney World ended in disappointment, but that didn’t stop them from smiling and laughing and finding genuine moments of pleasure in an otherwise humdrum existence. They fought each other as much as they joked around, cried as often as they hugged, and proved that, in between the calls from bill collectors, unsuccessful job searches, and family drama, there could be happiness, triumph, and contentment, however fleeting. The Conners made me feel like my family could do the same, whether or not my dad’s business ever took off, or my mom got a promotion, or I had the coolest clothes in school.
But in Roseanne’s final season, one I barely made it through and the only season I haven’t rewatched since, the show betrayed me and its loyal working class viewers when it had the Conner family win the lottery. In an instant, eight seasons of making me feel seen and understood, of making me feel normal and acceptable, of making me feel hopeful and optimistic about my own future went out the window with the Conners’ poverty. Suddenly, as the Conners spent their money lavishly and went on adventures that took them outside their working class world, the show became foreign, unrelatable, and alienating. What’s worse, it seemed to confirm everything I had feared to be true: In the end, money is all that matters, and all anyone every really wants.
In the original series’ final moments, it’s revealed that Roseanne made the entire thing up because she had become an author. The Conners were poor, Dan had died, Jackie was really a lesbian, and Becky was meant for David all along. Despite its attempted reversal, Roseanne’s final season still left me bitter and angry and disappointed, like I had been hoodwinked by a trusted friend.
For years, I felt like Roseanne owed me an apology, and finally, in the show’s 2018 reboot, I’m getting one.
After much anticipation, Roseanne premiered Tuesday night on ABC with back-to-back 30-minute episodes. In 2018, life for the Conners hasn’t changed that much: Their beloved couch is as beat up as ever, the family is still struggling to keep up with the bills, and there is more than enough sarcasm and wit to go around. Roseanne’s signature laugh is still the same iconic cackle, even if the woman whose mouth it echoes from seems markedly changed. Much has been made of the fact that, like the actress in real life, Roseanne is a Trump supporter, and the show wastes no time getting to the point. In an argument between the Conner family matriarch and her pussy hat-wearing sister, Jackie, viewers see American politics played out on screen in a very relatable way. Just like that, the Roseanne reboot gets to the heart of what made the original so special: the raw way it portrays a middle-class family, fights, flaws, faux pas, and all.
For this viewer, the best part of the reboot’s first episodes was Darlene Conner, played by series original Sara Gilbert. The last time we saw the second eldest daughter of the family, she was a new mom and a newlywed all at once. More than that, though, she was the one Conner who had made it out of Lanford: She went to college, got a good job, and was on the cusp of becoming what both she and her mother had only ever dreamed of — a writer. In the reboot, though, Darlene is a down-on-her-luck single mother of two forced to move back into her family home. Although she tried to hide the fact she lost her job, the truth of it is, Darlene is a woman defeated by her own dreams. Her mother’s generation told her women could, finally, have it all if they put in the work, but Darlene’s generation is emblematic of the harsh reality that women can never have it all in America. At least, not all at once, and not without help from their family.
In a way, her storyline felt like the apology I had always been waiting for. It was heartbreaking and bittersweet to see the character I had pinned my own hopes and dreams on fail so spectacularly, but it felt honest in a way the show’s disappointing Season 9 never did. Of course things didn’t go perfectly for Darlene — how could they? She’s a Conner, a representative of the working class who was promised a better life and instead inherited the same, if not worse, circumstances of adulthood as her parents.
Darlene’s floundering feels so real and authentic, but it also doesn’t feel definite. Like the original series, the Roseanne reboot can’t hold Darlene down, at least not yet. If there is one thing this show taught me in its original run, and what it will hopefully continue to teach viewers new and old, is that the Conners, especially the women, are survivors. Not because of the jobs they get, the money they inherit, or the lottery they win, but because of their own inner strength and resilience in the face of everyday failures.
Like the original series, the rebooted Roseanne doesn’t just portray a working-class family, it slices one open and reveals its inside, blood, guts, and all. Some viewers might want to look away, unable to sit with the ugliness of living the paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle, the reality that most dreams don’t pan out, and the way those realities can change a person.
Me? No matter how rough it gets, I don’t think I can ever stop watching, and man I’m I glad there’s even more to see.