Some Thoughts On Cancelling Roseanne

Roseanne’s new iteration of her family sit-com was cancelled by ABC shortly after a series of tweets by the star of the show. She called a former Obama advisor the child of the Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes, then doubled down for a while when people called her racist. Then she apologized, but it was too late.

I had been following the return of the show, and it was a mixed bag. It took some time to set up new characters and situations, and the cast was uneven in how easily they returned to prior roles. If you know the show, sister Jackie and daughter Becky were firing on all proverbial cylinders, as if no time had passed. Others, well, they were finding their groove. As the season came to a close, it was as if they had found the formula again. Season two should have been good.

The show was tackling current events and issues. A new grandson liked to wear a dress, older divorced children had moved back in with parents, the nursing home had kicked grandma out, and Roseanne was hooked on opioids.

In one episode, Roseanne wanted to help her mixed-race grandchild speak with her mother who was serving overseas. They waited up until 2 am to do it, then found that wi-fi had been cut off. The only solution was to go ask the neighbors to borrow their login info.

The neighbors were a new Muslim family in the neighborhood, and Roseanne had been suspicious of earlier in the show, spouting some typical American fear in their direction. She goes to their house, wakes them up, and asks the favor.

I had heard about this show in the news. It’s the one where Roseanne calls Muslims names! What a terrible show!

There was actually a bit more to it. Later, Roseanne is at the grocery store and runs into the new neighbor wife, who is being denied purchases on her EBT card. Roseanne explains to her that roasted chicken is considered a luxury and can’t be bought with the card.

Roseanne gives the new neighbor $30 to cover the costs. The cashier makes disparaging comments about the woman (“my taxes are paying for your stuff…”). The same sort of uninformed talk Roseanne herself had been delivering. But she knows her neighbors a bit better now, and they were nice to her. And helpful.

“You know that “see something-say something” phrase? Well I just saw something and I’m going to say something…” Roseanne says to the cashier. “I’m reporting you to your boss for the way you treated that customer.”

The show ends with the husband neighbor coming to Roseanne at 2 am, returning the $30. “You didn’t have to come over at 2 am to do this…” she says. “Oh, yes I did,” he replies (paying her back for waking them up.) 

The new series was laying the groundwork for some weighty topics and issues – identity, age, drug addiction, the economy, and getting along.

ABC has scrubbed its site of any mention of the Roseanne reboot. Gone are the actor bios and streaming episodes.

Barr says she was on Ambien when she made her remarks – not using it as an excuse but an explanation. She had a bit of a history making insensitive remarks, and this was probably seen as a straw breaking the ABC camel’s back. ABC is owned by Disney and likes to think of itself as the family network.

Of course, cancelling the show wasn’t the only possible option. With House of Cards, the lead actor was fired but the series continued. NPR personalities were simply fired and replaced. Prairie Home Companion renamed themselves. It makes everyone feel good to take action and do something.

Having a show named Roseanne with a star named Roseanne would be difficult to keep going without the star. But, I keep thinking of teaching moments and opportunities to improve, and wonder if this couldn’t have been one.

What if, instead of cancellation or firing, ABC held their star accountable? What if ABC made her an example – not by firing, but by educating? (I know its a long shot, folks…) What if they offered her a chance to go on all ABC talk shows and make amends, after meeting with people she hurt? What if she had to cut some PSA’s, to educate others? What if they helped her with her Ambien problems? Did we miss an opportunity here?

We live in an era that resembles a Roman coliseum. Subtlety is gone, replaced with the very Roman thumbs up or thumbs down decision making. I like it, or I don’t like it.  There’s no room for shades of gray, and little room for discussion.  One is either great, or evil.  It’s all, or nothing.

But people aren’t like that. There are shades of gray, and issues can’t always be solved with a like-dislike mentality.

To be specific, Roseanne was under contract to ABC and ABC knew what they signed up for. They could have assigned handlers or taken away her tweeting ability, but they didn’t. She used her freedom of speech, however abhorrent, during her personal time, not at work or in the show. I was able to watch the show and not read any tweets. They weren’t tied together.

Should our jobs be at risk because we say things in our own free time? Does it matter what we say?  What if the boss doesn’t like our anti-Trump comments? What if we were fired for calling someone deplorable?

Free speech is difficult, but important. Right now, it is under attack by the very wealthy. Peter Thiel sued and shut down a news site he didn’t like. Wealthy NFL owners think they can decide that black men cannot have free speech on a football field.  Elon Musk wants to decide what news is worthy. 

The answer to speech we don’t like is not to suppress it but to have more speech – the analysis, criticism, and debate that keeps us “civilized.” That’s not to say that saying offensive things won’t have consequences. There will always be consequences. Roseanne has learned that lesson, as have the makeup people, costume and set designers, camera operators, and other show staff impacted by cancellation.

Leave a Reply