How’s this for a surprise—the biggest hit of the 2017-18 broadcast season is a 30-year-old show headlined by a polarizing star: Roseanne Barr, an outspoken Donald Trump supporter.
A month after its return, Roseanne has climbed to the No.1 spot for the broadcast season in both total viewers and adults aged 18-49. The previous time Roseanne held top spot as the most watched program on television was 28 years ago, during the 1989-90 TV season when there were only three fully-fledged networks, with FOX only programming two nights a week.
This is just one of the astonishing achievements for ABC’s revival, which has shaken up the TV landscape, exceeding expectations and triggering soul-searching among network executives, stunned by the magnitude of the show’s success.
The Season 10 debut last month delivered a staggering 8.1 demo rating and 27.3 million viewers in Live+7, Roseanne’s largest overall audience since January 1995, outdrawing the sitcom’s last 90 telecasts. The ratings were so big, President Trump tried to take credit for them.
“It was a surprise to all of us,” says Roseanne executive producer/showrunner Bruce Helford, who also briefly worked on the original series. “We knew there was a great love for the show back in the day and that new generations grew up watching the show in reruns, so we expected a warm welcome. But this was beyond expectations, especially in the 18-49 ratings.”
While nostalgia was expected to bring in eyeballs, no one predicted such a huge turnout for the blue-collar family sitcom with a Trump-supporting protagonist, especially among the younger demographic. (But then, few predicted that Trump would become the Republican nominee and would win the presidential election when he first announced his candidacy.)
Somehow Roseanne transcended age, recruiting droves of young viewers for a show whose two leads, Roseanne Barr and John Goodman, are both 65, well outside of the 18-49 demo. It tapped into the zeitgeist of Middle America, tackling its economic problems—and political leanings—head-on. (The show addressed Trump in the very first episode.)
“One of the reasons we felt the show needed to come back was that there were very few naturalistic shows dealing with working class families,” Helford says. “There was a vacuum in that area that we felt we could fill, and also show how those families are dealing with the pace of life now and the complexities of American life in 2018. Obviously a large portion of the TV audience felt they were missing that, too.”
That probably is the biggest game changer the success of the Roseanne reboot could bring as it underscores the untapped potential of comedies that provide realistic portrayals of blue-collar America and make a social commentary, something rarely seen since All in the Family. It will also likely bring on another wave of revivals of classic sitcoms.
And while Barr has been a lightning rod of controversy—flipping off Jimmy Kimmel while promoting the series, talking outspokenly about her political views and embracing wild conspiracy theories on social media—she didn’t want her personal opinions to dominate the series, and that balance has helped draw wide audiences for a show whose star has been dividing fans, Helford thinks.
When the two first sat down to discuss the reboot, Helford recalls that Barr did not mince words. “She goes, ‘I’m Roseanne, I have things that I believe in. Other people might not believe in some of them; other people may love what I believe in, and we can’t worry about that. I just want to be sure we present all sides.’ That was her. [But] she’s like, ‘Whatever my character says, I want somebody balancing that, whether it’s Darlene or Jackie or whoever.’”
Additionally, “we took risks,” Helford says, pointing to the show tackling the opioid epidemic and illegal workers, and featuring a grandson who wears dresses. “We’re saying things that other people wouldn’t say, and we’re exploring things that other people wouldn’t think would be [great] to explore. We wanted to encourage a dialogue. Roseanne says, ‘Maybe there’s a way to get people to stop hating each other.’ That’s a big thing for her.”