character studies

Darlene Is the Best Reason to Watch the New Rosanne

Sara Gilbert as Darlene. Photo: Adam Rose/ABC

The new Roseanne reboot premiered this week and according to first- episode ratings, the Conners are back. The theme song and Barr-barbs and crocheted blanket on the couch are all the same — but now Trump-era politics are at the forefront. The Conners are dealing with health-insurance woes and almost lost their home during the Obama administration. Roseanne Conner voted for Trump (as did real-life Roseanne Barr), while her sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) supported Hillary but in the end voted Jill Stein and now wears a pussy hat. The show works overtime to prove that even though the Conners voted for Trump, they still have some progressive values (in the form of a black granddaughter, a grandson who prefers gender-fluid dressing, and Becky’s weird surrogacy plotline). This iteration of the show is immediately so overstuffed with politics that it sucks all the air out of the room.

After the first episode, I was left wondering what made this show worth watching if I didn’t want to sit through its ham-fisted humanizing of Trump voters (or spend more time contemplating the real-life Roseanne’s politics).

Nobody has to watch this show, or like this show, but if there’s one reason to do so, I’d argue it’s Darlene (Sara Gilbert).

Photo: ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

In the original Rosanne, Darlene was an entry point for teens who felt misunderstood or out of place in their own families: She was a smart-ass, but also she was a layered, complex teenager in ’90s grunge layers. Teen Darlene was an outsider in her own family, but she was also fiercely loyal. She was the curly-haired tomboy to Becky’s shiny, popular blonde beauty. She had the same caustic humor as her mother, but also a clear-eyed modern view on how women move through the world, which offered a foil for the show’s sometimes conservative values — you could count on her to wear a MEAT STINKS shirt at table set with pork chops. She was the family’s misunderstood intellectual, with bad grades but hidden talent and wisdom beyond her years. Without her, would we have a Daria?

Grown-up Darlene has gone to college, got the job, had her kids — a moody teen daughter (ah, seasons change) and the aforementioned 9-year-old son who sees nothing wrong with wearing skirts and dresses and nail polish. She’s divorced, unemployed, and has to move back in with her parents, so she’s struggling to remain optimistic (well, for Darlene) while also wondering why she didn’t get the success and big, brag-worthy house she thought she’d get. As Willa Paskin points out in her Slate review, Darlene really is the heart of the show, even more so than she was in the original version.

Poor or not, under a President Trump or Hillary, Darlene’s story line is just about a woman living her life in a certain set of circumstances she can’t control. And while she provides that blessedly dry comedic relief, she says something more modern, more complex, more nuanced than the loud and oversize politics that try and garner more attention. And yes, if you’re just here for nostalgia: She still wears flannel, and yes, Darlene and David will reunite for a single episode.

The New Rosanne Is Pretty Weird, But Darlene Still Rules