ONE of the odder things about President Donald Trump is that, though he cheers supporters up greatly, he has no discernible sense of humour. Rarely seen laughing spontaneously, Mr Trump’s emotional range runs from bleak (“American carnage”), to scorn (“so stupid”), and a salesman’s boosterism (“Folks are going to be very happy”). One of the sadder things about the Trump era is watching American families and communities being pulled apart by political differences. On the face of it, then, ABC television took a risk when it commissioned a new season of “Roseanne”, a popular sitcom about a blue-collar clan’s trials and tribulations, built around the premise that, 21 years after the show last aired, its fictional family is now divided by Trump-love and -loathing.
The gamble paid off. Fully 18.5m people watched the season premiere on March 27th and another 10.9m saw it streamed, recorded or repeated in the next five days. The president, a veteran of reality television, telephoned to congratulate Roseanne Barr, the comedian who co-created and plays the character of the same name in the show. “He really understands ratings,” she reported. In real life Ms Barr is a woman of trenchant but hard-to-define political views. She once ran for the presidency on the Green Party ticket, has distinctly liberal views on gay rights and other social issues, but calls herself a fervent Trump supporter, praising the president for his populist economic agenda. More controversially Ms Barr has retweeted conspiracy theories from the far-right fringes of the internet, including tales of paedophile rings involving high-ranking officials that Mr Trump is supposedly battling. A day later Mr Trump took credit for the sitcom’s success, telling a rally in Ohio that the sitcom’s audience was so big because it was “about us”.
Mr Trump was partly correct. To the political strategists who have learned to slice and dice Americans into mutually hostile tribes, divided by race, class, education, age and geography, the “Roseanne” audience does look fairly Trumpy. The reboot is a particular hit in the Midwest and among older people, who watch more TV than youngsters glued to smart devices. Nielsen Media Research found the three biggest audiences were in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Kansas City, Missouri, followed by Pittsburgh and Chicago.
On a recent chilly April weekday, it was not hard to find devotees of the show in Elgin, a city in Illinois that “Roseanne” producers have called a model for Lanford, the fictional factory town where the sitcom is set. Elgin’s mayor, David Kaptain, says that “Roseanne” always struck a chord locally, thanks to its honesty about the economic, medical and personal struggles of its Conner family. When the show launched the town was still recovering from a grievous blow, the closure of the Elgin Watch Company plant, once the world’s largest watchmaking complex. The fictional Roseanne has had jobs at a plastics factory, a beauty parlour, a diner and a telemarketing firm. In the new season she is driving for Uber, the ride-hailing firm.
One local fan is Lenny Sacchitello, who runs a heating and air-conditioning firm in Wheeling, near Elgin, and watches it with his 11-year-old son. He voted Democratic when the first nine seasons of the show aired in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2016 he backed Mr Trump but is socially liberal, like the character Roseanne, who defends her daughter Becky’s decision to become a surrogate mother because “it is her body”, and stands up for her gender-fluid grandson when he insists on going to school wearing a skirt and sequinned boots. Mr Sacchitello says the show reminds him of family political debates. His wife, who comes from a blue-collar, Democratic-voting clan, is not watching the relaunch.
Elgin offers clues as to why “Roseanne” arguably has a better handle on Trump’s America than Mr Trump. The show is funny. It embraces change, as Elgin has had to. Formerly overwhelmingly white, today’s 112,000-strong population is still working-class but almost 50% Latino, around 7% black and 6% Asian. Elgin’s east side is poorer, more diverse and tends to vote Democratic. The west is white, older and more Republican. Partisan divisions run deep, even within families, says the mayor.
In the new “Roseanne” its caustic, witty matriarch says grace before dinner and concludes with thanks for “making America great again”. Her sister in the show, Jackie, confesses to voting for Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate in 2016. Sarah Gilbert, a producer and co-star, playing one of Roseanne’s daughters, says the sitcom is “about what happens to a family when there is a political divide”. But in contrast with the splenetic, us-and-them president, the Conners handle differences with love. Some leftish critics call that a fantasy, normalising Trump support. They should lighten up. Roseanne is hardly saccharine propaganda. Good people can disagree, and even laugh as they do so.