Courtesy: ABC

Opinion

Exit Roseanne, Stage Right

Damn, that was quick. After Roseanne Barr tweeted her racist, witless “joke” about former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett early Tuesday morning, demands for ABC to axe her hit series flew thick and fast on social media. But that just seemed like par for the course to us: the standard, predictable geyser of liberal outrage that, just as predictably, would end up dissipating in steam and vapors as the S.S. Roseanne grandly sailed on. Sure, she’s a vicious nut case and all that, but you can’t argue with ratings. Right?

Wrong. Nobody expected the network to pull the plug on its hottest sitcom before noon on the same day, especially since Barr had already not only tweeted the usual mealymouthed apology, but announced she was leaving Twitter. (To her most famous fan, Donald Trump, that probably sounded like the equivalent of committing hara-kiri.) But that’s just what ABC did, with network entertainment president Channing Dungey issuing the terse death sentence: “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show.”

Like Jarrett, Dungey is African American. So is comedian Wanda Sykes, who’d been a consulting producer on the Roseanne reboot but promptly quit the show after the Jarrett tweet. But the execs at ABC’s parent company, Disney, aren’t, at least by and large, and Dungey had their full backing. “There was only one thing to do here, and that was the right thing,” Disney CEO Bob Iger added when he retweeted Dungey’s cancellation notice. Barr’s management agency, ICM Partners, promptly cut ties with her, too.

In the #MeToo era, we’ve gotten used to seeing celebrities brusquely disgraced for heinous behavior. (Back before she went loco, “heinous” was one of Roseanne’s favorite words, incidentally.) From Bill O’Reilly to Laura Ingraham, we’ve also seen the power of advertiser boycotts, which the network was undoubtedly anticipating this fall. But even so, Barr’s instant toboggan ride off TV is remarkable.
A celebrity like Roseanne can’t vent swill this vile without wrecking her career. Only the U.S. president has that privilege.
All of two weeks ago, ABC was crowing up Roseanne’s success at a swank advertiser showcase at Lincoln Center. The rebooted series was the proud flagship of the network’s craven pivot to programming aimed at “heartland” (translation: white, right-wing) audiences in the wake of Trump’s win. It was reported that, behind the scenes, executives held their noses at the star’s unhinged Twitter rants, which regularly endorsed right-wing conspiracy theories like “The Storm,” a fantasy about a child-sex trafficking ring run by prominent Democrats that Trump is secretly busting up. But in public, ABC’s top dogs dutifully tried to pretend that Barr’s tweetstorms just proved the gods broke the mold when they made her, and so on and so forth. “You can’t control Roseanne Barr,” the network’s Ben Sherwood told the New York Times in March. “She’s the one and only.”

If you ask us, she was more like the sitcom half of the two and only. Barr and Trump are such an ideal match in sensibility and temperament, not to mention “heartland” appeal, that OK Cupid’s algorithms would pair them up in an eye blink. On the show, Roseanne-the-character’s pro-Trump politics were actually pretty lame, timorous stuff. She defended her vote for him by telling sister Jackie in the premiere, “He talked about jobs,” not “He speaks up for white supremacists, and it’s about time somebody did.” But it didn’t matter, because Roseanne-the-performer’s support for Trump is so well-known that her mere presence on prime-time TV in 2018 turned her into a walking, squawking MAGA cap.
Let’s not forget that, in the Trump era, moral stands are often also sound commercial decisions.
We didn’t have any objection to that, either. As major fans of the 1990s Roseanne, we didn’t think it was at all implausible for Roseanne Conner to end up as a Trump fan 20 years later—or Laurie Metcalf’s Jackie to reemerge as a Hillary Clinton devotee in a pussy hat, for that matter. If we gave up on the reboot fast, that wasn’t because it was too edgy; it was because it was too coy, too complacent and too smug. It was also dishonest about confronting its own premise’s implications in a way the original series never was, and ABC was apparently hoping for even more dishonesty—that is, an even vaguer political tone—in the new Roseanne’s second season. So sue us if we aren’t exactly mourning the reboot’s demise for reasons unrelated to its star’s noxiousness on Twitter, even if that’s what got Barr very justifiably kicked off the air.

Meanwhile, ABC is getting congratulated for taking a moral stand, and probably should be. Still, let’s not forget that, in the Trump era, moral stands are often also sound commercial decisions. Roseanne may have been the network’s highest-rated sitcom in years, but even that wasn’t worth alienating the millions of nonwhite, non-right-wing viewers who tune into ABC’s other shows, or prompting an advertiser boycott, or facing an embarrassing exodus of disgusted cast members and behind-the-camera staffers in Wanda Sykes’ wake. Once Barr’s tweet turned the show into such spectacularly tainted goods, its ratings would almost certainly have plummeted come fall, anyway.

All the same, we’re bracing for the imminent blowback from MAGA-land. As of this writing, Trump himself has yet to weigh in on Twitter about his sitcom doppelganger getting the axe. But the cannot be said for Ted Nugent (yuggh) or Alex Jones (double yuggh), the latter having already invited Barr onto his show “to strike back against the THOUGHT POLICE.” Lots more in that vein are sure to come, although not—perhaps surprisingly—from Bill O’Reilly. Instead, O’Reilly tweeted this: “Roseanne Barr’s vicious, personal attack on former Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett came out of nowhere and cost Ms. Barr and the entire staff of her program their jobs. @ABC/@Disney could not continue with the show without insulting millions of Americans.”

That could be a hint that O’Reilly is looking for a bus ticket to Rehabilitation Road, but he’s usually pretty good about sniffing a change in the wind. (He’s also right about the lost jobs; while John Goodman's and Laurie Metcalf’s accountants probably won’t lose any sleep, that isn’t true of dozens and dozens of small-print names on Roseanne’s payroll. Many of them undoubtedly don’t even have an accountant.) Anyone who thinks the show’s cancellation is just “political correctness” gone wild—or expresses incredulity, as Nugent did, that a Planet of the Apes reference can be mistaken for racism—just hasn’t realized yet that, even in our toxic world, a celebrity like Barr can’t vent swill this vile without wrecking her career. Only the president of the United States has that privilege.

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