To the chorus of a live studio audience, the door swings open. There stands a woman in a t-shirt that declares “Nasty Woman.” Arms outstretched and standing firm, she narrows her eyes and asks her sister, standing frozen in front of her, “What’s up, deplorable?” The audience reaches hysterical levels of laughter. After a familiar, twangy musical cue and commercials play, she continues, “Knee still giving you trouble? Why don’t you get that fixed with the new healthcare you all got promised?” Her sister, with a smirk, simply responds, “It works good enough to kick your ass, snowflake!”
It’s a pivotal scene in the first episode of the newly revived season of Roseanne, in which politics weigh heavy but Donald Trump’s name is never mentioned. Once close-knit sisters Roseanne and Jackie haven’t been on good terms for the last year, because while Roseanne has abandoned the left for the right with little explanation, Jackie has remained a bleeding heart liberal. The remainder of the episode crams in enough hot topics to make the ladies of The View proud: race, sexuality, single parenting, the military and surrogacy all receive attention.
In the sitcom’s original run, from 1988 to 1997, it, too, tackled social issues from the perspective of the midwest, working-class American family at its core. However, it seemed to come about its subject matter organically. Audiences grew with the show over its nine-season run so that the voice that Roseanneestablished felt authentic. Fast-forward to 2018, and the show’s return often feels like a cable news rundown segment, only without the chyron graphics. Despite an astounding amount of critical attention focused on it – thoughtful essays in The New York Times, Washington Post and The Guardian among many others – the Roseanne revival’s first five episodes don’t come close to matching the original. And it’s not alone in garnering this type of disappointment.
As fashionable as television revivals have become, the phenomenon has never lived up to the material it is supposed to be restoring. While the return of a beloved series is meant to play off our appetite for nostalgia – that all-too human tendency to gather comfort from the familiar – revivals are often more about sizzle than substance, emphasizing buzz before brilliance. In fact, the recent spate of rekindled series have been more likely to leave feelings of unease among viewers, a repulsion similar to the one we feel when we’re confronted with a human-like android; something recognizable, but slightly off. In this sense, revivals have become the menacing replicants of television.
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