Chicago Tribune: ‘Roseanne’ gets Muslim Neighbors for a ‘Go Cubs!’ episode amid show’s reboot season

Tuesday’s new episode of “Roseanne,” the third-to-last of a surprisingly successful revival season, is titled “Go Cubs!”

But it’s not really about the show’s location in the fictional Chicago suburb of Lanford. Yes, we’ve seen Dan Conner (John Goodman) wearing a Cubs World Series victory sweatshirt in a previous episode.

But this edition (7 p.m. Tuesday, WLS-Ch. 7) offers a much less localized lesson, one that begins when Roseanne (Roseanne Barr) spies extraordinary amounts of fertilizer in the backyard of the new neighbors, who are — wait for it — a Muslim family. And it delivers that lesson, albeit with a hammer that is more sledge than ball peen.

Still, given the cranky-Trump-supporter persona the show’s star, the comedian Barr, has been displaying on Twitter of late — including a very blue tweet beef with Stormy Daniels — it’ll probably come as a relief to fair-minded viewers that the episode lands on a pro-tolerance, anti-ignorance message, however bumpy the ride along the way.

The “Roseanne” remake, which began in March, has been a fascinating case study in the new television landscape.

People were right to be skeptical about it. We’ve seen any number of attempts to recapture old glory, and most have gone splat. I watched the first two chapters of last fall’s “Will & Grace” reboot, and it was sad to see the pop-culture fizz of that once terrific and important show had gone flat. Maybe it got better as the season progressed?

“Roseanne” was significant in its 1990s heyday, too, as a look at a blue-collar family that actually acknowledged the significance of finances in people’s lives. It was often very funny, within the boundaries of a laugh-track network sitcom, and it took chance after chance in the topics it treated.

When it came back on the air after 21 years gone, it did so with stellar credentials. The original cast was back, led by Goodman, Sara Gilbert and Steppenwolf Theatre stalwart Laurie Metcalf, who can all act, and Barr, who can be in the same room with those folks and deliver punchlines like the stand-up she once was.

Bruce Helford is executive producer after being fired by Barr in a brief stint with the original show and going on to co-create “The Drew Carey Show” and “The Norm Show,” (which didn’t last but should have as a vehicle for the stellar Norm Macdonald). Macdonald and Wanda Sykes are among the writers, and Whitney Cummings is another of the executive producers.

The show was clever in how it handled the re-introduction, too, which might account for some of its strong initial ratings, so potent that in the first week it was renewed for 13 episodes next season.

“Roseanne” had killed off Dan in the 1997 series finale. It brought him back in one of those sleep apnea devices, being jolted awake by his wife Roseanne and saying, “Why does everybody always think I’m dead?”

Also clever: Lecy Goranson, the Evanston native who played the Conners’ daughter Becky intermittently during the show’s run as she juggled college attendance, is back full time. And Sarah Chalke, who replaced her and then went on to excellence in “Scrubs,” is back, too, but as an upscale woman hoping to pay Becky to be a surrogate mother for her.

That potential transaction is perhaps the larger reason this show is connecting all over again. Yes, there’s talent in the cast, talent in the writers room and a reservoir of goodwill from a long TV run. But “Roseanne” is also addressing — aggressively — that nation’s throbbing economic inequality.

Not only is Becky considering renting out her body, as her mom sees it, but Roseanne drives an Uber, and Dan, a drywaller, loses a contract when his union guys are underbid by somebody using undocumented workers. At the self-checkout, Roseanne drops an item in her bag while her granddaughter says “beep,” simulating the sound that ringing it up would have made.

It’s heavy-handed at times, these reminders of the family’s struggles, but compared to a more typical series that never explains how the fabulous apartment was paid for, it’s a welcome jolt of reality.

It’s hard to know whether Roseanne’s public persona is hurting or helping. She’s tweeted right-fringe conspiracy theories in recent years, in addition to the back-and-forth with Daniels, President Trump’s alleged former mistress.

Barr’s own support for Trump became the subject of the remake’s first episode. Roseanne Conner had voted for the fellow and Metcalf, who plays her sister, had broken relations with her over it.

But this is sitcom-land, so Metcalf showed back up (in a pink triangular knitted hat) and they patched things up, and the show hasn’t been so overtly topical on presidential politics since. At the same time it has been political on bigger-picture topics: In addition to the refreshing financial focus, Dan and Roseanne have one grandson who likes to wear dresses and a granddaughter who’s biracial.

Viewers have been eating it up. Most of the weeks it’s aired, it’s been the most popular broadcast-TV (aka, network) series in total viewers and in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic.

Last week, however, the show’s numbers fell a little bit, which may explain why ABC sent out the new episode: A little fresh press attention for the final three episodes, and during May sweeps, doesn’t hurt.

It’s too bad it’s not one of the more nimble ones of this rebirth season. There’s always something a little awkward, these days, about watching a show with a laugh track. Any vintage charm is soon lost in the artificiality of it all.

And when an episode, like Tuesday’s, relies on forced setups the artifice seems more profound. The chapter’s heart is in the right place, and pretty much on its sleeve, but it takes a lot of contrivance to push Roseanne to actually meet her neighbors and learn that they’re not terrorists after all.

There’s a bounced check for Wi-Fi service, a granddaughter who desperately wants to Skype with her mom, serving in Afghanistan, and a 2 a.m. porch visit. And would Roseanne Conner, who we already know voted for Trump, really need to see a massive pile of fertilizer to be suspicious of Muslims moving in next door?

But this is, unashamedly, a network sitcom, and that means it needs to put a bow on things in 30 minutes, which is going to cost you some subtlety. Even in an off week, this one is doing it better, and more interestingly, than most.

And, without giving anything away, the moment you learn why the episode is called “Go Cubs!” is superb. It’s not because the Conners have seats along the first-base line.


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