What "Roseanne" doesn't say about race speaks volumes

Now we know why Season 10 of the ABC sitcom has avoided specific conversations about race: It doesn't know how

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 9, 2018 7:10PM (EDT)

Laurie Metcalf, Roseanne Barr, Alain Washnevsky, and Anne Bedian on "Roseanne"SARA GILBERT, ROSEANNE BARR, ALAIN WASHNEVSKY, ANNE BEDIAN (ABC/Adam Rose)
Laurie Metcalf, Roseanne Barr, Alain Washnevsky, and Anne Bedian on "Roseanne"SARA GILBERT, ROSEANNE BARR, ALAIN WASHNEVSKY, ANNE BEDIAN (ABC/Adam Rose)

To get an accurate gauge on where “Roseanne” stands on America’s cultural phobias, don’t look at what the show is explicitly discussing. Rather, keep an eye on what Dan (John Goodman) and Roseanne (Roseanne Barr) discuss in passing or what the producers show us without specifically talking about it.

On Tuesday, ABC debuted “Go Cubs,” the highly-publicized “Roseanne” episode about a Muslim family that moves in next door.

“Go Cubs” also marks the first time we see the return of James Pickens Jr. reprising his role as Dan Conner’s buddy Chuck, joined by his wife Anne-Marie (Adilah Barnes). Chuck previously appeared in 19 episodes of “Roseanne” as part of Dan’s group of poker buddies, and for the most part his race isn’t part of the conversation. That is, until the guys actually talk about it in the season 7 episode “White Men Can’t Kiss.”

“Go Cubs” is this era’s version of that episode and evidence of the deficit of nuance, thoughtfulness and bravery in the 10th season’s overall writing. One of the most frequently quoted observations about this season comes from NPR’s Linda Holmes, who tweeted that the series “treats politics as an emotional issue for white people, something that they need to work out with each other, but not as something that makes anyone’s lives better or worse.”

This week’s episode proves this. Not explicitly, though. Returning to “White Men Can’t Kiss,” an episode about D.J.’s initial refusal to kiss a black girl (who viewers are to presume is the same Geena to whom he’s married), the story gave Roseanne the opportunity to dissolve assumptions that working-class white people are prejudiced.

But there are layers of inspection of that topic within the episode. Good guy Dan, for example, doesn’t consider himself to be racist but sees nothing wrong with kids wanting to stay with “their kind,” for instance. Even Roseanne herself is made to reflect upon her own internalized racism when, after she reproves her son’s action, she fearfully denies entry to a black man coming by her diner right before its closing time.

In the 14 years since that episode first aired, Lanford’s discriminatory view towards black people has apparently been solved. Now the main problems are the “illegals” snaking a contracting job out from under Chuck and Dan, a loss that leaves Dan and Roseanne unable pay their bills.

Only that last bit has anything to do with the main plot of “Go Cubs,” which begins with Roseanne suspiciously eyeing her new neighbors through a rake.

Basing her reaction to her new neighbors on fearmongering news reports linking Islam to terrorism, Roseanne is particularly alarmed by the large amount of fertilizer the family appears to be stockpiling.

“That’s how they make bombs!” she declares, adding as proof of her fears, “Anytime somethin’ bad happens, it’s always somebody who lives next door to somebody! . . . I’m telling you, this is what people from Eye-Rack or Talibanistan do!”

Even for “Roseanne,” that’s a lot of extremity to jam into the first minute and 15 seconds. But let’s unpack what’s going on in the background: Anne-Marie is clipping coupons in the living room with Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) and Roseanne while Dan and Chuck discuss that drywall job they don’t realize they’re about to lose to “illegals.”

Chuck and Anne-Marie’s presence, along with the Conners’ new Muslim neighbors, make this the most diverse episode of this season, if you don’t count the child actor extras we see in Mark’s homeroom. And the realization that the first time we’re seeing them happens to be in an episode that makes Roseanne’s bigotry central to the story should not go unnoticed.

A recurring flaw in season 10 is the writers’ usage of people of color as a kind of cover for their inability to discuss race. We see Mary mostly in the credits, and in this particular episode she gets more lines than she has all season. And like Mary, Anne-Marie and Chuck exist to make the Conners seem more misguided than intolerant. When Jackie chastises Roseanne on her assumptions about her neighbors, she invites Anne-Marie to jump in, leading Anne-Marie to reply, “Oh, because I’m black, I’m the expert on racism?” See, not even the liberal white person knows how to handle the subject.

But then, we can see that Anne-Marie, Chuck and Mary are inside Roseanne and Dan’s home. They are instruments of deflection, proof that although Roseanne harbors odious views, she’s not an entirely bad person. They also enable the writers to allow “Roseanne” to have it all ways, politically speaking. Its characters can claim people of color as friends and family while explaining why they support political machinery that would take away their rights.

Actually, this is one way “Roseanne” handles race with a crumb of subtlety. Dan can mourn losing his job to “illegals,” forwarding the narrative of undocumented immigrants taking American jobs — “It ain’t right, Rosie,” Dan says, “Those guys are so desperate they’ll work for nothing, and we’re getting screwed in the process.” But the writers stop short of endorsing deportation by explaining that it’s not the fault of the immigrants but the guy who hires them. “He’s taking advantage!” Roseanne responds.

And eventually the writers do enable Roseanne and Jackie to engage in their own version of “extreme vetting,” forcing them to meet the neighbors instead of just talking about them. D.J. (Michael Fishman) entrusts Roseanne to help his daughter Mary connect with her mother Geena, who’s deployed in Afghanistan, via Skype. The catch is that the call needs to be on Geena’s time, meaning the call has to go through at 2 a.m.

Right before the connection can happen, the Conners’ internet provider cuts their Wifi. Their only hope is to see if their neighbors, who hopefully aren’t terrorists, are willing to share their password. So in the middle of the night, Roseanne and Jackie venture to the door of strangers — Jackie holding a plant, Roseanne clutching a baseball bat. Amazingly, their neighbors Samir (Alain Washnevsky) and Fatima (Anne Bedian) answer the door – and Samir, too, has his baseball bat in hand.

Point being, everyone’s afraid of each other. That much is established during the strained, stilted exchange that follows. And while the stack of fertilizer can be explained by Samir’s overzealous shopping on Amazon, Roseanne and Jackie have no answer to stories of threats and harassment the family endures. Lanford has caused them so much anxiety, Fatima explains, that their young son sleeps in a bulletproof vest.

As one might expect, the morning-after parsing of “Go Cubs” split between liberal and conservative views. Depending on one’s viewpoint, “Go Cubs” represented either a bold statement in support of tolerance or a trite, hackneyed effort for the writers to check a box on some predetermined list of social issues.

Barr reportedly advocated for the episode in order to allow her character, and maybe herself, to receive some version of a comeuppance for her own prejudices. Certainly the episode achieves this mission, albeit in the most ham-fisted way imaginable.

Roseanne, in that 2 a.m. confrontation, realizes that her new neighbors have more to fear than she does, a breakthrough enabled by seeing Fatima and Samir’s sleepy son come to the door and watching them dote on him lovingly. Suddenly she realizes Fatima and Samir are not some disembodied threat. They’re a family, just like her.

And isn’t this just America right now? Through its title character, “Roseanne” mirrors the American practice of parroting the schismatic headlines or politically marginalizing entire groups of people while taking pride in treating the minorities with whom they interact the same as their white friends. The people who pass muster are somehow different than the strangers who slightly resemble a small number of other strangers who mean us harm.

It’s not OK, “Go Cubs” seems to be saying, although our fears are kind of justified.

At the end of the episode, Roseanne gets the opportunity to play the heroic bystander at the local grocery store: She just happens to be in the checkout line behind Fatima, who is wearing her hijab and who happens to be $30 short, and who happens to get an outspoken racist for a cashier.

Not only does Roseanne lend Fatima enough money to cover the difference, she gives the cashier the kind of tongue-lashing that passes for woke in her world. Just like that, Fatima and Samir rise to the level of “all the shows about black and Asian families” in the Conners’ view. They’re “just like us.” They’re not part of the problem.

Those “illegals,” though, are an issue left for another time.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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