Even if you did not watch the season premiere of “Roseanne” on ABC last week, you’ve likely heard by now: It was a smash ratings success. 18.4 million people tuned in for the double-episode premiere, and it earned a 5.2 rating among adults ages 18 to 49, the best rating in that demographic for any sitcom since 2014. “Roseanne” has already been renewed for a second season.
Now, one week after the premiere, the media discussion around the show has been all about politics, because the show’s star Roseanne Barr is an avid Trump supporter—on the show and in real life. President Trump even called Barr last week to congratulate her on the show’s success, and at a rally in Ohio on Thursday, he cited the show’s ratings and said, “It was about us.”
But the reboot’s success really isn’t about Trump or Trump supporters.
The big interest in “Roseanne” is more of a confirmation, if it wasn’t already obvious, that America has entered the era of the TV reboot. Revivals of hit shows from the 90s are red-hot right now, and production studios are hurrying to respond.
In the past two years, “Will & Grace” and “The X-Files” have come back. In the next year, we’ll see reboots of “Charmed,” “Magnum P.I.,” and “Murphy Brown,” to name just a few. Surely more are on the way. These are the projects that the industry is prioritizing in the short-term.
“Roseanne” was a big hit with its premiere, but so was “Will & Grace” when it premiered in September: it averaged 10.1 million viewers, which was seen as very good at the time (it only looks small now in comparison to the mega numbers “Roseanne” did). “Will & Grace” hit on politics, too: the reboot’s first season was generally seen as anti-Trump; in one episode, a baker refused to make a “MAGA” cake.
If the success of “Roseanne” is all about appealing to Trump supporters, what to make of the “Will & Grace” success? Furthermore, many people are focusing on Roseanne Conner (and Barr) being a Trump supporter, and ignoring the fact that on the show, her sister Jackie (played by Laurie Metcalf) is an avid Hillary Clinton supporter, and is virulently anti-Trump. Isn’t it possible some of the viewers are tuning in because they share Jackie’s views, rather than Roseanne’s? (The show, by the way, never mentions Trump or Clinton by name.)
You might conclude that the lesson here is that viewers now want sitcoms to deal with political issues. But Matthew Ball, a former executive at Amazon Studios, pointed out in an insightful thread on Twitter last week that the “Roseanne” reboot, “was greenlit, like other reboots, because it is existing IP that markets itself and has an existing base of awareness.” He added that reboots of “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” or “Cheers” would likely score just as well in their premieres.
3/ It's easy to say Roseanne reaches under-served, middle of the country Trump voters, but does anyone believe that a Seinfeld, Cosby Show (ceteris paribus), Friends, Cheers, Frasier reboot wouldn't score as well if not higher?
— Matthew Ball (@ballmatthew) March 30, 2018
Ball also noted that ratings for the “Will & Grace” reboot dropped off after the premiere, from 10.1 million down to 7 million for the second episode. As “Roseanne,” moves on from its premiere, he reasoned, “The need to watch (esp live) will diminish and ratings will cool.”
The popularity of the revival is happening in movies, too. In the past year, “Beauty and the Beast,” “Blade Runner,” “It,” and “The Mummy” have all been remade, to name just a few. Perhaps everyone in Hollywood is out of ideas, or perhaps the industry is just responding to what viewers have shown they want: nostalgia.