Jack Solomon

All in the Family: Or, the Return of "Roseanne"

Blog Post created by Jack Solomon Expert on Apr 12, 2018

In 1971, Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin reconfigured a popular British sitcom featuring a bigoted working class patriarch (Till Death Do Us Part) to create America's All in the Family. A massive hit, All in the Family continued on not only to top the Nielsens for five years running but also went a long way towards mediating the racial, generational, and sexual conflicts that continued to smolder in the wake of the cultural revolution. A new kind of sitcom, All in the Family (along with other such ground-breaking TV comedies as The Mary Tyler Moore Show) provided a highly accessible platform for Americans to come to terms with the social upheavals of the sixties, thus contributing to that general reduction of tension that we can now see as characteristic of the seventies. The decade that came in with Kent State went out with Happy Days.

 

So the recent reboot of Roseanne in a new era of American social conflict is highly significant. Explicitly reconstituting Roseanne Barr's original character as an Archie Bunkeresque matriarch, the revived sitcom raises a number of cultural semiotic issues, not the least of which is the question as to whether the new Roseanne will help mediate America's current cultural and political divisions, or exacerbate them.

 

In short, we have here a perfect topic for your classroom.

 

To analyze Roseanne as a cultural sign, one must begin (as always in a semiotic analysis), by building a system of associated signs—as I have begun in this blog by associating Roseanne with All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. There are, of course, many other associations that could be made here within the system of American television (Saturday Night Live, Family Guy, and The Simpsons loom very large here), but I'll limit myself now with the association with All in the Family because of the way that, right off the bat, it reveals an important difference—and semiotic significance is always to be found in a combination of associations and differences—that points to an answer to our immediate semiotic question.

 

This difference emerges from the well-known fact that Norman Lear was quite liberal in his politics and intended his show to be a force for progressive television, while Roseanne Barr is an outspoken conservative—a situation that has already produced a good deal of controversy. Consider C. Nicole Mason's Washington Post piece "‘Roseanne’ was about a white family, but it was for all working people. Not anymore," a personal essay that laments the Trumpist overtones of Roseanne Barr's new character. On the flip side of the equation, the new Roseanne has been an immediate smash hit in "Trump Country," scoring almost unheard of Nielsen numbers in this era of niche TV. Pulling in millions of older white viewers who prefer the traditional "box" to digital streaming services, the show is already reflecting the kind of generational and racial political divisions that burst into prominence in the 2016 presidential election. As Helena Andrews-Dyer puts it in the Washington Post, "The ‘Roseanne’ reboot can’t escape politics — even in an episode that’s not about politics."

 

Thus, while it may be soon to tell for certain, I think that the new Roseanne will prove to be quite different from All in the Family in its social effect. Rather than helping to pull a divided nation together, the signs are that Roseanne is going to deepen the divide. I say this not to imply that television has some sort of absolute responsibility to mediate social conflict, nor to suggest that Roseanne's appeal to older white viewers is in itself a bad thing (indeed, the relative lack of such programming goes a long way towards explaining the immediate success of the show). My point is simply semiotic. America, at least when viewed through the lens of popular culture, appears to be even more deeply divided than it was in 1971. Things have not stayed the same. Roseanne isn't Archie Bunker, Trump isn't Nixon, and everyone isn't laughing.

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