‘Roseanne’ and the Two Standards of ABC
Yesterday ABC canceled its “Roseanne” reboot after star Roseanne Barr tweeted racist slurs at former Barack Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett.
While many cheered ABC’s move, it is not as though this moment was hard to see coming. Ms. Barr has long presented herself as a blue-collar provocateur, stirring the pot in whatever ways might most disrupt or unsettle. The reboot of her show has been notable mainly for its willingness to explore and sometimes indulge prejudices, like all Muslims are terrorists or undocumented immigrants are stealing our jobs. In its third episode Ms. Barr’s character mocked ABC’s primetime schedule itself as “all the shows about black and Asian families.” (Yesterday Shonda Rhimes, creator of many of ABC’s most successful and diverse dramas, including “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder,” tweeted her thanks to ABC head Channing Dungey.)
ABC faced a decision: invest in stories that speak to our best selves, or make a big splash with a show that draws out our worst instincts.
The same week ABC rebooted “Roseanne,” it also launched “Alex, Inc.”, a half-hour sitcom based on the true story of podcaster Alex Blumberg, who quit his job at “This American Life” to start his own podcasting business. The show, which stars Zach Braff, splits its time between Alex’s nascent business and life with his Indian-American wife and children. But it ends up being more about our capacity every day to create something beautiful out of nothing. So in the pilot, when his kids mock what their dad does for a living, Alex spontaneously creates an old-timey radio show for them. And while it starts silly, it ends up kind of magical. (Disclosure: an acquaintance did some writing for “Alex Inc.” and Channing Dungey taught a class I took at U.C.L.A.)
Almost every episode of “Alex, Inc.” offers a moment like this where someone puts themselves out there, has faith that good will come of it and is rewarded with something a little bit wonderful. Alex’s young daughter Soraya, played by the great Audyssie James, gets up at a school talent show and quietly sings Sara Bareilles’ “Brave,” or the family spontaneously throws a Holi party for Alex’s Indian mother-in-law. The show presents the universe we hope we are living in, a place that is fundamentally oriented to the good, that welcomes us as we are, and at whose heart is not outrage or derision but family, faith and wonder.
“Alex, Inc.” got lost in the buzz around “Roseanne” and was recently canceled. Meanwhile some critics labeled “Roseanne” as heir to “All in the Family,” an important glimpse into working-class white America today (or America itself, depending on who was writing). ABC gave the show a second season after its first night back on the air.
In Ignatian spirituality there is a meditation known as “The Two Standards.” The retreatant is asked to imagine themselves standing on a battlefield; at one end flies the banner of Christ, at the other the standard of the forces of darkness. It is a 16th-century version of the cartoon angel and devil on our shoulders, with us in the middle, fielding the invitations and trying to figure out which is the path of life.
Usually the decisions of our lives are nowhere near as obvious as all that; we struggle to decide between two good options, or two bad ones, or a good one and a bad one that in other circumstances might actually be pretty good.
At the end of the day, that is the most unsettling thing about the ABC-“Roseanne” debacle. Because the situation there really was pretty black-and-white: invest in stories like “Alex, Inc.” that speak to our best selves, our aspirations, or make a big splash (and a quick buck) with a show that too often seemed interested in drawing out our worst instincts.
Social commentary aside, the new “Roseanne” mostly featured characters belittling one another. At its roots it celebrated not working-class white America, but meanness and smallness. It is pretty hard to find a good justification today for putting out any more of that.