The Roseanne-Trump Narrative Is Getting Out of Hand

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Do you remember what you did the morning after the 2016 presidential election? I dazedly responded to the shock of Donald Trump’s victory with a particularly greasy breakfast sandwich. Suits at ABC, meanwhile, were apparently using their time more constructively, charting a course for their media empire that would put the “American” back in American Broadcasting Company.

The fruit of that brainstorming session, those executives now proudly relay to the New York Times, was a reboot of Roseanne. The once-uber-popular sitcom about a blue-collar Midwestern family is back, and its titular character’s support for Trump has positioned it perfectly to get sucked into the broader political narrative of white working class erasure. Early ratings suggest the show remains uber-popular: Its first episode on Tuesday drew 18 million viewers, the highest for any comedy in four years, and it rated highest in red states like Oklahoma, Missouri, and Ohio. This was good enough for a Trump shoutout. “Look at Roseanne! Look at her ratings!” he said at a rally in Ohio Thursday. “They were unbelievable! Over 18 million people! And it was about us!”

Us! Can you believe it? The Times, itself no stranger to constantly rediscovering far corners of White America, deemed ABC’s “heartland strategy” consequential enough for A1 treatment on Friday:

[ABC executives] began asking themselves which audiences they were not serving well and what they could do to better live up to the company name — the American Broadcasting Company. By the meeting’s end, they had in place the beginnings of a revised strategy that led the network to reboot a past hit centered on a struggling Midwestern family, a show that had a chance to appeal to the voters who had helped put Mr. Trump in the White House.


Channing Dungey, the president of ABC Entertainment, said the success of “Roseanne” was a direct result of the post-Election Day initiative to pursue an audience that the network had overlooked.

“We had spent a lot of time looking for diverse voices in terms of people of color and people from different religions and even people with a different perspective on gender,” Ms. Dungey said. “But we had not been thinking nearly enough about economic diversity and some of the other cultural divisions within our own country. That’s been something we’ve been really looking at with eyes open since that time.”


What incredible foresight from corporate executives just hours after a once-in-a-generation political upset. Not only did they put their finger directly on the pulse of the American id, but they chose to do so with a completely novel, deeply creative, and in-no-ways oversaturated genre: the reboot. Genius.

Deadline similarly tied the first episode of Roseanne’s success to the media’s supposed inability to understand Trump’s America:

While nostalgia was expected to bring in eyeballs, no one predicted such a huge turnout on premiere night for the blue-collar family sitcom with a Donald Trump-supporting protagonist, especially among the younger demographic. But then, few predicted that Trump would become the Republican nominee and would win the presidential election when he first announced his candidacy.


It all fits tidily into a well-worn motif: The media never got out into the country to try and understand Trump voters’ motivations, and those who are doing so now are reaping the benefits. ABC, for one, seems to be doubling down on its strategy, reviving American Idol a few years after it was canceled by Fox.

“We went after it because that’s a show that, fundamentally, is about the American dream,” Ben Sherwood, president of Disney and ABC’s television group, told the Times. “It’s about a girl with a cowboy hat and a boy with a banjo and people from small towns where music has saved their lives in different ways.”


Quaint. As someone whose life was saved by blogging—the one true American Dream—I’d ask that you try to peer through a corporate behemoth’s carefully crafted and eagerly gobbled-up spin that it tapped into an overlooked audience. Matthew Ball, formerly head of strategy at Amazon Studios, provided some alternative theories for Roseanne’s success on Friday:


Ball hails from the streaming world, where titans like Netflix and Amazon create products and reach audiences that are different from those of traditional television. But as ABC brass publicly feed the Times and others explanations that will draw even more press hype—“earned media,” as they call it—at least one source at the network told CNN’s Brian Stelter privately on Friday that “the Trump of it all is exaggerated.”


Assume that’s at least partly true. Who does that narrative serve? There’s Trump and his supporters, of course, who can wield Roseanne’s early success like a cudgel to bash Hollywood and otherwise ramp up the broader culture war. ABC scores PR points as an even-handed political operator. And then there’s the press, whose post-election self-flagellation machine can eke out a few more bits of content. The incentives here all align to make a good story, and there’s no doubt Roseanne should be smiling about it.