LOS ANGELES — The instant-hit status of “Roseanne” is triggering the enduring Hollywood impulse to copycat success.
Even with series pilots nearing completion for the 2018-19 TV season, producers are eagerly pitching revivals of sitcoms that, like “Roseanne,” had their day 20 or 30 years ago, according to an industry insider. There are networks and streaming services trying to figure out how to create projects that similarly resonate with viewers, said veteran movie and TV screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd.
The ABC sitcom is part of a still-expanding reboot trend that’s brought TV back to the future and includes revamped versions of “Will & Grace,” ”One Day at a Time” and “The X-Files,” and the upcoming “Murphy Brown.”
That doesn’t mean viewers should prepare for a wave of newcomers aping “Roseanne,” about a working-class family whose matriarch is a supporter of President Donald Trump — as is star and producer Roseanne Barr. Timing aside, there’s the challenge of deciphering and recreating a show’s appeal, especially one led by a brassy personality like Barr and the strong viewpoint she brings to her work.
Some outlets are trying. Chetwynd, an Oscar and Emmy nominee who counts himself among Hollywood’s rare political conservatives, said he received queries from cable channels and streaming networks about developing blue-collar series after Trump’s election and again when “Roseanne” debuted March 27 with exceptional ratings. Initial skepticism about whether viewers would welcome such fare “is now diminished significantly,” he said.
Broadcast networks aren’t likely buyers at this point. They’re getting close to deciding on next season’s lineups, with schedules to be presented to advertisers in May.
Even if there’s interest down the road, skepticism exists about how much the back-and-forth between Barr’s character and her anti-Trump sister, the most partisan element so far, is an attraction. It’s certainly made the show stand out among carefully apolitical series and other programs that thrive on skewering the president and his policies, including late-night talk shows and “Saturday Night Live.”
The Trump factor also has earned the show a wealth of media and other attention, including from the president himself. He called to congratulate Barr on its 18 million-plus debut audience and in a speech said the show “was about us.”
ABC Entertainment President Channing Dungey said the topicality of “Roseanne” is part of its success.
“I think the reason it’s connecting with audiences is that it’s bringing a conversation to the forefront that I feel a lot of people are having in their own lives. But it’s not really taking place on (series) television at this moment,” Dungey said this week.
“Roseanne” may only be skimming the surface of what’s to come, predicted Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture.
“I think we are going to see, within the next year or two, a real attempt to show a no-holds-barred Trump family, and I don’t know exactly what that means,” he said, “but something that really does address the specifics of what the news keeps showing us as the Trump supporter. As people are looking at, ‘How are we going to top “Roseanne?’ I think that’s probably what they’re looking to do. How that’s going to be executed could be very dicey.”
Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council media watchdog group, sees other reasons for the audience’s embrace of “Roseanne,” back two decades with the original 1988-97 cast including John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf and Sara Gilbert.
“I know there’s been much ado about the whole partisan angle,” Winter said. “I don’t think that had much to do with it. I think what has more to do with it is that it’s entertaining … (and) we can actually laugh without resorting to the more crude dialogue that seems so pervasive in a lot of programming.”
Others point to the built-in brand recognition that “Roseanne” has among viewers who watched it the first time around or in reruns. But nostalgia alone isn’t selling “Roseanne” to the 18.4 million viewers who tuned in for its premiere and the still-impressive 15.4 million who came back for week two — numbers that don’t reflect the millions more watching on a delayed-viewing basis.
In contrast, NBC’s sitcom “Will & Grace” returned this season with a 10.1 million debut audience and has settled into an average of under 6 million weekly viewers, enough in today’s overloaded TV landscape to make it worthy of a quick renewal for multiple seasons. (Politics helped resurrect the show about a circle of gay and straight friends when its stars taped a 2016 campaign spot for Hillary Clinton that went viral and reasserted their appeal. On the flip side, one of its four stars — Megan Mullally, who plays Karen Walker — is a Trump supporter in the reboot.)
ABC and broad-appeal network CBS could reasonably argue they aren’t slighting characters who, like the Conners of “Roseanne,” are small-town, not coastal urbanites. Among their evidence: ABC’s “The Middle,” about an Indiana family and in its ninth and final season, and CBS newcomer “Young Sheldon,” set in a working-class household in Texas.
In the early going, “Roseanne” has shown its greatest strength in TV markets that include Kansas City, Missouri; Milwaukee; Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina; and Dayton, Ohio. But the country is not so neatly divided in its TV viewing as it may be in its party registration. CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory,” which gave rise to prequel “Young Sheldon” but is set in suburban Southern California, overlapped with “Roseanne” in the most recent ratings in 12 of the ABC’s show top 20 TV markets — and “Big Bang” earned its top household tune-in in Dayton, not Los Angeles.
If that suggests there’s no easy answer to what viewers may find appealing or relatable, screenwriter Chetwynd (“The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” ”Ike: Countdown to D-Day”) is not surprised. Networks or studios that think slapping “conservative” on a character or story line to draw in viewers feeling ignored by TV are missing the point, he said.
“It’s not about politics. It’s about recognizing yourself in what you see on television, and people creating a world that is so alien to people who watch television that they stop watching broadcast TV,” Chetwynd said.