Each regularly attracted some 30 million viewers, numbers that today would be mere fantasy in a TV executive’s mind.
That image of the two disgraced stars — Roseanne Barr’s arms stretched in triumph, Bill Cosby looking on wryly — is quite the sight following Barr’s racist late-night tweet, an unconscionable attack on the famously dignified former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, who must have been going about her regular day, only to find that day suddenly taking an inconceivably horrific turn.
The tweet was the end of the “Roseanne” reboot. ABC had no choice whatsoever. And, on one level, it was another cautionary tale for entertainment executives about going into business with celebrities with a history — a history stretching back to at least the 1980s — of racist communication, conspiracy-theory mongering, personal nastiness and demonstrable instability.
As John Podhoretz rightly noted in Commentary magazine, movie studios used to spend colossal amounts of money on stopping celebrities from revealing their uglier sides and torpedoing their own careers. There used to be highly effective firewalls: studio minders on call at all hours, shrewd publicists and a little troupe of trusted media regulars who were willing to cast a blind eye to unseemly and sometimes unconscionable behavior on the assumption that the favor to a column would one day be returned.
It is not so much that the behavior of celebrities has worsened over time. It is more that their bosses have lost all their ability to stop the truth from reaching the public.
Now you can be sitting at home, popping an Ambien and unleashing career-ending bile on your tablet. (In the best comment of the entire Barr debacle, Sanofi, the maker of Ambien, wryly observed that “racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”)
Both “Roseanne” and “The Cosby Show” were shows named after their stars. That didn’t make much fictional logic, of course, especially in the case of Cosby, but it was a marketing tool of personification, and it didn’t present as much of a problem in the 1980s, when tweeting was for the birds and at least the remnants of that firewall were still in place.
But this is not the 1980s. The folly of that approach has never been clearer. Even though it was suggested, you couldn’t just fire Barr from “Roseanne,” and keep the rest of the very capable and scandal-free cast — Laurie Metcalf, John Goodman, Sara Gilbert and so on — because there could be no “Roseanne” without Roseanne. She was the brand. In the case, say, of “Transparent,” the show could go on without its fired star, Jeffrey Tambor, because the show was “Transparent” not “Tambor.” It is a powerful argument for basing shows on ensembles, not individuals.
This conflation of personality with fictional character was intensified by President Donald J. Trump, who tweeted that “Roseanne” was “about us,” seemingly seeing no air whatsoever between the character and the persona of one of his more fervent supporters: “Look at her ratings,” he told his audience at a rally in Ohio, prior to Barr’s fall, “they were unbelievable. And it was about us.”
Who was “her” exactly? Who was “us”? Trump probably would have found the questions absurd, or incomprehensible.
In truth, the fictional Roseanne was far preferable to the real model.
Among progressives, there were two reasonable schools of thought on the show. One was that any kind of engagement equated to normalization, and even to watch was to engage.
The other view — expressed very articulately by Sarah Silverman and others — was that the show actually was a useful starting point for a conversation that will need to take place at some point.
It’s certainly true that many of the episodes put Trumpian politics, and Roseanne herself, in conflict with those with other points of view. And Barr was correct when she said that most of the writers on the show were liberals, some no doubt holding their noses and staring at their paychecks whenever Barr walked into the room.
But this is one of the benefits of dramatic storytelling, as distinct from the self-penned monologue on social media.
Drama isn’t drama without conflict. Aside from the propagandist with a coerced audience, a dramatic writer has no choice but to put a polemicist like Roseanne in a room with the opposition, be it human (a liberal friend, say) or situational (an addiction, maybe, or a financial crisis). This is why “The Cosby Show” had such an impact on American thinking; its mostly gentle conflicts allowed for difference. It’s also why Facebook monologues delivered to the like-minded have so little.
This mirrors actual life: Most people have relatives in an opposite camp. Some continue to engage with them, even to love them. Some do not.
But the horror of this particular situation is that Barr’s tweet made all of us who argue for constant engagement and conversation look like naive fools. Complete idiots.
This was not a tweet to be debated or discussed: It was ugliness to be resisted, repudiated and stamped out.
This wasn’t just a mistake, it was a catastrophic act for a hitherto highly successful individual, and everyone who ever spent even a single half-hour staring at her face and the show that bore her name.
©2018 Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.