The ratings for Roseanne, which still blow away its Tuesday night competition, have nevertheless dropped precipitously since the show’s debut. I think a large reason is because it hasn’t engaged that much politically since its first episode (and the crack at Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat in the second episode). It has become a pedestrian family sitcom that only attracts viewers largely out of nostalgia, and partially because Trump supporters think they’re sticking it to the liberals by watching it.
Last night’s episode hit rock bottom, however, in the nature of its content, and in the way it was framed. The episode was like a bad “very special episode” of Full House: Shlocky, poorly written, and designed with an obvious rope-a-dope strategy in mind: Vilify faceless Muslims as much as possible and then redeem them by showing them as human beings with the same host of problems “real American” families have. It was hokey, bigoted, and misguided, and the people who write this show should know better.
The episode centered on a family of Muslims who moved next door to the Conners, and Roseanne’s immediate distrust of them. “Did you see the crazy amount of fertilizer they have stacked up next to their garage?” Roseanne asks. “That’s how they make bombs. What if this is a sleeper cell full of terrorists getting ready to blow up our neighborhood?”
Later in the episode, however, the Conners’ Wi-Fi gets cut off (because they didn’t pay the bill), so they attempt to crack their neighbors’ password. “Try Death to America,” Roseanne says (to the laughter of the audience). “Try Death to America 123.”
Eventually, Roseanne caves and decides to go next door at 2 a.m. to “wake up the enemies of America” and ask for their password so that her granddaughter can call her mom, currently serving in Afghanistan. “If you guys have any family over there,” Roseanne says to her Muslim neighbors, “we’ll put in a good word with the drone people.”
But in a twist that everyone could see from a mile away, Roseanne eventually finds common ground with her Muslim neighbors, whose son literally sleeps in a bulletproof vest. The next day, when the Muslim mom’s EBT card has insufficient funds at the grocery store, Roseanne makes up the difference and tells off the cashier who said to the Muslim Mom, “Maybe the American taxpayers forgot to fill it up last week … and maybe [Roseanne] can help [you] carry [your] groceries out to [your] camel, too.”
“You are ignorant,” Roseanne tells the cashier. “That woman is twice the woman you will ever be and she’s dealing with a lot of problems you don’t know about, so the next time she comes into the store, you keep your mouth shut. She’s got enough fertilizer to turn this place into a smoking hole in the ground.”
Ha! It’s funny because Muslims are just like us! Except that they will also blow your grocery store to smithereens if you upset them!
Look: This is the kind of episode that might have played in the show’s original 1990s run, although it probably would’ve been about black people instead of Muslims, and it would have been just as misguided, because it basically reinforces a default position too many Middle-Americans have about Muslim Americans: That they’re all terrorists, except for the ones that we know personally. It’s the same message the premiere episode reinforced about non-binary people, when Dan suggested that he loved his grandson no matter how he dressed, which is to say, “My grandson gets a special dispensation because he’s family.”
And look: That’s important. The reason why a majority of the country now supports gay marriage is that everyone knows someone who is gay, and that helps to break down barriers. Likewise, people in cities are less racist because they’re surrounded by more diversity. However, it’s not that helpful to suggest a whole class of people are “terrorist” except for the ones that we personally know. It doesn’t make one less bigoted — Roseanne can’t now counter, “I’m not racist! I have a Muslim friend!” even while suggesting her Muslim friend could blow up a grocery store. It maintains the stereotype but provides exceptions for neighbors or friends. The default setting, however, should work in the opposite, and the people who write Roseanne know damn good and well that’s true.
It’s the same problem I have with even a show like Big Bang Theory, which asks the viewer to look past the stereotypes and see the person underneath. However, the better, smarter-written show doesn’t erect those stereotypes in the first place. There wasn’t a very special episode of The Walking Dead that asked viewers to overcome their prejudices about Siddiq before he could assimilate into the show, after all. Diversity is important, but not if it comes with strings attached, and the only message that white people are going to come away with after this episode of Roseanne is: Not all Muslims are bad.
That’s not progress; that’s bigotry disguised as acceptance.