Roseanne and Jesus Christ Superstar
I was a college student in Cleveland, Mississippi when Roseanne premiered in 1988. My friends and I watched it most weeks. We thought it was funny and irreverent. I particularly loved Jackie, played by the talented Laurie Metcalf. Jackie was always searching for something better—a better job, a better boyfriend, a better life. We were supposed to see Roseanne as the more well-adjusted sibling. After all, she owned a home and she was married with children. She had what everyone was supposed to want, if not exactly the shiniest version of that dream. But like Jackie, I dreamed of doing something bigger and of living somewhere bigger. I didn’t yet know what I wanted, but I knew I wanted more.
I remember mentioning the show to my mother once and learning that she hated it. She didn’t like how it portrayed working class people as sloppy and crude. I understood. We were working class people. The Conner home on TV was a cluttered mess; ours was not. We didn’t chew with our mouths open or use crude slang or belch unapologetically. My father, who wore denim shirts and steel-toed boots to his job as an ironworker every day, would never have gone to the mall or a restaurant wearing faded jeans and flannel as Dan Conner often did on Roseanne. Outside of work, Daddy wore collared shirts and khaki pants. My mother, who supplemented her secretarial day jobs with retail shifts on nights and weekends, never slumped around in oversized t-shirts as Roseanne did on television. Mama made sure we wore nice clothes, even when she had to make them herself.
We were, by definition, working class, but we presented ourselves as middle class. On Roseanne, they talked about aspirations and moving up in the world. They complained about small paychecks and high taxes and long hours. My parents had all the same worries, but they didn’t complain. They just worked that much harder. Now the Conners are back and nothing much has changed. The house is the same. The complaints are the same. Jackie never made it out, but I did. I realize how lucky I am to have been born into my working class family instead of the sort of family portrayed by Roseanne and cast. Still, with this sort of reboot, the hope is that the cast and writers will have something new to say.
This weekend NBC aired a new, live version of Jesus Christ Superstar starring John Legend as Jesus and Brandon Victor Dixon in the choice role of Judas. It’s an old musical, one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s earliest. It was controversial in the late 1960s, when it was first staged in New York and the 1973 movie embraced the controversy with wonderful technicolor hippie garb and the regular appearance of military assault weapons. Let’s face it, if Jesus were being crucified today, we’d do it with an AR-15 and not whips and a wooden cross. There were no AR-15s on stage last night, but the production exceeded my expectations. The staging was perfect. Kudos to the director and to NBC for resisting the instinct to stage it in multiple locations ala the Grease travesty. Live musicals should always take place on stage in front of an audience. Legend was good. He smoldered at all the appropriate places, but the star of the show has always been Judas. Dixon was a revelation. He’s the sort of actor you can’t stop watching even when the scene doesn’t belong to him. He’s more than a performer; he’s a star. It wasn’t perfect; the commercial breaks were inexcusable. If we’re going to show live theatre on television, someone needs to sponsor it fully. Cram the commercials into one break at intermission and call it good.
Roseanne, however, is made for commercials. Just like 30 years ago, it relies on old fashioned setups and punchlines. That style of storytelling is just one of the things that makes it seem out of touch. The show relies on a laugh track, standard in the 1980s and 90s, but dated today. If you have to tell the audience when to laugh, is it really funny? Of course, the laugh track isn’t the most polarizing aspect of the Roseanne reboot. The new Roseanne is a Trump supporter and audiences are expected to either love or hate that about her. I find it mostly unsurprising. Roseanne (the character) spent nine seasons quitting (or being fired from) job after job in alternating fits of self-righteousness or apathy. She is rude, selfish, and angry. She’s practically a parody of a Trump supporter. I’d welcome some nuance, but none is promised.
As in the original series, Roseanne spends most of her time passing judgment on other people, but she rarely turns her sharp insights on herself. In the first episode of the reboot, Roseanne uses the dinner prayer as an opportunity to needle her sister, who shows up for the meal wearing a pink pussy hat and a “Nasty Woman” t-shirt. If Roseanne is a parody of a Trump supporter, Jackie is a parody of a white liberal woman. “Maybe you want to take a knee,” Roseanne says to Jackie as they prepare to bow their heads. It gets a big canned laugh, but the joke is all wrong. The NFL players didn’t take a knee during prayer. They took a knee during the National Anthem. So why not save that joke for a moment when it could actually work—at a grandkid’s little league game, maybe? Is it because when we think of Roseanne and the National Anthem, we’re reminded of the time she screeched her way through the song at a Major League Baseball game before grabbing her crotch and spitting? It would be difficult for Roseanne—the character or the woman—to take the high road on the National Anthem. But wouldn’t it be more interesting if she tackled the discussion head on? Does Roseanne really believe that NFL players don’t have the same right to free speech and free expression that she does? I’d be interested in that debate. To remain relevant, you have to grow and change. Does Roseanne have any regrets? Has she learned anything? Is she capable of changing her mind?
Speaking of old stars doing new things, did you see Alice Cooper as King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar? He pranced less than his original film counterpart (Josh Mostel), but he brought some real passion to the role. And he wasn’t the only rocker on stage. Erik Grönwall, a Swedish heavy metal rocker, killed it as Simon. Not only did Grönwall deliver an ovation-worthy performance of “Simon Zealotes,” he never dropped character even in the crowd scenes. Impressive. I’m a fan. One of the things this particular revival did was to introduce performers to a larger audience. Dixon is already a Broadway superstar. Grönwall is probably a household name in Sweden. Both performers deserve the largest possible audience, and American television is a pretty solid way to reach the masses.
Sara Bareilles already enjoys wide popularity and recognition. Her Mary Magdalene was exactly what you’d expect from someone with such a powerful voice. It is the role more than the actor that is worth examining here, though. One of the most controversial things about the musical is how it treats the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ. It hints at something more physical than most people are comfortable contemplating. That Mary Magdalene was likely a prostitute adds a layer of complexity. It’s one thing to instruct your followers to treat prostitutes (and poor people and lepers) with compassion; it’s quite another to spend a ton of time alone with such a woman, something Judas points out to Jesus again and again. The message is clear: consorting with loose women doesn’t fit Jesus’s brand. In the age of Stormy Daniels, that seems more relevant than ever. What would Jesus do? Well, he wouldn’t have one of his disciples pay for Mary Magdalene’s silence while denying he ever spent time with her.
The diversity of the cast made this particular staging of Jesus Christ Superstar feel more modern than the film. White Jesus has never been believable and we should all be ashamed of ourselves for selling any version of an ivory-skinned, silky-haired savior. There’s a lot we can’t know about Jesus, but we can be certain he wasn’t white. That every other iteration of this musical featured a white Jesus (good guy) and a black Judas (bad guy) is exactly the sort of culture stereotype we should seek to avoid. Whitewashing is no good for myth or for history.
Speaking of whitewashing, Jesus isn’t the only man to rise from the dead in these revivals. Dan Conner is alive in the new Roseanne, despite being killed off in the original series. I love John Goodman, but come on. Yet, that’s not the most unbelievable plot point in the sitcom. Roseanne 2.0 seems mostly unfazed by her diverse grandchildren—one is a black girl, one is a boy who prefers to wear skirts and traditionally girly clothing. Television needs to show a greater spectrum of people and I applaud efforts to bring diversity to the small screen, but Roseanne’s president of choice has spent a lifetime marginalizing and insulting people of color and anyone who dares step outside the expected gender norms of society. And her television son is a veteran. Her daughter-in-law is still serving overseas. How does she square that with a man who dodged the draft like it was rotten fruit and who has openly mocked service members and their families? Roseanne doesn’t grapple with any of this in the first episodes. If the show hopes to be relevant past the initial stunt phase, she must.
The thing about reboots and revivals is that they have to feel new to be successful. Even though the setting, the story, the characters, and the score are familiar, the experience must feel fresh and important. Last night’s performance of Jesus Christ Superstar felt brand new, even though I know all the words to every song. The new Roseanne claims to be tackling our red-blue divide in a fresh way, but it plays like the same tired old sitcom that overstayed its welcome the first go-round. Maybe if they bring on Brandon Victor Dixon as a guest star, I’ll give it another chance. Until then, I’ll stick to watching The Americans. Now that’s a television program that is relevant to our times.