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A retro flood on TV is the return of the wanted and unwanted

Jeff Simon

I never watched "Roseanne" – not after the first episode of every new TV season, that is.

It isn't that I didn't "get" the show. Or support Roseanne Barr's existence. I once supported her and her then-husband Tom Arnold during a low moment for them so vigorously that Arnold wrote me a thank you note. I even supported her when she offended most of America by singing the most offensively off-key rendition ever of the National Anthem before a ball game and then concluding it by spitting on the ground. I understood what she was doing. She was, as pointedly as possible, making a brutal joke out of our national obsession with conflating patriotism and sporting events. She was, in a characteristically offensive way, getting us to question all assumptions about sports that we take for granted.

That, according to her fans, is what her sitcom did. I wouldn't know. I just couldn't stand it as a weekly entry in my TV diet.

My biggest problem is that Barr was no actress and yet two of her weekly cast members were among the finest in America: John Goodman as her husband, Dan, and Laurie Metcalf as her younger sister. (Metcalf was just named an Oscar nominee for her affecting role as Saoirse Ronan's mother in Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird." The likely winner in her category, alas, will be Allison Janney for "I, Tonya.")

Little remembered now is the fact that a very young (and almost slender) Goodman, serious actor, co-starred with Christine Baranski in the Studio Arena Theater's 1980 production of "Lady of the Diamond."

Roseanne was a hilarious comedian and powerful public presence. She was no actress, not really. Watching amateurism power its way weekly over consummate professionalism just made me uncomfortable so I didn't watch.

One of my worst nightmares, nevertheless, is about to happen. "Roseanne," with its original cast, is about to make a comeback on ABC on March 27. A new feature is that the comic's socio-political truculence now emerges from Trumpean politics.

The rebooted "Roseanne" is just part of a major wave of retro-vengeance from our Entertainment Industrial Complex as it scours the past for hits to revive in ever-expanding proof of creative bankruptcy.

As if to answer "Roseanne's" newly reconfigured political orientation, we're going to get "Murphy Brown" again, too. Odd as it may sound, I had similar feelings about "Murphy Brown" that I had about "Roseanne" - I just didn't think Candace Bergen was a watchable actress in a sitcom week in and week out.

She was, like Barr, less of an actress than a show business figure surrounded by so much talent that people took the show's sociopolitical rectitude seriously, so much so that Vice President Dan Quayle made a whole magillah out of her unmarried motherhood. At the time, it seemed like a rich joke to emerge from culture wars. Little did we know it was a pre-figuring of the post-Fox News future.

Bergen has always been, to put it mildly, a beautiful woman. For many Hollywood years, that was her role onscreen. I just saw Burt Reynolds' movie "Stick" on cable and all she did in it was look tan and beautiful, smile fetchingly, and play kissy face with Burt.

I knew someone who went to the University of Pennsylvania with Bergen and that was her role on the university's campus - goddess. She was an ongoing amateur legend until she decided she might as well take it to the movie screen. Some roles challenged her but very few. Mostly she graced movie sets with a blast of old Hollywood beauty and class.

"Murphy Brown" was different. Class wasn't an issue. She had to act. Or at least try. She was supposed to be a hard-nosed TV newswoman delivering a lot of English's well-polished snark and post-Mary Tyler Moore TV news fantasy.

Some people swore by "Murphy Brown." I just wasn't one of them, somewhat awkwardly, given Diane English's local origins. Bergen was a vastly more professional actress than Barr, but I somehow had trouble thinking of her as anything more than a living symbol of Hollywood aristocracy, a woman launched by a lot of important relationships and friendships. She was the sort of benign female figurehead who was perfect for decorating the prow of your ship if you were, say, introducing Andy Kaufman to the world of late-night comedy.

Once she graduated from films that exploited her beauty as emptily as possible, she became the widow of Louis Malle, one of the most sophisticated and brilliant filmmakers of the last century. (See "Lacombe Lucien" and "Murmur of the Heart.")

The truculence of "Murphy Brown" was as fatiguing to me as the truculence of "Roseanne." I felt some sympathy for it as well as sympathy for its sociopolitical direction as long as I didn't have to watch the bloody thing regularly. A personal oddity of all the era's strident sitcoms is that I never had any trouble with "All in the Family" because of the remarkably render relationship of Archie and Edith, a tenderness predicated completely on the tidal sweetness of Jean Stapleton's performance as Edith. Anyone Edith loved that much could be tolerated by the rest of us for a half hour a week.

Nothing of that sweetness attached to "Murphy Brown." No matter. It seems that "Murphy Brown" is coming back to this new Trumpean world. And boy is that ever not all in this Wave of Unasked-for Returns.

Reported to be in the offing down the road is another version of "Magnum, P. I." And yes, "Cagney and Lacey" to go with the currently retrieved "Will and Grace" and "The X-Files." I must admit, a hard-edged feminist "Cagney and Lacey" might be very interesting television.

I broke down and watched one delightful episode of the new reburbished "X-Files" and chortled happily through most of it. It was written by one of the great wiseacre writers in TV history, Darin Morgan, a subversive jokester who has treated "The X-Files" as a playground for David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson.

Lest anyone think this retro tidal wave of a rebooted past is strictly a TV phenomenon, last week also brought us the news that Steven Spielberg is going to re-do Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" at the movies.

Spielberg is much too good to waste our time completely. When he re-made George Pal's "War of the Worlds," he came up with a couple of images and sequences as stunning as anything he ever filmed.

He has never made a straight-ahead musical so it will be more than a little interesting to see what he does with a unique American classic that Robert Wise didn't do already. He'll nevertheless need to overcome a lot of suspicion that we needed a new "West Side Story" like we needed a hole in the head.

Which is exactly what many now fear a new "Roseanne" is going to look like.

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