‘Roseanne’ and the enduring influence of baby boomers

Boomer culture is our only common culture at this point, so we just keep revisiting its glorious victories or simply replaying its greatest hits. The same week that “Roseanne” hit it big on TV, the No. 1 movie in America was Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One.”

Like all things in this Trump-deranged era, the remarkable ratings success of the rebooted “Roseanne,” a show that last aired when I was 17 years old but commanded a larger audience in its return than any sitcom now on network television, has unleashed a thousand takes about the show’s political significance.

Who’s going to win “Roseanne” voters in 2018? Can Hollywood entertain Trump country without betraying its principles? Is the pro-Trump Roseanne Barr an oracle or a conspiracy theorist? Can a member of the #Resistance watch “Roseanne” in good conscience?

All of these takes are, I’m sorry, tiresome. So let’s try to analyze the return of the Conner family in strictly cultural terms, without directly referencing the present occupant of the White House. The show’s sky-high ratings probably owe something to Roseanne’s political views and blue-collar goddess reputation, but above all they are a case study in the power the baby boom generation still wields, even as it begins to enter old age, over our collective cultural imagination. And not only that: They testify to the extent to which the boomers, for all the destruction trailing in their wake, might be the only thing holding American culture together at this point.

That’s because if the boomers were destructive, they were also creative. Indeed, you can make a reasonable case that theirs was the last great burst of creativity in Western history, the last great surge of mass cultural invention. The boomers were the last generation to come of age with some traditional edifices still standing, the old bourgeois norms and Christian(ish) religion and patriotic history, which gave them something powerful to wrestle with, to rework and react against and attempt to overthrow. And because they came of age within a stable-seeming (though not for long) common culture, their revolution was experienced as a communal experience itself, something that united millions of people simply by virtue of their being young and Western in 1965 or 1969 or 1975.

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In an essay on “Golden Ages” in his “Prejudices: Philosophical Dictionary,” Robert Nisbet argued that a great period of ferment and achievement often features a “dialectical antinomy.” This is a fancy way of saying that you need ideas and trends and forces in tension with each other (community and individualism, the secular and the sacred, new ideas and settled consensus, younger and older generations) to ignite what he calls “the blaze of creativity.” We can debate just how golden their achievements really were, but in hindsight his description applies to the period of the boomer takeover — it was the tension between a multitudinous younger generation’s utopianism and libertinism and mysticism and an older generation’s attachment to patriotism and family and religion that shaped and stamped the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, the rebel cinema of the 1970s, the New Age reinvention of religion, the New Journalism and the postmodern wave in the academy and the libertarian ascendancy in the GOP and more.

In the movies and television, this tension led to an extended reworking, deconstruction and reinvention of classic American genres (the Western, the war movie, the gangster flick, the sitcom), something that happened first in cinema and then extended more gradually into TV. What we often think of as two golden ages — the auteur years in 1970s Hollywood, and then the more recent golden age of television — are really part of the same generational takeover; it just took longer for boomer influence to work itself out on the small screen. But it did eventually: what David Chase did with “The Sopranos” and David Simon with “The Wire,” and before them figures like the late Steven Bochco and Matt Groening and yes, Roseanne Barr, was all an extension and an echo of the era-defining pop cultural ferment that began in the 1960s and took off in the 1970s.

But now we are in the twilight of that era — and it is not at all clear that the boomers’ successors are prepared to react against boomer hegemony with anything like the same creativity and vigor. In part that’s because technological and social change has left the rising cohorts of Americans fragmented, polarized, alienated from one another, too divided by belief and taste and language to build something new together. And in part it’s because the boomers themselves contributed mightily to fragmentation, leaving too little standing when they tore things down and rebuilding haphazardly and self-interestedly, bequeathing a spirit of transgression and permanent revolution that’s run out of things to deconstruct and is either feeding on itself, lapsing into torpor, or generating niche forms of radicalism on the further left and right that are too weak as yet to produce revolution or renewal. (Indeed it is not a coincidence that conservatism, itself decadent in this late-boomer dispensation, is desperate to claim boomer culture for its own — think of Ted Cruz’s love of “The Simpsons” or the new pro-”Roseanne” ardor on the right.)

As Nisbet writes in the same essay, golden ages give way to ages of iron very easily. “If there is no community,” then “there is nothing to challenge, nothing to fuel the dynamism” required for a golden age, and if there is nothing buttransgression and dissent, there is nothing to give acts of transgression the “purpose, substance and meaning” that make them something more than just puerile self-indulgence. Both problems define our age; everyone fancies themselves a rebel, even Sean Hannity and Donald Trump, but the traditional forms and structures that would give rebellion purpose and clarity exist only as effigies to be torn down in ritual re-enactments of the original revolution, now decades in the past.

And so we just keep returning to boomer culture — revisiting its glorious victories or simply replaying its greatest hits. The same week that “Roseanne” hit it big, the No. 1 movie in America was Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” — an aging boomer director telling a story saturated in nostalgia for the pop culture that defined his peak artistic years. And the big Easter television event was the live performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” a musical that the baby boomer Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote at the tender age of 22, in a world where a rock-opera retelling of the passion still had a Christian culture to draw from, react against, enlighten and offend.

No longer: Now it’s just boomer culture all the way down. And since that culture is, for all its creaking repetitiousness, our only common culture at this point, it would not be surprising if we find ourselves still clinging to it even once its progenitors are gone.

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