‘The Conners’ Without Roseanne: The Kids Are Going to Be Alright

Photo: People

May the record reflect that I stand corrected.

Ever since the abrupt cancellation of the Roseanne reboot earlier this year, whose premiere drew the most ratings on network television in four years, the topic of the cast continuing the revival in the form of a spin-off called The Conners was somewhat controversial. While the decision to dismiss Roseanne Barr from the series was (almost) not disputed as the right thing to do on ABC’s part, the decision to cancel the revival altogether after she tweeted unspeakably racist remarks about former White House advisor Valerie Jarrett was met with mixed reviews. Many didn’t see why the rest of the cast and crew should have to suffer for their co-star’s bigotry, while others (myself included) only had limited sympathy for the remaining cast members given that they knew Roseanne was a wildcard when they signed on for the reboot (not to mention that you had to have been living under a rock to not know Roseanne had become appallingly and unapologetically racist in the last few years). Lest we forget, we ventured into the Roseanne revival earlier this year with winces and grimaces, hoping that Barr wouldn’t blow it for everyone from the first episode. At least she had the common courtesy to wait until the first season had wrapped to get the show cancelled.

The decision to rebrand and continue the revival without Barr in the form of The Conners wasn’t unexpected, but still seemed somewhat like a moot point at first—as much as it was great to see the same cast in the same iconic living room back on television over two decades later with strong writing and performances like always, it felt like people were losing sight of the fact what it was to begin with—a revival; a continuation of something from the past. And as much as it was unfortunate that Barr had to ruin it for everyone with her big mouth, it still seemed somewhat irrelevant make a continuation of a continuation…without the lead star. She may be crass, bigoted, and racist, but how exactly were they going to continue Roseanne without Roseanne? And if they were to continue, wouldn’t they just end up trying too hard to prove that they can do it without her, like when Two and a Half Men fired and replaced Charlie Sheen? All valid questions that now appear irrelevant, since The Conners proved with one episode that the kids are going to be alright.

Production of The Conners following Roseanne’s cancellation in May seemed to commence rather silently, with nothing more but a premiere date set for the fall television season. And perhaps it was better that way—while the media storm surrounding Roseanne’s racist remarks and Roseanne’s cancellation reminded us all of the comedian’s frequently controversial behavior, it made us lose sight of the fact that the remaining cast members have and always have had something of their own to bring to the table, and now is their chance to shine. Roseanne is a great actress and a funny and groundbreaking character in her own way, but as she slowly but surely became drunk with creative power on the original series, Roseanne hardly had a chance to be about anyone but Roseanne after awhile. Things appeared to have changed for the better in some regard in that department on the revival this spring, where the scenes and dialogue quickly made it clear that Roseanne had ceased to be the moral centre of the series—now a grandmother, the matriarchal role she held on the original series appeared more minimized and passed onto Darlene (Sara Gilbert) or Jackie (Laurie Metcalf). Perhaps this was ABC’s doing; a way of trying to ensure the least amount of controversy by attempting to give Roseanne a dimmer spotlight, but that we’ll never know. All we can know now is that Roseanne and Roseanne are gone, and we now have Jackie, Darlene, Dan (John Goodman), Becky (Lecy Goranson), and DJ (Michael Fishman) as well as their future generation to have their real moment in the sun on The Conners.

A crucial element in order for The Conners to move forward was for Barr to agree to having no creative or financial ties to the series, which John Goodman remarked was a big deal in order for the spin-off to have a chance. All of the cast members acknowledged a presence of awkwardness on the first day of production in August, but they soon came to realize what the continuation was all about: a deep-rooted love for their longtime characters, and the realization that they had more stories to tell with them in this day and age. “There was the feeling of not wanting it to go away until we were ready,” says Goodman. “There was a debt owed to this fictional family. We’ll figure out how to get through this, the family will, everybody will. We want to finish telling this story.” Sara Gilbert, who assumed a producer title when the series first returned this spring, is equally as optimistic about continuing as The Conners. “Any sadness that we feel over what we’ve lost we’re hopefully channeling in an honest way into the show,” she says. “And our show has always been able to deal with heavy topics, particularly for a sitcom. It’s been kind of built into the mix.”

The series premiere of The Conners immediately appears different from other “revamped” television programs in the past where remaining cast members have had to deal with continuing without a main star—there is definitely no immediate change in dynamic like on Two and a Half Men, and the death of the main character clearly had more time to be planned out, unlike 8 Simple Rules. The episode effectively kills off Roseanne; initially believed to have died of a heart attack, the remaining family members soon learn from an autopsy report that she died of an opioid overdose. Darlene and Becky discover pain pills in her bedroom prescribed to another woman (Mary Steenburgen) whom Dan begins blaming for his wife’s death, but everyone ultimately accepts Roseanne was struggling with addiction. For a continuation of a continuation of a sitcom that broke down walls in the ‘90s for discussing heavy issues previously taboo for comedic television, The Conners has proven rather quickly that they aren’t about to shy away from sharing what else they had in store when Roseanne returned earlier this year. The episode also includes important and heartwarming scenes between Dan and his gender-fluid grandson Mark (Ames McNamara), and I’m really excited to see where that (and the rest of The Conners) is going.

At once a controversial media discussion and now a true revival where peace appears restored, The Conners very well might be a turning point in network television, just as the original Roseanne was two decades ago. We may have spoken too soon for Roseanne’s return, but here’s hoping The Conners sees a very different fate.

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