It’s hard to believe anyone was clamoring for The Conners. Even before a tweet from its star resulted in the show’s speedy cancellation, ABC’s Roseanne was on thin ice with viewers who’d cherished the show’s progressivism in the ’90s. Ratings fell, maybe as those who could initially stomach Roseanne Barr’s, and then Roseanne Conner’s, MAGA makeover grew weary of her act. It might’ve been different if the new episodes had been better: if they’d engaged with the toxic post-2016 political climate that was eating away at families across the country, rather than just having Granny Rose and #StillWithHer Aunt Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) shout slogans at each other. Though the lack of substance didn’t seem to bother fans who shared Barr’s taste in conspiracy theories, it’s hard to imagine that crowd giving the survivors of her ouster a shot.
But here’s hoping The Conners piques the curiosity of at least a fraction of its predecessor’s mammoth audience, because—surprise!—it is everything the Roseanne revival should have been. ABC has forbidden critics from revealing how the show dispatches with the Conner matriarch; it isn’t much of a spoiler, but suffice to say that the Oct. 16 series premiere, “Keep on Truckin’,” finds the family coping with the sudden absence of a difficult woman who loved them dearly. Dan (John Goodman) looks thin and haggard without his other half. Jackie channels her despair into hilariously ill-advised cleaning projects. Becky (Lecy Goranson) drinks even more than usual. And Darlene (Sara Gilbert), a mini-Roseanne since childhood, essentially steps into her mom’s house slippers, dispensing tough love without dominating scenes the way Barr did.
Opening a sitcom with such a downbeat episode is a risk, but it actually strengthens the connection between The Conners and the original Roseanne, which thrived on black comedy. The Conner family was always as its acerbic best when facing adversity, whether that meant Roseanne and Jackie grappling with residual trauma from their abusive father or Roseanne and Dan realizing they can’t afford to send Becky to college. “Keep on Truckin’” feels like the episode the show has been leading up to for decades, the culmination of all its 30-year-long character arcs. Becky puts it best: “Laughing inappropriately is what Mom taught us to do.”
It’s not the only thing Mom taught them. In Roseanne’s heyday, the title character was the family’s moral center, a woman whose sarcastic punchlines and disaffected veneer never quite concealed her convictions—firm, idealistic yet coherent ones, grounded in the struggles that defined her own difficult life—about how the world should be. When Barr transformed Roseanne Conner into a Trump superfan, the show’s writers were tasked with reconciling the sense of justice at the character’s core with, for instance, a political platform that debates whether healthcare is a right. Instead, they simply let the cognitive dissonance hang in the air, dissipated slightly by the implication that Jackie’s liberalism was as dogmatic as Roseanne’s newfound conservatism.
Without her, the Conners are once again a family that tackles thorny issues (alcohol abuse and teen sex both surface early) through the lens of personal experience, rather than rooting for individual politicians as though they’re sports teams. And without Barr’s outsize presence, her fantastic supporting cast evolves into a versatile ensemble. Metcalf’s Jackie becomes more of a nurturer without losing her endearing wackiness. Goodman highlights Dan’s decency and vulnerability. (The exception, as ever, is Michael Fishman’s D.J., who remains a sort of self-aware nonentity. But Maya Lynne Robinson makes an ideal addition as his wife, Geena, a no-nonsense Christian military woman whose presence resets the estrogen balance in this matriarchal household.) One of the most frustrating aspects of the new Roseanne was the way messy storylines threw off the chemistry between perfect castmates. The Conners restores those relationships.
It will be hard for some viewers to see the show as anything but cynical: a network that never should have given the volatile Barr a platform making a desperate attempt to hang onto the kind of ratings it hasn’t seen since the ’90s. If you ignore The Conners on principle, you won’t be missing the revelation that was Roseanne in 1988 or the best network comedy airing right now. (Please watch The Good Place.) But the show is something pretty special regardless. As you’ll recall if you stick around for ABC’s bland, ’70s-set Wonder Years ripoff The Kids Are Alright, which premieres immediately after “Keep on Truckin’,” most family sitcoms still drown their humor in saccharine. The Conners have always been different. After 20 long years, it’s good to finally have them back.
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