Grief would have fit perfectly in Roseanne’s wheelhouse. Over its nine-season original run on ABC and even its benighted, controversial, ultimately doomed one-season revival, the sitcom earned a reputation for taking on difficult, even taboo subjects. Above everything else, there was class: The Conner family never had enough money, a fact of life at the heart of both their struggles and their humor. Underneath that expansive umbrella, there was gender and parenting and, less successfully, electoral politics. Death is hard, but it’s a part of life. And Roseanne was all about dealing with the hard parts of life with honesty and grit.
It’s not surprising, then, that The Conners (also known as Roseanne Without Roseanne, also known as I Can’t Believe It’s Not Roseanne, also known as We Won’t Give Up Ratings Just Because We Had to Fire Our Star) deals with the departure of the most famous Conner in assured and humorous fashion. When Roseanne Barr herself spoiled the fate of her character in September—Roseanne Conner would die from an opioid overdose—it only exacerbated the skepticism greeting the network’s attempt to sustain its biggest hit of 2018. The news conjured memories of short-lived CBS comedy Kevin Can Wait’s unceremonious dispatching of the title character’s wife in favor of a new love interest played by Leah Remini, a pivot so hilariously abrupt it earned attention, and derision, well outside the show’s fan base.
But as we all knew, Roseanne-slash–The Conners had far more serious reasons for dispatching its protagonist. Well before her show’s resuscitation, Roseanne Barr was already a troubled figure with well-publicized and conspiratorial far-right-wing views. In light of blockbuster ratings, particularly among the middle America viewers the network targeted after the 2016 election, ABC decided the partnership was worth the risk. Then Barr directed a racist tweet at former White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, making the situation untenable. Barr was fired, her show was canceled, and, after everyone involved had suitably distanced themselves from a toxic asset they had previously embraced, a “spinoff” was ordered to series.
Read cynically, The Conners is an attempt to have the best of both worlds: the ratings and demographic appeal of Roseanne, without the liability of Roseanne. The Conners shares its entire cast, context, and creative team with its predecessor, with one notable and obvious exception. In the run-up to Tuesday night’s premiere, ABC subsequently went into full spin mode, reassuring Vulture’s Joe Adalian that The Conners is neither a cash grab nor a foregone conclusion. “I was less concerned about ABC saying, ‘Could you come in and pitch the show?’ than I was to answer the question in our own minds, in the same way that we did a year earlier: Is this a show worth doing?” said executive producer Tom Werner. “We wanted to make sure internally that we could continue to do episodes that we were proud of — then we could talk to ABC.” Showrunner Bruce Helford then wrote a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter, defending both The Conners’ existence and its handling of Barr’s departure. “I wanted a respectful sendoff for her,” he offered, “one that was relevant and could inspire discussion for the greater good about the American working class, whose authentic problems are often ignored by broadcast television.”
As PR triage among Barr’s personal supporters, this gambit has proved unsuccessful. The Conners was blasted by conservative media, sight unseen, and more than half the IMDb ratings are just one star, the apparent result of an online campaign. As a ratings hedge, ABC’s gamble seems to have paid off; while The Conners didn’t match the gargantuan numbers of the Roseanne revival’s earliest episodes, neither did the last episodes of Roseanne. Besides, The Conners’ 10.5 million same-day viewers easily makes it the no. 1 series premiere of an otherwise dismal fall for broadcast networks, in which previously dependable hits like The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family have taken hits of their own. There’s no guarantee that Roseanne wouldn’t have suffered similarly, even without the firestorm that cost Barr her job. There’s also no guarantee that The Conners won’t suffer a erosion of its own—not out of political outrage, but an industry-wide downward pressure.
Creatively, however, The Conners is a much more unambiguous success story. That’s not necessarily unexpected, but in light of the extratextual circus, it still comes off as a nice bonus. The pilot picks up three weeks after Roseanne Conner’s funeral, far enough out that the family’s immediate shock has worn off and their grieving has transitioned into the day-to-day drudgery the writers do best. Aunt Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) has taken it upon herself to sort through the house, a situation their mother observes would kill Roseanne, “but she’s already dead, so …” D.J.’s wife, Geena (Maya Lynne Robinson), has returned from Afghanistan to mourn her mother-in-law. And the family learns from an autopsy that their matriarch died not from a heart attack, as they previously thought, but an overdose, a revelation that leads to painful conversations about addiction, blame, and loss.
Gallows humor, issue-centric arguments, family clashes—all this is standard Roseanne fare, carried over with minimal fuss. Roseanne’s plot duties are even matter-of-factly divided between her surviving family members. “You’re the obvious choice to take over for mom. You already live here, and you’re a scary little tyrant,” Becky (Lecy Goranson) tells Darlene (Sara Gilbert), a line that would be excessively on-the-nose if the revival hadn’t already moved Darlene to the family’s forefront. Meanwhile, by counseling his genderqueer grandson Mark (Ames McNamara), Dan easily assumes the role of problematic-yet-ultimately-loving-elder Roseanne had previously held in Season 10.
Claiming The Conners represents a radical improvement over Roseanne requires pretending that Barr was more responsible for the latter show’s overall direction than she actually was. The 2018 version of Roseanne was always the result of a more moderate vision than Barr’s extreme personal politics, and while she wasn’t wholly responsible for the show’s virtues, she wasn’t for its significant flaws, either. After all, it was Helford who publicly defended a widely criticized joke that appeared to deride fellow ABC sitcoms Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat.
There’s a palpable note of relief to The Conners’ largely favorable critical reception: Finally, we can evaluate and enjoy a show without tiptoeing around the nuclear reactor at its center. It’s inarguably better to make a show that doesn’t financially reward a bigot than to make a show that does. But The Conners’ consistency is a double-edged sword. If Barr was never the magic ingredient to her show’s appeal, what does it say that ABC reentered into business with her in the first place, or stayed in it as long as it did? The Conners is a solid piece of storytelling, but it’s not a panacea.