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ABC Keeping ‘The Conners’ Under Wraps, As Producers Employ a Marvel-Style Secrecy

TCA: ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey on why she wanted to bring back the rest of "Roseanne's" family. Also: ABC Studios president Patrick Moran on why "Black-ish" creator Kenya Barris left the studio.

ROSEANNE - "No Country for Old Women" - After Beverly gets kicked out of the nursing home, Roseanne and Jackie fight over who will take care of their mother. Meanwhile, Mark's creative touch with building a birdhouse for Dan's customer is more than Dan can handle, but Darlene defends her son, on the sixth episode of the revival of "Roseanne," TUESDAY, MAY 1 (8:00-8:30 p.m. EDT), on The ABC Television Network. (ABC/Greg Gayne)SARA GILBERT, JOHN GOODMAN

Sara Gilbert, John Goodman

ABC / Greg Gayne

The fate of Roseanne Conner remains a mystery, at least for now. ABC is keeping “The Conners” close to the vest — and that includes how the new series, born out from the ashes of “Roseanne,” will handle the absence of the family matriarch.

ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey said the secrecy behind “The Conners” is at the behest of the show’s producers. “Interestingly, and I’ve been kind of surprised at this, the team of showrunners at ‘The Conners’ have started to take a cue from Marvel and Shondaland in terms of holding everything close,” Dungey said to IndieWire, referring to how both Marvel and Shonda Rhimes labor to keep storylines on their shows a closely-guarded secret.

In the case of “The Conners,” the secrecy is so complete that ABC has not yet revealed a new cast photo, although it’s already known who will star: As announced in June, John Goodman (“Dan”), Laurie Metcalf (“Jackie”), Sara Gilbert (“Darlene”), Lecy Goranson (“Becky”) and Michael Fishman (“D.J.”) are all returning in their landmark “Roseanne” roles.

“What I can tell you is it follows very much the paradigm that we set up with the latter episodes of last season’s ‘Roseanne’ series,” Dungey said. “It’s still going to follow Dan, Darlene, Becky, DJ, the rest of the family as they navigate life faced with the economic challenges of the world that they live in. What I feel like we did very well by the end of the season was you were very engaged in the dynamics of that family, which we’re going to continue to complicate and challenge.”

Those complications and challenges, of course, will be impacted by the disappearance of Roseanne Conner — “hence the secrecy” how the producers will write the character out of the series.

The decision to cancel “Roseanne” came after Barr made a racist attack on Twitter against former Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett. When Barr first wrote her Tweet in May, ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey was lauded for the quick move. “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show,” she wrote in a statement at the time.

ABC and the show’s executive producers Tom Werner, Sara Gilbert, Bruce Helford, Dave Caplan (among others) then regrouped, and decided they wanted to continue the show without Barr — even though the revival might dredge up the controversy surrounding Barr’s firing.

“The thing of it is we still felt like there were a lot of stories to be told in that family,” Dungey said. “And our desire to set a show in a working-class Midwestern town, that hadn’t abated. And once we spoke with Tom and Bruce and Sarah and some of the other writers, about the ideas for the story they would tell, it did make sense to go back there. I honestly have to say I was also happy to put the crew back to work and we were able to bring back the majority of people who were involved with ‘Roseanne’ and so the idea that those people who were adversely impacted by the decision to cancel, the idea that they were able to go back to work is a good thing.”

Barr has not been quiet about her firing, and there’s a good chance she may comment publicly on “The Conners.” (It remains unclear what the terms of her exit included, such as a non-disparagement clause.)

“If the one thing I have known about this job is there is always a series of curveballs,” Dungey said. “I think we are going to go forward and make the highest quality show that we can and hope for the best.”

Channing Dungey

Channing Dungey, ABC

ABC

As for the impending merger of 20th Century Fox TV and other Fox properties inside ABC, and the expected management change that will come along with it, Dungey repeated her January mantra that “it really is business as usual, particularly for us on the network side. We’re just still trying to buy the best material from the best places.”

ABC Studios president Patrick Moran echoed that sentiment, noting that “there’s so much to do between now and whenever the merger works itself out.”

Asked about the recent departure of Kenya Barris, who still had two years left on his overall deal with ABC Studios, Moran said there were numerous factors that led to his exit. Barris’ frustration last year over an episode that was shelved, dealing with the controversy surrounding African-American NFL players taking a knee at games, was just one of many reasons.

“I know there was a lot of talk about it being in reaction to the episode being pulled, but I think it’s more complicated than that,” Moran said. “There are a number of things that happened over the year. We have 80 people in overall deals. Our goal is not to keep somebody in a deal who is unhappy or is frustrated or feels like it’s not the right fit. So after a number of conversations, we decided to part ways.”

At an Emmy FYC event in April, Barris declined to discuss the episode, but star Anthony Anderson told IndieWire that “hopefully one day we will see it. I don’t think it’s as controversial as people think it is. But, hopefully, one day it will be aired. The lost episode of ‘Black-ish’ will see the light of day. I’d be interested to see and hear the comments once it does air. But everything we do is pretty good and I think that was one of our better ones, so hopefully, it does see the light.”

The situation was what first triggered the speculation that Barris might be looking to leave his ABC Studios deal early in order to set up camp at Netflix (his expected new home). But at the “Black-ish” FYC event, held on the Disney lot, the producer specifically saluted his studio and network: “Just when I think back at this year and the things we were able to do — ABC Studios, thank you, and ABC as a network, thank you.”

Moran noted that ABC Studios remains in business with Barris on multiple pre-existing series, including “Black-ish,” Freeform’s “Grown-ish,” and more development being teed up for next year. “There were a number of key moments along the way that we particularly frustrating for him,” he said.

As for recent reports that star Anderson was being investigated for alleged assault, Moran said he couldn’t say much on the issue, as “my understanding is the investigation is ongoing. I think the allegations are old. Anthony said he didn’t do it, and that’s as much as I really know about it. We had our table read last week and we start production soon.”

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