Roseanne Barr isn’t seen at all on “The Conners” — not even, so it seems, in photos around the family’s home. But her character’s lasting memory still hovers over the Conner clan, at least in two episodes shown to critics on Friday.
ABC has kept a tight lid on “The Conners,” its new “Roseanne” spin-off borne from the ashes of Roseanne Barr’s racist Twitter flameout. That means viewers still don’t know what to expect when it premieres on Tuesday — which is a seemingly odd strategy.
That’s because, at the urging of the show’s executive producers, ABC has opted to keep details of the return extremely vague while promoting the show. Publicity photos of the cast sans Barr were only recently released. Studio audiences have signed non-disclosure contracts before watching a taping, which is why details from the set haven’t been spilled. And even TV critics weren’t sent copies of the show in advance.
In the film world, such withholding sends a negative signal: Clearly the studio is trying to mitigate bad reviews by holding out until the last minute. That’s not the case here, but ABC probably should have done more to set the stage.
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What happened to Roseanne Conner? ABC is clearly banking on curiosity surrounding whether the character will be killed off; if the new show will adopt a different tone without its outspoken namesake star; and just how much weight an extremely slimmed-down John Goodman has lost.
On Friday, ABC invited reporters to its New York and Los Angeles offices, where it screened the premiere with the caveat that reporters wouldn’t reveal the fate of Roseanne Conner until after it airs.
This review won’t reveal that secret — although plenty of speculation has already leaked online, including by Barr herself on social media. And fans who watched the show last season already saw hints of some of the struggles that Roseanne Conner was secretly facing.
In the real world, of course, Barr is off the show for very different reasons. It’s been a few months and the news cycle has shifted hundreds of times since then, so a quick refresher: In a May 29 post on Twitter, Barr likened former Obama White House adviser Valerie Jarrett to if the “Muslim Brotherhood and ‘Planet of the Apes’ had a baby.” The tweet was quickly criticized for being racist, and Disney/ABC moved swiftly to cancel its “Roseanne” revival, despite incredible ratings.
Not long after, ABC regrouped with producers, including Sara Gilbert (who plays Darlene) about salvaging the show sans Barr. At the time, some speculated that the new show would be called “Darlene” and focus on that character as she raised her own kids, much like Roseanne Conner in the show’s original run.
The producers decided to keep the focus on the whole family by titling it “The Conners,” but it’s clear Gilbert has now inherited the show’s central role as a wise-cracking, but vulnerable, matriarch struggling to keep her family together. And having played Darlene (well, with a 20-year gap) for 30 years, it’s almost effortless to see Gilbert so naturally play Darlene as her mother’s daughter. She’s got a bit of Roseanne Conner in her as we remember her from 1988, not 2018.
Gilbert is at the center of much of “The Conners” premiere, as the show’s characters all deal with Roseanne’s absence in different ways. Aunt Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) can’t stop cleaning and organizing the house; Dan (John Goodman) lashes out at someone (guest star Mary Steenburgen) whom he blames for the situation; Becky (Lecy Goranson) continues to navigate being a functional alcoholic; and D.J. (Michael Fishman) still deals with being the odd man out — even though his wife Geena (Maya Lynne Robinson) has just returned from combat in Afghanistan, giving the show its only traditional family unit.
Among Roseanne’s kids, Darlene takes Roseanne’s absence the hardest. That leads to an exchange between her and Dan that comes closest to the show addressing Barr’s real-life meltdown: When Darlene mentions that she wished she knew more of what her mother was up to, Dan responds, “It wouldn’t have mattered. She was going to do what she was going to do. She never listened to a damn person in her life.”
In defending the decision to move forward with “The Conners,” instead of just calling it a day (something that IndieWire had advocated), ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey told IndieWire in August that “we still felt like there were a lot of stories to be told in that family. And our desire to set a show in a working-class Midwestern town, that hadn’t abated.”
Ironically, without the distraction of Barr and her politics, that may now be easier. So much of the attention surrounding the “Roseanne” revival had to do with Barr’s outspoken support of Donald Trump — and how her character emulated those views.
As many noted, the revived Roseanne Conner character seemed off, and not in tune with the Roseanne viewers remembered from the show’s early, groundbreaking years. In a BuzzFeed News story, several original “Roseanne” writers pointed out that they didn’t recognize the revival’s more overt politics, and that Roseanne Conner would have had serious issues with Trump’s upbringing and attitudes toward women.
The Trump slant overshadowed the more personal stories on the show, including how Darlene struggled as the single parent of a rebellious 16-year-old girl and a young son just starting to explore his sexuality.
Now, that’s the show’s true core, and the attention isn’t on its lead character’s politics. And it’s not just Darlene’s plight: Every character on this show is facing their own disappointments, as their lives haven’t quite panned out as expected. Life in Lanford doesn’t look much different than it did 30 years ago, and that lends to the show’s dark, somewhat tragic comedy.
Without Barr, “The Conners” also has a chance to dive into the tough emotional subject of what happens to an already troubled family unit when the key person keeping them all together suddenly isn’t there.
Barr was such a larger-than-life presence on “Roseanne” that it’s hard to imagine the show without her. The opening credits, after all, featured her at the center of the kitchen table, and ended with her loudly cackling. Almost everything major on the show included her in some way. (ABC also asked reporters not to reveal anything about the new credits, but obviously there is a tweak in how that is handled as well.)
There’s no real precedent to “The Conners,” given the circumstances that forced ABC to fire Barr in June. Many have compared it to “Valerie,” the mid-1980s sitcom starring Valerie Harper, whose character was killed off after she left over a contractual dispute. That show continued on as “Valerie’s Family,” and then “The Hogan Family” — but “Valerie” had only been on the air for two years, and wasn’t a pop cultural touchstone, when Harper exited. That made it easy to reshape a show that didn’t really have a shape to begin with.
“Two and a Half Men” is perhaps a more relevant, and recent, comparison: Star Charlie Sheen was fired after a public meltdown, and both CBS and executive producer Chuck Lorre decided to kill off his character and carry on by casting Ashton Kutcher opposite existing stars.
But in this case, “Roseanne” had just returned, in a fit of nostalgia, after 20 years. Viewers grew up with these characters, and have a different relationship with them. That’s likely where ABC came up with its marketing hook for promoting “The Conners,” simply asking, “What’s next?”
Here’s what’s next: Life moves on. By Episode 4 (also screened for critics), Darlene faces the reality that her relationship with David (guest star Johnny Galecki) is truly over, is shocked by news from her daughter Harris (Emma Kenney), and meets a new love interest (guest star Justin Long).
Darlene isn’t Roseanne. But with Barr off the show, “The Conners” can finally be “Roseanne.”
“The Conners” premieres on Tuesday, Oct. 16, at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.