Is there a point to ‘The Conners’ without Roseanne?

A 'Roseanne' completist evaluates the Roseanne-less new sitcom
By Art Q. Smith  Published on 10/17/2018 at 10:42 AM EDT
John Goodman's character, Dan, mourns the loss of Roseanne in the premiere of 'The Conners' Eric McCandless/ABC

I consider myself to be a devoted fan of the original Roseanne show, which ran on the ABC network from 1988 to 1997. I watched almost every episode during the sitcom’s initial run and have since seen each installment of the series countless times in syndication. The show carries special meaning for many of its viewers — especially in October when Roseanne’s Halloween-themed episodes often have aired in weekend marathons on multiple cable channels. In our house they are as much a part of the spooky holiday as an airing of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. As a result I have seen many episodes of the classic sitcom in recent weeks and was once again reminded of just how groundbreaking, smart, thought-provoking and funny it was in its prime.

Earlier this year Roseanne returned to TV amid much fanfare in a wildly successful reboot that brought all of its beloved characters out of reruns and into the current climate. Then just as quickly as it resurfaced, it faced a very premature demise on the heels of the real life Roseanne’s Twitter antics. I wrote about my decision to “cut the cord” on Roseanne once this happened, but ABC threw me a life raft with a potential new show without Roseanne. One question suddenly arose: Could the show possibly go on without its titular star?

Tonight viewers got their first glimpse of the answer to that question with the debut of The Conners, a retooled version of the reboot featuring Roseanne’s clan less Roseanne. My verdict is in, and I say the show can and hopefully will go on. I understand that not everyone will agree with my assessment for many reasons, but to me, The Conners is the best version of what it could be. Make no mistake, Roseanne was the sitcom’s absolute cornerstone and her absence is felt, but I’m still happy to share my Tuesday nights with the rest of her family.

Years ago I read Roseanne’s (then Roseanne Arnold) 1994 autobiography My Lives in which she dished the backstage clashes she had with the show’s executives practically from the series’ 1988 debut. According to the book, Roseanne’s producers had their fill of the comedian as early as season 1 and toyed with the idea of dumping her from her own show by season 2. They even went so far as to completely write her out of an entire episode (episode 38, titled “An Officer and a Gentleman”) explaining her character was out of town tending to her injured dad. The idea was to see what a Roseanne-free version of the show could look like and maybe to show Roseanne herself that everyone is expendable. It focused on Laurie Metcalf’s Jackie helping John Goodman’s Dan out with the kids in Roseanne’s absence. I’ve seen that episode many times since reading that tidbit from the book, and I’ve often thought that there was a decent chance the show could have survived without its star based mostly on the strength of Goodman and Metcalf.

Lecy Goranson, Laurie Metcalf and Sara Gilbert in the premiere of 'The Conners'
Lecy Goranson, Laurie Metcalf and Sara Gilbert in the premiere of ‘The Conners’ Eric McCandless/ABC

Tonight’s debut of the retitled and retooled The Conners served as a pilot of sorts for the new show even though it featured (almost) all of the the beloved Roseanne characters we have known for decades in addition to a few newer ones introduced in the reboot. The extended universe of Roseanne characters have all been thoroughly fleshed-out for viewers over the course of their two decades of small screen airtime. We know and love them and have a pretty good idea how they would behave in most situations. Seeing them deal with Roseanne’s shocking and ripped from the headlines opioid-related death provided the fictionalized family plenty to deal with in this first installment of The Conners.

The “pilot” episode, titled “Keep on Truckin’ ” opened three weeks after Roseanne’s death with the family still mourning their loss. As a viewer I felt their pain and got the feeling that the real life loss of their co-star was uncomfortably close to the surface for each of them as they portrayed their grief. The Conners walked a tightrope and delivered just enough light-hearted moments in the midst of the deep sadness. I laughed out loud several times and at one point, near the episode’s conclusion, I teared up as Metcalf’s Jackie used just a few simple words to share how much she missed her beloved sister. It was a reminder of what Roseanne did so well when it was at its best.

In a nostalgic nod to the classic show’s original opening title sequence, The Conners’ last scene featured the family gathering around their kitchen table to share a meal together while the familiar harmonica notes played out the Roseanne theme music in the background. It seemed like a perfectly respectful and appropriate way to hit the reset button on a beloved small screen franchise. Roseanne was at the epicenter of the fictional Lanford, IL-based Roseanne. She was the hub of the wheel that each character connected to like a spoke. Tonight The Conners unfurled a new blueprint in which each of the characters sought to fill the void left in her absence in a believable, poignant and thoughtful way. It paid tribute to its deep roots and left this viewer feeling optimistic that there’s still plenty of life left to “live” for the Conner family.

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