Roseanne returned last night without Roseanne Barr, and whatever anyone else wants to say about it, The Conners was refreshingly non-toxic. Watching the premiere didn’t feel like scrolling through Twitter half-flinching while waiting for that awful hot take to be retweeted into your timeline. It did not feel contentious. It did not put me on my heels.
It was Roseanne without any of the bad parts (by which I mean “Roseanne”). It was Becky and Darlene fighting; DJ trying to get a word in edgewise (his wife, Geena (recast as Maya Lynne Robinson) is on leave from the military, and she got more lines than DJ); it was Dan grieving over his wife but also sweetly helping his grandson pick a boy to like; and it was Jackie, being daffy and fun, even in her distraught state. It was good.
Granted, there are better sitcoms than The Conners now. It’s still a ’90s laugh-track sitcom — although it’s considerably more substantive than most — and it is still largely confined to two rooms (the kitchen and the living room) and a simple set-up and punchline format. But within those confines, it’s solid; The Conners is very much the show we wanted Roseanne to be when it returned. There’s only one episode upon which to judge The Conners, but Barr’s absence is not felt in the least, except as a relief. Darlene very capably steps into that role, while Goodman is … Goodman. The man can act. This cast took a lot of well-deserved sh*t last season for ignoring Roseanne Barr’s politics, but if you can separate the art from the complicity, The Conners is a solid B+ sitcom.
The series picks up three weeks after the death of Roseanne, initially thought to be from a heart attack but later revealed to be caused by an opioid overdose. The Conners are still dealing with the grief of that, but also trying to put their lives back together, which means catching up on old bills and trying to return the home to a semblance of normalcy. Dan’s angry as hell over Roseanne’s death and blames Marcy (Mary Steenburgen) — the woman who supplied the pills to Roseanne — for her overdose, but even that proves to be difficult when they later learn that Roseanne had been getting pills from a number of sources.
Darlene, meanwhile, has begrudgingly filled Roseanne’s role. “You’re the obvious choice to take over for Mom and Dad,” Becky tells her. “You already live here, and you’re a scary little tyrant.” “You’re just going to compliment me and walk out,” Darlene responds, in perfect Darlene fashion. Becky’s back to work at the Mexican restaurant; D.J. collects dust in a corner; and Jackie spends the entire episode poorly cleaning and rearranging, because she doesn’t want to leave the house because it means leaving Roseanne.
What I appreciate most about the episode, however, is in how they deal with Roseanne’s death with an easy but dark sense of humor. It’s weirdly healthy. They confront Roseanne’s death. They process. They lean on each other, and they crack jokes about it, too. Roseanne’s death does not change who they are, and the way that Roseanne dies — of an opioid overdose — makes perfect sense in the context of a show about blue-collar middle Americans.
Barr clearly disagrees, suggesting in a statement that Roseanne’s death adds “an unnecessary grim and morbid dimension to an otherwise happy family show,” but I think to call The Conners or Roseanne a “happy family show” is both inaccurate and belittling. It is not, nor never was Full House or The Goldbergs.
For what it’s worth, the fact that it’s 35 percent off of its premiere last season may get the headlines today, because it’s the more divisive headline, but the real rating story is that early ratings showed that The Conners came in slightly above where it ended last season. That’s probably not a great indication of whether The Conners will succeed, either, because presumably a lot of people tuned in to see how they would handle Roseanne’s death. It’ll be interesting to see if those viewers return. If they don’t, it may be for an understandable variety of political or personal reasons, but it won’t be because The Conners isn’t good.
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