Darlene and Ben are starting to look a lot like the new Roseanne and Dan as The Conners continues to figure out life after Roseanne Barr. Before settling on the ensemble concept of The Conners, ABC was originally rumored to be considering a Roseanne spinoff built largely around Sara Gilbert’s Darlene. This week’s episode gave a glimpse of what a Darlene-centric series might have looked like as it focused in on the single mom and her burgeoning relationship with her boss Ben (Jay R. Ferguson).
Ben, of course, is the second love interest for Darlene this season, the first having been the meek Neil, played by Justin Long. It didn’t take Darlene long to move on from Neil though, as she realized her relationship with him was just a perpetuation of her dynamic with David (Johnny Galecki), who was always hilariously easy to intimidate and push around. Soon after going to work at her new job as a copy editor on the low-rent Lanford rag “Lock ‘Em Up,” an ethically dubious compendium of mugshots so cheap it doesn’t even have a website, the sparks began to fly between Darlene and the rag’s writer/editor Ben.
Darlene being Darlene, she immediately began suggesting ways to improve the publication, including making it less overtly offensive. But Ben being Ben, he pushed back on all Darlene’s ideas, forcing her into the unfamiliar position of slightly giving in. After slowly building up the Darlene-Ben dynamic over the past few weeks, this week’s episode of The Conners took things to the next level as the two hooked up at work and then made a dinner date. But that date would prove to be a disaster as Darlene started trying to boss Ben around at his own place, first balking at taking her shoes off, then fighting over the choice of wines and finally trying to salt his homemade paella to her own fussy specifications.
The petty grievances that surfaced during the dinner and even made Darlene walk out early somewhat heavy-handedly pointed up the nature of the Darlene-Ben relationship: they’re both fundamentally stubborn people who think their way is always the best way, and who struggle with compromise. But rather than flee from her new potential romance, Darlene showed up for work the next day to work things out with Ben and continue their relationship, problematic as it may be.
Thus far this season, The Conners has treated the characters’ new love interests mostly as comic foils (this is especially true in the case of Jackie’s boyfriend Peter, played by a smug Matthew Broderick) but Ben stands out in that he feels more fully-formed and therefore potentially more important long-term. In fact, in the dynamic between Darlene and Ben, one can sense a little of the old Roseanne-Dan push-and-pull. Of course, Roseanne was always an incredibly stubborn and dominant character, but Dan in his own way was equally as willful, though in his case this tended to manifest itself less as manipulation and more through outbursts of temper.
Ben doesn’t come across as hot-headed as Dan, at least so far, but he does have some of Dan’s willingness to stand his ground. He also has some of Dan’s protective streak, as the audience learned in the recent episode where he showed up at the casino to help Darlene fend off the creeper who was giving her a hard time. Ben even is a similar physical type to Dan, big and burly but with a basic warmth. It feels at least a little like The Conners is attempting to recreate the Roseanne-Dan relationship in Darlene and Ben’s sparring and making up, though it remains to be seen if the pattern will continue as the show plays out, or if Ben winds up as just another discarded supporting character.
Of course, nothing will ever truly replace the dynamic between Roseanne Barr and John Goodman, two perfectly paired actors playing memorable characters. Thus far, the Darlene-Ben relationship feels a little clumsily handled, particularly in the case of this week’s dinner scene, which seemed rushed and a bit unconvincing as the episode steam-rolled toward the predictable reconciliation. It’s hard to say if The Conners is on to something with Darlene and Ben’s relationship, but it seems clear that the creators are hoping Sara Gilbert and Jay R. Ferguson can find at least a little of the magic Roseanne Barr and John Goodman created together.