Now that ABC has picked up the Roseanne spinoff The Conners, with Roseanne Barr having no creative or financial involvement, how will the show write out her character? In March, the classic sitcom Roseanne returned to television and enjoyed shockingly huge ratings. Despite some controversial political content (Roseanne was now a Trump supporter), the show was quickly picked up for a second season by ABC. But all those big plans came crashing down thanks to one tweet by Roseanne Barr, in which the actress flung a racist insult at former Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett.
Amid a massive backlash, ABC elected to cancel Roseanne, leaving the show’s 200 cast and crew members out of work. Since then, ABC has re-visited the show’s future, moving to bring back the series in spinoff form but without Roseanne Barr involved. The final crucial hurdle to a Roseanne spinoff was crossed when Barr, who still owned rights to the show she helped create, agreed to a one-time payoff in exchange for relinquishing all further claims.
This fall, the Roseanne spinoff The Conners will debut on ABC, and the first order of business will be addressing the exit of the series’ most important character, the indomitable Roseanne herself. In a brief synopsis released along with the announcement of the spinoff, ABC described Roseanne’s exit as “a sudden turn of events” that will force the Conners to deal with their daily struggles “in a way they never have before.” But what does that tell us about the show's plans for dealing with the departure of Roseanne?
Vague as ABC's synopsis may be, it does seem to indicate the show means to directly address Roseanne’s departure and write it into the story in a meaningful way. In other words, don’t look for Roseanne to tip-toe around the issue by employing some kind of crazy twist a la Roseanne Season 9. Infamously, the final season of the original Roseanne played all kinds of tricks on the audience, taking the story in bizarre directions (the Conners winning the lottery; Dan having an affair) only to explain the whole thing as part of Roseanne’s fictional novel. In a final cruel twist, the show revealed that Dan (John Goodman) was actually dead. When Roseanne returned for its revival season, the show quickly shrugged off the narrative issues brought up by season 9 with a joke about Roseanne dreaming Dan was dead.
Now that Roseanne herself has departed the series, the opportunity is there for another “all a dream” twist or quick, dismissive joke. Handling the departure this way would, however, feel like a major cop-out if not a total betrayal of the audience. If the revival season proved anything, it’s that audiences still have a lot of affection for Darlene (Sara Gilbert), Dan, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) and the show's other characters. And the season also established some interesting, likable new characters, including Darlene’s kids Harris (Emma Kenney) and Mark (Ames McNamara). The only way to be true to these characters and show proper respect for the audience and their genuine feelings for them would be to play Roseanne’s departure straight and really deal with the implications of her loss.
In fact, things are already well set up for Roseanne’s departure to be dealt with as a sudden and shocking death that leads to major emotions. At the end of revival Season 1, Roseanne was dealing with a serious prescription drug habit that had her hiding pills and lying to Dan. Things were clearly set up for a further storyline about Roseanne grappling with her opioid addiction, an issue that is certainly front-and-center in the culture at the present time. By having Roseanne die as a result of her pill habit, the show can still deal with that issue in a way that makes the story take on an even more tragic tone.
Of course, that story would work a lot better if Roseanne Barr were on-hand to play her final scenes and launch the rest of the story - something that is obviously not in the cards. So, producers will have to work out a way to handle Roseanne’s abrupt, off-screen departure in a way that feels satisfying.
The plain truth is that losing a major cast member in such a way, and having to deal with the aftermath, almost always leads to awkwardness. The classic soap Dallas notoriously faced such a dilemma when Jock Ewing actor Jim Davis passed away; the show was forced to handle Jock's departure by killing him off in a badly staged helicopter crash with a double standing in for Davis. The sitcom 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter faced a similar problem when John Ritter tragically died, and all they could do was jarringly address his character’s passing, replacing his presence on the show with a new character played by James Garner.
Possibly the worst example of a show handling a major cast member’s departure came on The Sopranos, when Livia Soprano actress Nancy Marchand passed away and they elected to give her one last scene using terrible CGI. Given the agreement to pay off Roseanne Barr and allow the actress no further involvement in the series, it seems highly unlikely producers would resort to CGI to bring back Roseanne for a truly awful death scene.
The most obvious move is to have Roseanne expire off-camera and then let the characters address her passing for an episode or two before moving on. It would not be surprising if the show made a move to hire another well-known performer to play a new character on the show who in some way replaces Barr’s presence. Maybe widower Dan will find a new woman who has a similar personality to Roseanne. That would certainly lead to some interesting conflict within the family.
No matter what move The Conners ultimately makes to explain Roseanne’s departure, there will no doubt be a sense of dissatisfaction and even awkwardness to the whole affair. That is inevitable any time a major character disappears from a show and writers are forced to work around the issue. The hope is that the other characters, and the strong performers who play them, can carry the spinoff over the bumps and launch the story onto a new path that proves enjoyable to the show’s large and loyal audience.