The publicity surrounding the cancellation of the successful Roseanne revival and the firing of its star, and, subsequently, the creation of The Conners, has been something of a whirlwind for ABC and, certainly, everyone following along. The public’s interest in watching the events unfold has bordered on unhealthy at times, though it’s understandable considering Roseanne Barr’s knack for roasting herself in a public relations firestorm of her own making. But as the furor over the cancellation of Roseanne died down and the announcement of the show’s rebirth as The Conners was made — with full cast (minus Barr) intact — the question soon turned to how this new show would fare following the public exit of the woman who made the series work decades ago.
That inquiry extended to the character of Roseanne herself: just how did The Conners plan to write Barr out of the show, and, perhaps more importantly, what would that do to the tone of the sitcom? The answer to the first part won’t come as much of a surprise, as Barr herself seemingly saw the writing on the wall, which led the writers all the way back to a plot line in the original revival, wherein Roseanne was caught abusing prescription painkillers. That is, indeed, how The Conners handles the character’s exit, and it’s done in a matter-of-fact manner that doesn’t beat around the bush. It’s very clear the series was eager to leave the events of earlier this year in the past and get to the business of moving on.
In that regard, there is a sense of urgency in the series premiere of The Conners, one that wants to do as the title suggests and ‘Keep On Truckin’,’ while also putting in the effort needed in order to make this transition feels substantial. That puts much of the heavy lifting in the capable hands of John Goodman, who, in what is yet another bizarre turn of events in the peculiar run of this series, takes a crack at playing the grieving spouse after his own character’s death in the original series finale back in 1997. It’s no surprise, then, that Goodman, along with the show’s other MVP, Laurie Metcalf, give the episode the poignancy it wants so desperately to have, even while fulfilling its obligations as a sitcom intended to make the audience laugh.
The premiere picks up after Roseanne Conner’s death from an accidental opioid overdose. It’s the logical place for the spinoff to launch, but the strangeness of a sitcom dealing with the death of a main character, from a cause that is very much in the news right now, on top of the real-life circumstances that lead to a fictional character’s highly publicized demise, make ‘Keep On Truckin’’ nearly as unusual as the lottery-winning finale from two decades ago. Still, for as much as the spinoff struggles to reconcile its existence with the reality of the behind-the-scenes spectacle that paved the way for its creation, it at least approaches the aftermath of Roseanne’s death in a way that feels true to the spirit of the series.
The Conners doesn’t shy away from the idea of opioid addiction and the fact that many of those hit hardest by the epidemic are in the Conners’ socioeconomic profile. That aspect plays heavily into the events of the premiere, which makes great use of Mary Steenburgen as Marcy, a woman whose Dan learns played a role in his wife’s death. Dan’s righteous anger is balanced not only by Steenburgen’s terrific performance and her explanation as to why Roseanne was in possession of her prescription, but also by the rest of the returning cast — though, like Goodman, it’s Metcalf and Sara Gilbert who do most of the heavy lifting. And it should come as no surprise that they are both up to the task of wringing humor from what could have otherwise been a grief-stricken half-hour.
Other than the realization that the spinoff works and has the potential to do so for some time, there aren’t too many surprises in the series premiere. But since the series’ inception, it seemed the aim of The Conners wasn’t so much to surprise as it was to reassure the audience (and, more over, ABC) that the show could continue, even without its lightning rod of a star. That the series aims to use Barr’s absence to address a public health issue is proof that The Conners can still be Roseanne without Roseanne.
The Conners continues next Tuesday with ‘The Separation of Church and Dan’ @8pm on ABC.