A review of last night’s premiere of The Conners, with full spoilers for how it wrote out Roseanne, coming up just as soon as I pick a seatmate for the field trip…
The most important line spoken during the premiere, “Keep on Truckin’,” wasn’t technically part of the episode itself. Rather, it was an ABC narrator introducing a preview of the next installment by intoning, “Next week: life goes on!”
“Keep On Truckin'” had a lot of heavy lifting to do for a premiere, whether you consider this a proper spin-off or just a continuation of Roseanne without its title character. It had to explain what happened to Roseanne Conner — she died of an opioid overdose — in a way that took that loss seriously while still leaving room for enough jokes that it still felt like a sitcom. It had to try to assure some viewers that it would be basically the same show as before, only minus Roseanne herself, while also providing a welcome re-entry point for fans of Nineties Roseanne who didn’t want to watch Barr after she’d gone full racist conspiracy theorist.
Whether it succeeded in appeasing either constituency won’t be known for a few weeks. Odds are the initial ratings will be high out of morbid curiosity, and then one or both groups will slip away within an episode or two. ABC wants us to understand that life goes on, for sitcoms as well as grieving families, but the property feels toxic, even with the name change. This is the mess Barr created with her behavior, but also the one ABC created by hiring her back in the first place, knowing what she had become and what she would surely say and do with her platform.
Creatively, though, “Keep On Truckin'” was as graceful as it possibly could have been under the circumstances. It didn’t trash Roseanne the character in her absence, as Darlene and the others found themselves wistfully imagining what she might say in particular moments. It did not, as some sitcoms (say, Kevin Can Wait) awkwardly do when killing off a character because the actor got fired, simply jump past the bereavement stage to get back to punchlines as quickly as possible. Roseanne’s painkiller addiction had been introduced in the Roseanne revival as something to worry about, and Dan’s discovery that she had been overdosed on pills given to her by their neighbor Marcy gave the episode most of its plot, and its gravity. Marcy (a perfectly cast Mary Steenburgen) turns out not to be a suburban dealer or reckless fellow addict, but part of a circle of financially desperate neighbors who had taken to sharing medicines due to gaps in what insurance would pay for. It’s the exact kind of sad story Roseanne told so well in its original run, and it provided Steenburgen and John Goodman the opportunity to do some great dramatic work under challenging circumstances.
The episode was also a reminder that life and laughs go on even in the face of loss, particularly for a family like the Conners who have always leaned on biting humor as a coping mechanism. Some of the jokes landed better than others (Jackie remains way too frantic), but this felt how the clan would be behaving a few weeks after the funeral. In particular, Dan helping grandson Mark sort through his crushes on two different boys provided some understated gags while seeming like the kind of distraction the new widower would welcome at this stage of the mourning process. (When one of the two boys shrugs off Roseanne’s passing because everybody dies, Dan dryly asks, “Seen a little too much action in ‘Nam, Joey?”)
Barr hadn’t seemed particularly engaged during the revival season, especially compared to how strong an actress she turned out to be in the classic seasons. Goodman, Laurie Metcalf and Sara Gilbert were already carrying most of the comic load, even if Roseanne Conner’s particular brand of blunt sarcasm is a flavor the new show will have to replace or learn to do without. Barr’s lack of interest in the material last season was almost as much of a stumbling block as her behavior on Twitter, and The Conners has been liberated from both. There are enough sturdy characters and performances here to move on without her, and the premiere felt more focused than many of the episodes from the spring. The episode ended(*) with its own spin on the famous Roseanne opening credits sequence, spinning around the Conner kitchen table to show everyone enjoying a meal, this time stopping on Dan and Darlene goofing around rather than on Roseanne herself laughing.
(*) Just as symbolically appropriate in its own way: the end credits tag scene where Dan finally attempts to sleep in the bed where Roseanne died. At first, he feels uncomfortable with the blanket pulled up completely on her side. Eventually, he adjusts things this way and that so it approximates how it would feel if she were still there. A metaphor for this entire “Roseanne Without Roseanne” approach.
Will anyone want to watch it a month from now? I’m definitely more interested than I was in finishing out the revival season, as Barr’s absence allowed me to dwell on what the original show did so well rather than the awful things she kept saying out of character. But new Roseanne proved less a bridge across our gaping partisan divide than another thing to make everyone angry. Killing off Roseanne Conner and changing the title will only make some angrier, and sure won’t bring anyone together. Life goes on, and a family comedy starring Goodman, Metcalf and Gilbert makes this the most promising “new” show in one of the worst broadcast network fall seasons ever. Now we wait and see if there’s a long-term audience for it.