ABC’s “The Conners,” a retitled reboot of a revival, made its return Tuesday night with the now widely known news that its main character, Roseanne Conner, had recently died in her sleep at the sitcom family’s home in Lanford, Ill., a small town that has always just fallen on hard times.
Although her family first believes a heart attack has claimed Roseanne (once famously played by — are we even allowed to say the name anymore? — Roseanne Barr), a coroner’s report days later shows otherwise: She died of an opioid overdose. Her husband, Dan (John Goodman), was convinced that he had gotten rid of all the pills that Roseanne abused during one of the newfangled-yet-familiar episodes of “Roseanne” that aired last spring.
Now his daughter Becky has found another bottle of pills while going through her mother’s things — prescribed to someone else. Dan snatches them from Becky and storms off.
“Damn,” Becky says, “That’s the only thing from Mom’s closet that I wanted.”
The studio audience laughs, of course, because what we still have here — after “Roseanne’s” Category 4 pop-culture storm blew through with its tinge of red-state politics and a temperamental star who couldn’t keep her worst thoughts off Twitter — is a sitcom.
Just a sitcom. And an old-school sitcom at that, shot with multiple cameras and a studio audience, the way sitcoms used to be in those good old days that we keep trying to reconjure by pathologically bringing back all of our favorite old shows. It’s now up to “The Conners” to make sense of what happened and see if there’s anything relevant for its characters to tell us in 2018.
Thematically, at least, there ought to be plenty to work with here — even after the fiasco that led ABC to fire Barr after a racist tweet, cancel “Roseanne,” and then pick up “The Conners” in apparent agreement with Barr that the rest of the cast and crew shouldn’t be punished because of something she alone did.
Also there was another problem, too tempting to overlook: The “Roseanne” revival had been a big ratings hit, in an era in which those are few and far between. Tuesday’s “Conners” premiere drew more than 10 million viewers — not nearly as impressive as the 18 million who watched “Roseanne’s” premiere last March, and slightly trailing the night’s episode of CBS’s “NCIS.” (For her part, Roseanne vented on Twitter after the episode aired: “I AIN’T DEAD,” she wrote, including an epithet and, later, a joint statement with World Values Network founder Rabbi Shmuley Boteach that said Roseanne’s drug-related death “lent an unnecessary grim and morbid dimension to an otherwise happy family show.”)
Tuesday’s episode provided hints of the topically relevant family comedy that producers had set out to make all along. With or without Roseanne, the fact remains that TV could always use a well-written, well-performed comedy about an underemployed, underinsured extended family of mostly white Midwestern cynics who are navigating what’s left of the American Dream in a part of the country where people feel as if they are largely ignored.
On that point, one could certainly argue that since the 2016 election of President Trump, folks who demographically resemble the Conner family have received a surplus of attention, much of it from the very same media they’ve been coached to despise. Reporters never seem to tire of gentle, empathetic interviews with flyover citizens who found promise in Trump’s nationalist, quasi-patriotic message of “Make America Great Again.”
Roseanne Conner had been one of those voters, and, critically speaking, I was more than ready to follow a show about how she got there. What I and other viewers forgot was the inevitable cost of bringing Barr the celebrity back into the spotlight. It could never last; she would have courted disaster no matter what.
“The Conners” reminds us that there’s a fine concept for a TV show here despite all that — although, like its predecessor, there’s a tendency by its writers to circumvent the thing they ought to be writing toward. Tuesday’s episode was loaded with characters and jokes, but a viewer quickly got the sense that only Goodman and Laurie Metcalf (as Roseanne’s sister Jackie) have the acting chops strong enough to convey deep grief along with sudden segues into catharsis and punchlines about condolence casseroles.
Callous as it may sound, the sooner Roseanne is forgotten, the better the show might become, as a widowed construction worker known for hiding his feelings finds new ways to relate to his oldest daughter (herself widowed, years ago) and his younger daughter, son and grandchildren. The new-old “Roseanne” left a lot of topical loose ends to play with: a military daughter-in-law serving overseas; a young grandson coming out as gay and genderfluid; and constant references to economic hardship. (What hardship? In Trump’s winning America, with the best economy in history?)
As preoccupied as they seem to be, I wouldn’t blame the Conners if they never breathed another word about politics. And yet, for the show’s sake, I hope they will.
The Conners (30 minutes) airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC.