How to Save ‘The Conners’ from Roseanne

When word came out that ABC was going to revive its “Roseanne” revival sans Roseanne Barr, my first response was quick and short: “Let a dead thing die.”

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James Poniewozik
, New York Times

When word came out that ABC was going to revive its “Roseanne” revival sans Roseanne Barr, my first response was quick and short: “Let a dead thing die.”

Of course, letting a dead thing die is not really in the show’s DNA. When it came back, it resurrected Dan Conner (John Goodman), killed off in the finale of the original run, along with undoing several other decisions of that no-longer-final season.

I don’t have a moral objection to “The Conners,” as “Roseanne” [counts on fingers] 3.0 will be called. Roseanne Barr was punished, and rightly so, by being cut from the show after a racist tweet in May. My issue is the same as my general skepticism about TV revivals: I’d rather see talented people do something new than approximate something that can never really come back.

But nobody asked me. ABC is making a business move to keep a time slot filled, get a season of TV out of the talent it has signed up, take one more shot at making a hit out of an established nostalgia franchise and keep the show’s crew employed.

And look: The history of TV is the history of expedient business decisions that worked out through good execution. “Roseanne” had some of the best actors on TV. Its revival season had some truly bad moments, but some of its episodes were as funny, insightful and emotionally rich as the show in its heyday.

If we’re going to get “The Conners” whether we want it or not, then, here are a few ways it could be its best self:

No Half Measures

I’ll just say it: Roseanne must die. I mean the character, and I don’t mean this as a punitive statement. Barr was punished, correctly, by being severed from the show, creatively and financially.

No, Roseanne has to die for artistic reasons. If the character’s separation from the show is anything but permanent — no going off to rehab or to visit a faraway relative — it’ll be a distraction.

It would tease the audience that Barr herself might return (which, let’s be clear, should never happen). And it would leave the characters in a state of limbo, being upstaged by a void. “The Conners” has the challenge of continuing a show in which most of the characters were defined in relation to the title character. Leaning into that, and not rushing past the aftermath, would give the new series stakes. (Classic “Roseanne” did its best making comedy out of very dark material.)

The brief statement ABC issued about “The Conners” suggests this is where they’re going — the family, it says, will deal with “a sudden turn of events” — but that could just be press-release-ese for “We’re figuring it out.” Sometimes the obvious choice is also the right one.

Keep It Real

Roseanne’s death was even unintentionally foreshadowed by the season finale, in which she had developed an opioid addiction and was about to go in for knee surgery. The finale ended with a too-convenient deus ex machina, with a windfall from a federal flood disaster declaration solving the family’s financial troubles.

It was way too easy, and killing the character off would, if only accidentally, address that misstep. It would also put the show back where it works best: telling stories about a family struggling to hold it together.

Death is expensive, emotionally and financially. The return season’s best story lines involved Darlene (Sara Gilbert) restarting her life and supporting her children amid the disappointments of middle age. Having her work to keep her family solvent and support a newly widowed father would bolster Darlene as the show’s new (and very different) sandwich-generation protagonist.

Let the Kids Grow

“Roseanne” had a lot to establish in a nine-episode season, and one of the things that suffered most was the development of the new child characters. Darlene’s daughter Harris (Emma Kenney), in particular, was little more than a loose collection of bratty-teen clichés who existed mainly to exasperate her mother and make Roseanne seem superior.

Darlene’s gender-nonconforming son, Mark (Ames McNamara) fared a little better, but Mary (Jayden Rey), the daughter of D.J. (Michael Fishman) and his overseas-soldier wife, had little to do. The original “Roseanne” was a show about parenting in which the kids were memorable, complicated individuals. “The Conners” needs to invest in the next generation.

Show Middle America. All of It.

A lot of the talk around “Roseanne” focused on ABC’s decision, after the 2016 election, to develop shows about life in the country between the coasts. That was a good idea, in that TV is better when it tells all kinds of different stories, geographically, demographically and otherwise. But the execution was an issue.

A lot of media outlets struggling to cover the country in the Trump era fell into the trap of acting like “middle America” and “working class” meant one thing: conservative, nostalgic, older white people watching Fox News in diners. If you didn’t fit that mold — if you were one of the millions of Midwesterners of color, or one of the liberals that make purple states purple — you didn’t exist.

“Roseanne” complicated that picture somewhat: Roseanne’s sister, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) was a liberal and Darlene and family returned from deep-blue Chicago. But it slanted its focus toward its title character and her “economic anxiety” self-justifications. Now it has a chance to spread the attention around, within the family and beyond. Remember Roseanne’s Muslim neighbors, Samir and Fatima (Alain Washnevsky and Anne Bedian)? How about making them recurring characters, with stories and challenges that have to do with things besides just being Muslim neighbors?

Keep the Politics Personal

I have no problem with politics in entertainment, because there’s a lot of politics in life. But “Roseanne” — both in the 1990s and in the revival — did its best work reflecting politics as lived experience: bills, health care, discrimination on the job.

The revival’s weakest episodes were its most on-the-surface takes on politics (the bad blood between Roseanne and Jackie over the election) and social hot buttons (Islamophobia). It’s not that sitcoms shouldn’t do this. It’s that the stories tried to turn “Roseanne,” unsuccessfully, into something it never was: a kind of modern-day “All in the Family” (something “The Carmichael Show,” for instance, did well).

I don’t know how much of that approach was driven by the writers, by Barr or by the writers deciding that they had to confront all the extratextual issues raised by Barr. But a post-Roseanne “Conners” has a chance to reset.

Keep Ambitions High and Expectations Low

These suggestions — or another set entirely — might make “The Conners” better. I’m not sure if anything will make “The Conners” popular. There may already be too much fallout from conservatives alienated by Barr’s ouster, liberals infuriated that ABC ever brought her back in the first place or nonpartisans who simply liked an old favorite character and don’t want to be bummed out by a show without her.

“The Conners” could limp on for years, like “The Hogan Family” once did without Valerie Harper. Or it could be a one-time curtain call in which the characters, and the audience, say goodbye.

But if the show is returning regardless, it might as well try to do right by the job of letting go of letting what’s dead die, and letting life go on.

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