We’re not allowed to tell you what happened to Roseanne.
Maybe that renders this review useless. The question at the center of the very existence of The Conners, the hustled-into-production spinoff of last season’s Roseanne revival, is what will happen to the character of Roseanne herself when the series premieres Tuesday.
After ABC canceled the revival, which was a ratings blockbuster and relentless news cycle-generator for the network, over Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet about Valerie Jarret, the show’s producers and marquee cast members—Sara Gilbert (Darlene), Laurie Metcalf (Jackie), and John Goodman (Dan)—rallied to save the jobs of the cast and crew by putting together a spinoff. (Dramatically, writers were pulling into the parking lot for their first day of work on the Roseanne revival’s second season when news of Barr’s tweet and the cancellation came.)
But there was one condition: Barr herself could not be involved in any way with or profit from The Conners. That meant that Barr would have to forfeit her intellectual property rights to the show and its characters, which she did.
So while we can’t tell you what happens to the character of Roseanne, we can tell you whether The Conners justifies asking that question in the first place. Roseanne has lived in pop culture for 30 years because of Roseanne’s voice. It’s remarkable that The Conners works at all without it. And, once the echoes of that voice stop drowning out anything else there is to say about the show—which is the chief creative liability of the premiere episode—The Conners may even be good.
As it stands, too much of the premiere is mired in Roseanne. The tone of it all is icky and upsetting, and while played with admirable honesty to the humanity of the event-we-cannot-talk-about, still comes off as mean-spirited given the tenor of opinion surrounding Barr. Because of this, launching the show respectfully was a creative impossibility. No matter what the creative team might say about the intent of the premiere’s plot, the ugliness and outrage surrounding Roseanne herself would inevitably blanket the show. And it does.
There are reports online about what happens to the character, which we cannot confirm or deny. But it is frustrating to not be able to talk about it because how it’s handled directly relates to how the show will be received. There’s a peculiar dissonance between the public’s opinion of Roseanne Barr and how we’re meant to feel about her absence in The Conners. More, while the episode is almost entirely stripped of the baiting political references that garnered so much attention for last year’s revival, there is something inherently political about the situation that is intriguing to see as it’s dealt with in a broad, multicam sitcom. It is also utterly bizarre, as this is an arena that historically lacks nuance.
All of that said, it takes about six minutes before Lecy Goranson, who plays Becky, to deliver a one-liner so good we cackled right through the next three lines of dialogue. It’s a much-needed diffusion of tension, allowing the jokes that follow to more sturdily stick their landings. Laurie Metcalf delivers a monologue about a coffee maker that should earn her another Emmy nomination. Goranson and Gilbert have a crackling chemistry that’s interesting to observe in this context: the tête-à-têtes that laid the foundation for the ultimately profound sisterhood between Roseanne and Aunt Jackie in Roseanne—one of the series’ highlights—now fall to Becky and Darlene, and both actresses rise to the occasion.
There’s a tremendous amount of gravity in the first episode, which is exquisitely played by Gilbert, Goodman, and especially Metcalf. Mary Steenburgen arrives as a guest star and delivers an emotional wallop of a scene with Goodman. There were sniffles, at least twice. But the circumstances are still so surreal that you’re hyper-aware of the weirdness of the emotion as you’re feeling it, pulling you out of the show a bit. Things will get less meta. The big Roseanne question will dissipate quickly. We wonder whether the interest will, but, as it stands now, The Conners is a sweet family sitcom.
We’ve seen two episodes: Tuesday night’s premiere and one that won’t air until November with guest appearances by a fantastic Juliette Lewis and Justin Long. The latter is proof-positive of how enjoyable the show will be when freed from the wonkiness of having to deal with its former matriarch’s absence.
But there is a massive “however” here: It would be disingenuous, especially after how much of the premiere is centered on Roseanne’s absence, for the show to wash its hands of her completely. Because we haven’t seen the episodes that air immediately after the premiere, we can’t speak to how elegantly the show manages to juggle the effects of her absence with unencumbered comedy. And that’s going to be the biggest barometer of whether this spinoff will work.
In what’s been a woefully bland fall TV season, especially for network comedy, it’s frankly a delight to watch a sitcom this solid, with a cast of people you love this much, all executing so well, and, we hope at some point, not have to couch their praise in caveats about the Roseanne of it all. It’s a low benchmark, but the two episodes we saw make a strong case for The Conners scoring the title of fall’s best new comedy—if you’d call it a new comedy.
That’s the interesting thing about it. Roseanne’s presence anywhere doesn’t go unnoticed, so one would assume you would notice when it’s gone. The Conners lacks a certain bite that Roseanne brought but, outside of being a tinge more earnest, it doesn’t seem interested in a new identity. Most of the time it really does feel like the old Roseanne, even without her.