This isn’t the first time a major sitcom has rebooted with a bleak twist—Two and a Half Men killed off Charlie Sheen’s character in 2011 after his public meltdown, and the subsequent media circus was enough to boost the show’s ratings, at least temporarily. The Conners, too, will have its rebranding gimmick to help draw people in at first. If the spinoff gets anything close to the viewership of Roseanne, ABC should be happy.
The network and Barr have both described the decision to reboot the show in more altruistic terms. “I agreed to the settlement in order that 200 jobs of beloved cast and crew could be saved, and I wish the best for everyone involved,” Barr said in a statement. The Roseanne executive producer Dave Caplan earlier noted that the surprise cancellation had caught staffers off guard: “The writers did pass on other jobs to take this job,” he said. Another executive producer, Tom Werner, said of the settlement, “We are grateful to have reached this agreement to keep our team working as we continue to explore stories of the Conner family.” But saving jobs wasn’t the only reason for the creation of The Conners. ABC, like other networks, cancels shows all the time, putting writers, actors, and crew members out of work. In this case, ABC has a lot riding on re-creating, in some form, the success of its Roseanne revival.
With The Conners, the network appears to be making an easy if calculated bet on the notion that most of Roseanne’s viewers didn’t tune in specifically because of the show’s political dimensions. “The Conners’ stories demonstrate that families can always find common ground through conversation, laughter, and love,” ABC said in a statement. “The spinoff will continue to portray contemporary issues that are as relevant today as they were 30 years ago.” ABC may be banking on the idea that viewers just wanted a family sitcom, one that harkened to the earlier days of network TV’s dominance, where lessons were learned, laugh tracks were chuckled along to, and generational differences were the butt of every other joke.
Yes, the revived Roseanne talked about life in Trump’s America, made hay on the political disagreements between Barr’s character (who embraced the president as a job-providing populist) and her more liberal kids and sister. But those clashes always existed as part of the more classic, fraught-but-loving home dynamics of the original show. Barr’s loud public support of Trump put the show in the headlines as yet another symbol of the nation’s political divides, but the ultimate point of the Roseanne revival was union: Its characters all loved each other despite their many ideological differences.
The show was, of course, a heightened fantasy. Roseanne Conner was quite a few steps removed from the actress who posted racist invective on her Twitter feed (behavior Barr is now apologizing for without fully admitting fault). Perhaps ABC hopes The Conners will have a better shot at claiming some political middle ground, a notion that can feel especially imaginary today. If so, it should help that the spinoff won’t have to deal with a namesake who was known for expressing extreme beliefs off camera—something many viewers, including fans of the original show, found hard to overlook.