What Does ABC Want From The Conners?

The network canceled Roseanne and ordered a rebooted version of the show without its star, but what kinds of stories is the spinoff hoping to tell?

Sara Gilbert and Roseanne Barr in 'Roseanne'

Did Roseanne’s audience only watch the show for its star? There are good reasons for ABC, the program’s longtime network, to think not: Roseanne Barr never made a hit TV series that wasn’t about the Conner family, she never starred in a successful movie, and her various attempts to launch talk shows and reality series over the years have never worked. Of course, Barr’s identity as a comedian was always tied up in the show that bore her name; it’s why ABC had to cancel the program in May after Barr’s racist tweets, instead of just firing her. Yet the network seems to be betting that a freshly ordered spinoff, The Conners, will do just fine without its matriarch.

A new season of the revived Roseanne, which this year averaged the highest Nielsen ratings in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic for a scripted show, had been the crown jewel of ABC’s upcoming fall slate; canceling the show cost the network a reported $100 million in advertising dollars. The Conners, ordered with Barr’s blessing (after a settlement with Roseanne’s producer), will premiere later this year and focus on the rest of the fictional Conner family, including Roseanne’s daughter Darlene (Sara Gilbert), her sister, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), and her husband, Dan (John Goodman). A press release about the show alluded to “a sudden turn of events,” suggesting that Roseanne’s character will be killed off to begin this new show.

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.

But The Conners might be better served if it were to engage directly with some of the thornier issues that prompted Barr’s firing, and that remain a key part of America’s current political realities. When the show premieres this fall, it will be in the biggest spotlight imaginable, and it could use that moment to ponder Roseanne’s broken facade: This is not just another family sitcom, it’s a show that became another flashpoint in U.S. culture. With the controversial matriarch gone, The Conners doesn’t have to obsess over finding trite explanations for the country’s divisions, but it could still ask challenging questions about them.

The new Roseanne had argued that the appeal of Trump’s candidacy could be traced to his promises of jobs for an embattled working class. Barr’s downfall, meanwhile, had nothing to do with economic anxiety, and everything to do with her racist comments. After the ugliness surrounding the revival’s cancellation, The Conners could find it hard to simply carry on with the same old message that America’s rifts are just like any family argument—one that can be had around the dinner table without any love lost.