The Conners Frees Itself of Roseanne Barr

The retooled sitcom debuted with an episode that wrestled with the death of its fictional matriarch.

John Goodman and Sara Gilbert in 'The Conners'
John Goodman and Sara Gilbert in The Conners (ABC)

“People die. Whaddaya gonna do?” So says Joey (Ashton Pulis) upon hearing the news of Roseanne Conner’s death in the pilot episode of The Conners, which aired Tuesday night. “Seen a little too much action in ’Nam, Joey?” replies a deadpan Dan Conner (John Goodman), just three weeks removed from the loss of his wife. So goes the message of ABC’s hastily assembled replacement for its hit revival Roseanne, which ended after its co-creator and star, Roseanne Barr, was fired in May. Dying is a fact of life, and while it’s normal to mourn, sometimes the best way to do so is with a wry joke.

The Conners is, by all accounts, a salvage operation. In 2017, ABC announced that the iconic Roseanne had been retooled for the Donald Trump era by Barr, her co-star Sara Gilbert, and other top producers like Whitney Cummings and Bruce Helford. The show’s 10th season aired 21 years after its ninth and was a triumph, drawing staggering ratings in an era of low network viewership. But Barr’s personality had seemingly curdled in the intervening decades, and her propensity for posting conspiratorial and offensive material on Twitter caught up to her. Barr was fired and the show was canceled after she posted a racist tweet about the former Barack Obama aide Valerie Jarrett, for which Barr later apologized (though she has since equivocated on that apology).

Created with Barr’s legal blessing, The Conners is a way for the rest of Roseanne’s cast and crew to continue working, free of the millstone of the title character. In case it wasn’t clear that Barr is gone forever, The Conners made it pretty concrete by killing off Roseanne in a rather dark fashion: Minutes into the pilot, her family finds out she died of an opioid overdose and not of a heart attack in her sleep like they initially believed.

It’s an end that feels somewhat fitting given the sharply topical streak of the Roseanne revival, which confronted political issues far more brazenly than the original show did. Roseanne (the character) struggled with knee pain in the 10th season, with one episode focused on her unhealthy reliance on pain medication, so The Conners’ twist had some foreshadowing. Still, it was a bleak offscreen departure for one of TV’s best-known faces; Barr called the manner of her character’s death unnecessarily “grim and morbid” in a statement released after the episode aired (she also posted a typically punchy tweet).

Barr isn’t entirely wrong. Still, the spin-off needed a fresh start after the unpleasantness of her dismissal. The first episode didn’t brush past Roseanne’s death too quickly—the story checked in on how most of the Conner family was mourning the matriarch—but it did indicate a path ahead for the sitcom as it tries to find its footing on ABC’s schedule. The characters that made the new Roseanne fascinating were Roseanne’s husband, Dan; her sister, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf); and her daughter Darlene (Gilbert), and they’re all front and center in The Conners.

By and large, the pilot episode had the feel of a throwback family sitcom, and it kept the salty edge to the interpersonal dynamics that always set Roseanne apart. Darlene’s son Mark (Ames McNamara) needed advice on his school crushes and had to turn to the reticent Dan. Jackie, fretting about her sister’s absence in the house, threw herself into a series of increasingly ludicrous cleaning projects. And Darlene had to reckon with the mantle her mother left her as the new head of the household, or at least its emotional core.

One could barely call The Conners a spin-off—it’s the exact same show as the last season of Roseanne, minus the one cast member. As for the ratings: Early returns for Tuesday were solid, on a par with Roseanne’s Season 10 finale, which would be a fine result for ABC if the numbers hold. It’s possible to imagine viewer interest fading fast; perhaps Barr, as polarizing as she was, was the major draw for fans. But the network’s hope is that a smart family sitcom will be more than enough to keep audiences around. In a few episodes, Roseanne’s death will be in the rearview mirror, and The Conners will be free to forge ahead with three of the business’s biggest sitcom talents as its leads. In this industry, crazier bets have paid off.