‘The Conners’ Deals With the Loss of Roseanne
High on the ratings success of riding the “deplorable” class that put Donald Trump in the White House, Roseanne Barr committed what Sylvio Dante from “The Sopranos” would call a “hanging offense.” She posted an irredeemably racist tweet in the same way The Rich Texan from “The Simpsons” might shoot off a celebratory round into the air. But the TV family she created and raised as a domestic goddess, “The Conners,” got a stay of execution from ABC. The return of “Roseanne” came with the expectation of how she would accessorize her red neck with a blue collar. The spinoff premieres with great anticipation on how Roseanne would die.
“Roseanne’s” last season concluded with Roseanne about to go in the hospital for knee surgery, something she was taking pain pills to keep under control. She was taking a lot, not just her own, but her friends and colleagues. She doesn’t die of complications from the surgery, but the aftermath. The last season of “Roseanne” opened with Dan (John Goodman) and Roseanne Conner trading pills to keep down personal health costs. Roseanne dies of an overdose of pain pills. Because she’d died in her bed, Dan and the family figured she’ had a heart attack, but toxicology reports are cruel. As cruel as the insurance prices that gave rise to Lanford’s local peer-to-peer drug trade in the first place.
“Roseanne” was touted as being groundbreaking because it focused on a sometimes barely-working class family in a sitcom environment tilted towards a more comfortable class. This always been the case on television. Rickie Ricardo was a bandleader performing in a tux on “I Love Lucy,” while Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Cramden on “The Honeymooners” drove a bus. Archie Bunker was a foreman at the loading dock of Prendergast Tool & Die Company who had to drive a cab on the side. John Amos’ James Evans, Sr. on “Good Times” did construction, like Dan, but as a laborer who never got to run his own general contracting business. Sometimes he had to leave town to find work. That’s how he died. He got into a car accident doing a job in another state and his death happened off camera.
“The Conners” opens three weeks after Roseanne’s death while the family is trying to get through all the funereal casserole, a part of the fiber for television’s shallow gallows’ humor, but then plows deeper. Jackie tries to take charge because she thinks Roseanne would have liked it like that, until their mom, Bev (Estelle Parsons), points out it would kill her if she wasn’t already dead. The only thing Becky (Alicia Goranson) wants from her mom’s closet is the pills that probably killed her. But she also feels horrible for laughing when she gets tired of crying, because she was taught by her mom to laugh inappropriately.
Each character deals with grief their own way. Roseanne overdosed, but Jackie overdoes. Jackie gets caught trying to circumnavigate the kitchen triangle, getting lost between a trash can and a coffee pot that plugs in nowhere. Jackie’s physical comedy hits its highest note when Laurie Metcalf once again channels Don Knotts’ Barney Fife in a scene which looks like it could come from an episode called “Andy Griffith and the Evasive Corn Holders.”
Dan is shattered. His whole world implodes slowly as he comes to grips with the depth of the problem he couldn’t see. He paints a sign thanking Marcy Bellinger (Mary Steenburgen) for selling the pills that killed his wife. It doesn’t work because the problem is far bigger than he is prepared to deal with. He is also forced to deal with Darlene’s (Sara Gilbert) son Mark (Ames McNamara) as he makes his choice on who to come out to on a long bus ride. It’s not that Dan has a problem with the dilemma, the show makes its political commentary on a much more muted level now, but with dealing with emotions of any kind, especially in his present state.
Darlene is the central character now, she’s the mom. As Becky points out she is the logical one to take over because she is a little tyrant. Dan assures Darlene her mom gave her everything she needed before she was five, something someone probably read on a cap from a bottle of Snapple. Although she apparently will still be reincarnated in hell. D.J. (Michael Fishman) gets a few lines about being constantly ignored before being stuffed in between the cushions of a wet sofa.
Even without Barr, “The Conners” has major star power. Goodman’s film work with the Coen brothers got him nominated for Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards. His monster voice acting turn in the film “Monsters Inc.” saw him project one of the most emotionally moving finales in an animated film without using his voice or his face. Laurie Metcalf has been nominated for Emmys for three different shows, and won two out of three Tony Awards she was nominated for, as well as an Oscar. Gilbert is now a staple of daytime TV, hosting and executive producing “The Talk.”
The opening credits are introduced at the end of the episode, and there’s no cackle at the end of the end credits. Instead Dan plays with un-chewed food stuff to the harmonica accompaniment. Roseanne’s death will no doubt color the bulk of the first season of “The Conners.” The series will continue to show the troubles of the flyover states, which are as universal as death.
“The Conners” premieres Oct. 16 and airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.