'The Conners' Showrunner Bruce Helford: Why We Killed Off Roseanne Like That (Guest Column)

The TV boss reveals for the first time what it was like to kill off the character who launched his career — and why a heart attack would have been "cowardly": "I wanted a respectful sendoff."
Robert Trachtenberg/ABC via Getty Images
On Oct. 16, viewers got their first glimpse of 'The Conners,' a Roseanne spinoff without its once-titular matriarch

By now, I'm sure there are people in remote villages in Brazil or on a research base at the North Pole who know about Roseanne Barr's tweet and how ABC decided to cancel the show and ultimately require that she be removed from the series if it went forward.

There are active debates on social media about that decision. And regardless of where you stand in that debate — I supported ABC's decision, as painful and difficult as it was for those of us who had positive working relationships with Roseanne — this action left a huge creative hole. While the ABC mandate was clear, there was a lot of unfinished business for Roseanne Conner and this incredible, resolute, funny, flawed family of characters. None of the writers or the cast wanted to end the legacy of this show on a tragic note. Especially given how audiences so passionately embraced the return of Dan, Jackie, Darlene, Becky and the rest of the clan.

As writers, creators and artists, we were on a euphoric high, bringing a show back after 20-plus years to become the season's No. 1 show in prime­time television. Again. No one has ever done that before. But we did it, and it couldn't end this way.

When this situation unfolded, we were in the unique position of going back to work. It all happened on the first day the writers were back in the office, set to start on 13 more episodes. We were in that "work" mind-set. But we had to send everyone home. Three writing executive producers — myself, Dave Caplan and Bruce Rasmussen — were still available and held steady to see where things were going.

We had a feeling there would be a second half. We had the infrastructure, a cast with no prior commitments, a production team and crew that worked together with precision, 10 previous seasons of backstories, and the hardest thing of all to find in the land of 5,000 channels and Fortnite: a dedicated, loyal, passionate audience.

Within a few weeks, we had the green light from ABC. We knew we had to explain Roseanne's disappearance from the show definitively but also set up the other characters in a way where they could move on. There was a lot of chatter in the ether about how we should explain Roseanne's absence: Should she have a sudden heart attack, a mental breakdown or go off into the sunset on a boat with her son Jerry Garcia? But back in the writers room, we firmly decided against anything cowardly or far-fetched, anything that would make the fierce matriarch of the Conners seem pathetic or debased.

After much discussion by all parties, it was decided that we would have to make her departure clearly permanent. But her death would have to be reverent to the woman who was so beloved by her family. And the result would have to leave no shadow over Dan, Jackie, Darlene, Becky, DJ and all of Lanford. It was a crucial story point so that the other characters could truly move on boldly with their lives, evolve and grow. And on a personal note, Roseanne helped launch my career, and while we had our disagreements (she once fired me in Roseanne's original run), I wanted a respectful sendoff for her, too: one that was relevant and could inspire discussion for the greater good about the American working class, whose authentic problems are often ignored by broadcast television. If you watched the first episode, I hope you'll agree we did that.

There was a great deal of anticipation about how the audience would receive the episode. Before we shot the first scene, I took a deep breath and muttered to myself, "Here we go." The first laughs were tentative. It's a delicate scene, with some heavy discussions within the family. Then Laurie Metcalf landed a big laugh about casseroles, and you could feel the audience relax. The response was incredible for the rest of the evening, swooping from hold-your-breath dramatic moments to large, explosive, cathartic laughs. As a writer, you can't ask for more.

So in episode one, we mourn the loss of our matriarch. She deserved that. In the coming episodes, we'll be doing what I love most about this show: being brave, tackling subjects most comedies would find too difficult and shining a light on the lives of the unbowed Conners as they deal with the economic inequalities of life in lower-income America with love and humor. That's what I signed up for.

Bruce Helford is the showrunner of The Conners; he previously was showrunner of Roseanne.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.