Critic's Notebook: Network TV's Working-Class Sitcoms Are Timelier Than Ever

ABC; Fox; NBC

As the coronavirus further tears at America's socioeconomic fabric, shows like 'The Conners,' 'Superstore' and 'Bob's Burgers' are looking sharper and more relevant than ever.

When Roseanne returned to the airwaves in 2018, the ABC sitcom was as attuned as ever to the financial struggles of working-class Americans. During its original run, from 1988 to 1997, the series was widely lauded for grappling with the strapped resources of a family like the Conners. Still, Roseanne, along with its title character (played by Roseanne Barr), frequently held out hope that the family's booksmart and sarcastic but idealistic middle child Darlene (Sara Gilbert) would go to college (even if it was art school) and thrive in Chicago.

Then reality hit. Roseanne's brief reprise and its Barr-less spinoff The Conners found Darlene, now a single mother of two kids, forced to move back to Lanford and into her childhood home, a middle-aged casualty of the post-recession, downwardly mobile economy. And in one of the series' most moving developments, she made peace with the fact that her starkly pragmatic Gen Z daughter, Harris (Emma Kenney), doesn't let herself dream even as big as Darlene did as a small-town teen during the Clinton boom years.

By the season two finale on Tuesday (May 5), Darlene had finally cobbled together enough resources — through a series of odd jobs and the contributions of her boss turned boyfriend Ben (Jay R. Ferguson) — to move out. But her father Dan's (John Goodman) waning fortunes, as an aging construction worker, meant that Darlene would have to choose between independence and foreclosure on the family home, where her broke sister Becky (Lecy Goranson) also lives with her baby daughter. The Conners' interdependence can serve as a financial buoy, but in hard times, helping family sometimes means individuals sacrificing opportunities to get ahead.

The Conners has done Roseanne's legacy proud by becoming one of TV's best shows about working-class characters, especially in its focus on how money troubles affect intergenerational relationships and inform parent-child dynamics. Through a happy serendipity, it happens to be one of the three best shows on network television, all of which center on characters struggling to get by. Set at a Walmart-like emporium, NBC's Superstore has long made low wages, meaningless benefits and financial precariousness its thematic undercurrents. Fox's Bob's Burgers, meanwhile, often focuses on the joylessness of small-business ownership, with the chronically unhappy Bob (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) and his blindly effervescent wife Linda (John Roberts) never not falling behind on the rent.

The coronavirus crisis is exposing America's class divide (among other societal injustices), and so it seems both ironic and sadly fitting that the pandemic-induced (and necessary) shutdowns across Hollywood has led to even fewer shows able to speak convincingly and poignantly to the concerns of the very Americans most vulnerable to COVID-19. Network TV probably has many more shows featuring doctors, lawyers, detectives and other professionals than it does struggling families. And while cable and streaming aren't without working-class characters (e.g., HBO's Insecure, Comedy Central's Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, Netflix's Gentefied), one gets the sense that striving protagonists like Insecure's Issa, Nora From Queens' titular figure and Gentefied's creative, entrepreneurial cousins will eventually sort themselves out; they're broke millennials searching for their path up.

The Conners, Superstore and Bob's Burgers, in contrast, don't promise their characters the American Dream, unless there's a heavy price to pay (or, in the case of the NBC series, the lead actress's departure being woven into the show). These shows, like few others anywhere on television, evoke the intractability of class that is the reality for so many Americans.

The Superstore employees, for example, have seen their unionization efforts thwarted by corporate over and over again, and as the plights of demoted manager Glenn (Mark McKinney), undocumented immigrant Mateo (Nico Santos) and replaced-by-a-hologram-of-herself Myrtle (Linda Porter) illustrate, there's always lower to go in minimum-wage retail.

Bob's Burgers is a sunnier show that's much less bound to its blue-collar milieu, but it's still set in the kind of hardscrabble mom-and-pop restaurant that couldn't survive without the entire family chipping in day after day. Bob and Linda will likely flip burgers until they physically can't anymore, and their academically indifferent children will likely end up like their father, consumed by their passions and unmotivated by conventional success. Which isn't a bad thing! It just leaves them lifelong prey to the likes of local, exploitative millionaire Mr. Fischoeder (Kevin Kline).

In Vulture's "If I Wrote a Coronavirus Episode" feature, The Conners showrunner Bruce Helford imagined a pretty grim present for Darlene and company. All the adults in the family would be out of a job, not for pathos' sake, but because the kinds of work they do — construction, operating a diner, getting an ad-supported tabloid off the ground — are neither "essential" nor secure. The only character still boasting an income, per Helford, would be young, get-'er-done Harris, who would see bringing in money as a bigger priority than staying safe. "A little dark?" Helford asks. "People, it's the Conners!"

Though coronavirus-inspired plotlines have begun to air with many more undoubtedly on the way, it's yet unclear what the appetite for such stories will be, especially as the quarantine drags on. But if and when we're ready for them, we know which shows we can trust to provide some of the most vital yet underrepresented perspectives on this unprecedented crisis. We could use those series' darkness, and their laughs.