If you’ve come to this review of ABC’s The Conners looking for details about how the Roseanne spinoff dispatched with Roseanne Barr’s character, you’re out of luck.
ABC screened two episodes for reporters and critics with the specific proviso that we “not discuss, imply or in any other way reveal what happens to the character of Roseanne Conner.” This lines up well with ABC’s promotional strategy for the show, which has focused heavily on making a mystery of a thing that the series’ disgraced former star has already discussed in interviews.
Not being able to reveal a thing that’s revealed in the first five minutes of the premiere of The Conners will probably make this a fairly short review, and it also probably does a fundamental disservice to the reality that The Conners is a TV show capable of standing on its own two feet. In fact, had Barr not effectively blown the show and its good name (and her good name) up, there would have been no need at all to feign a new title or brand identity. The Conners is Roseanne without Barr, and granted that this will probably be a hindrance for some viewers, it’s sure to encourage at least as many.
When I wrote my positive review of the return of Roseanne in the spring — a review I came to regret when I saw the sour tone of several episodes that hadn’t been available to critics — my enthusiasm was based primarily on three factors: John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf are both well-established TV comedy treasures, and Sara Gilbert’s tremendous comfort in this format makes her an underrated treasure, as well. With those elements in place, the two screened episodes of The Conners (the season’s first and fourth episodes) are nothing if not proficient and comfortably in the rhythms of the original show — though rest assured that a certain percentage of right-leaning viewers will rage against Barr’s departure and absence.
So what can I actually tell you about The Conners within the terms of the embargo? Well, I can say that the character of Roseanne’s exit from the series is handled in a way that’s far more dignified and honorable than Barr-the-producer’s exit from the show. It dominates the first episode and still lingers in the fourth episode, and that’s not spoiling anything about the tone of the Roseanne-shaped void, because maybe in the world of the show Roseanne Conner decides to, um, go on a globetrotting world tour and all of the other Conners are, um, consistently happy for her? Yeah. Maybe.
What The Conners evolves into almost immediately is what it really was at its best last season and probably always was at its best: a blue-collar family sitcom that has become a blue-collar sitcom about an interestingly varied blue-collar family composed of several generations and a selection of exes and only-occasionally-present spouses all just trying to make the best of a messy situation in a midsize Illinois town. The idea that Roseanne was the only comedy on TV tackling blue-collar issues was already a ridiculous piece of myopia that ignored One Day at a Time, Shameless, Speechless, Superstore and several other great pieces of TV. This is but one blue-collar comedy on TV, and it’s a decent one.
The emphasis that Roseanne put on politics in several early episodes last season is basically gone, but everybody involved with the show last year tried to emphasize that Roseanne was not now, and never really was, a show about politics. It’s absolutely still a show about ideology or worldview, but it’s that without ever saying “Trump” or “Clinton” or “Democrat” or “Republican” once. The questions are about how you pay for medical bills or how you raise children or how you handle difference.
Bruce Helford remains at the creative helm, and anybody who claims they can recognize any big changes in voice, at least once you get past the thing that can’t be revealed in this review, is projecting. The show’s heart still lies in Dan’s (Goodman) bluster and exasperation, Aunt Jackie’s (Metcalf) frazzled distractions and the withering and loving scorn directed by Darlene (Gilbert) at, and occasionally back at Darlene by, siblings Becky (Lecy Goranson) and D.J. (Michael Fishman). The cast expanded last season to included Darlene’s kids Harris (Emma Kenney), a Conner woman through-and-through, and Mark (Ames McNamara), whose challenging of gender norms represented the most progressive thing the show did last season.
If you ever thought those characters and their lived-in relationships worked, you probably still will. If anything, I think Metcalf seems more comfortable returning to Jackie’s skin this time around and my only two laughs in the premiere came from her attempts to redecorate the Conner kitchen in predictably obsessive ways. Goodman, capable of elevating the smallest grunt or eye-roll, had some of his best moments with McNamara’s Mark last season and that’s the case in these early episodes, as well. And I continue to wish more people used this show’s return as a chance to reflect on how generally great Gilbert is. She helps anchor the vein of drama that flows through this season, continues to deepen the increasingly important bond with Harris and it’s a pleasure to watch her interactions with Johnny Galecki, whose David returns in the fourth episode.
I continue to think that Fishman is, regrettably, a weak spot and that the D.J. side of the story, which also includes Maya Lynne’s Geena and Jayden Rey’s Mary, is the one the show is least able to commit to.
The two episodes I’ve seen lean pretty hard on guest stars, especially the fourth episode that features Galecki as well as Juliette Lewis, as the same loopy free-spirit she now seems to play in everything, and Justin Long. Mary Steenburgen appears in the premiere and makes as strong an impression as one could possibly make in a three-minute, one-scene role. Steenburgen is such a natural fit with this show’s tone and world that I’d root for Helford and company to try to find a way to bring her back frequently.
I can’t say if I’ll be tuning in regularly for The Conners, but let the main take-away of this review be that even without Barr, the spinoff doesn’t miss a meaningful step. And why would it? The best elements of the old show are the best elements of the new show. If you were a Roseanne fan who couldn’t bring yourself to laugh at or around Barr last season, you may want to check back in now. And if you’re an angry Barr fan who vowed not to watch again after how ABC treated her last season? Well, my review wasn’t going to convince you to come back anyway.
Cast: John Goodman, Sara Gilbert, Laurie Metcalf, Michael Fishman, Lecy Goranson, Emma Kenney, Ames McNamara, Jayden Rey, Maya Lynne Robinson
Showrunner: Bruce Helford
Premieres: Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (ABC)