Critic's Notebook: Against the Odds, 'The Conners' Became Comfort TV

ABC/Eric McCandless

A season and a half following its premiere, the 'Roseanne' spinoff has been able to find balance between nostalgia and organic storytelling.

I love a good survivalist story: The Hunger Games, The Revenant, The Conners.

When ABC canceled the 2018 revival of Roseanne Barr's classic sitcom following a racist tweet she posted, it was impossible for me to imagine how any iteration of Roseanne could survive without her outsize sphere of influence. Sure, it wasn't the first time a star had been flushed from their own franchise (Two and a Half Men; Valerie/The Hogan Family). But the show was named after Barr, built around her groundbreaking protagonist, and based on her autobiographical stand-up comedy and carefully crafted "Domestic Goddess" persona. The Conners should have been an empty husk without her.

Yet I've found myself looking forward to watching it each week, consistently laughing at its down-to-earth jokes and finding meaning in its familial pathos (which is more than I can say for most shows I'm watching right now). Longtime fans can be easily disappointed if the rejuvenated product doesn't mirror their golden memories, and I, too, have railed against the dead eyes of actors scrambling to recapture their prime for a paycheck. Fortunately, The Conners doesn't struggle to be Roseanne sans Roseanne. Instead, it has developed its own comedic rhythms and emotional beats that allude to its predecessor without overtly zombifying it. In the season and a half since it premiered, the series has become the purest form of Comfort TV.

I don't say this lightly: I was, and still am, a Roseanne fangirl who has seen every episode of the original more than once. I grew up on the sitcom while it was still airing in the late '90s, catching the tail end of the series during its arguably toughest-to-chew years when it ran multiple pregnancy storylines and ostensibly replaced its daughters with adopted sons. (Let's not even get into the train wreck of a final season that imagined the Conners as ghastly nouveau riche lottery winners. The storyline was later retconned in the series finale as a coup de grâce for our poor brains.)

Still, 8-year-old me loved Roseanne all the same, as it reminded me of my own loud, sometimes vulgar Long Island family that ultimately didn't look or sound a whole lot different from the working-class Conners of Lanford, Ill. (Up until last year, I was convinced Barr could win an Oscar playing my mom in the movie of my life.) I still contend we need more raging feminist moms like Roseanne Conner on TV and that Darlene Conner is one of the most iconic teen characters in television history.

In order to distance itself from Barr's vile public provocations, The Conners quickly dispensed with Roseanne's signature sociocultural thorniness. Where the 2018 revival began as a political Whac-a-Mole, pounding Trumpism, gender nonbinary children, immigration and opioid addiction all at once during a nine-episode frenzy, The Conners returned to domestic intimacy, elevating character development over zeitgeist-y polemicism. The gallows humor here might be milder, centered mainly on the family's relatable class struggles, but the show's psychodrama is more effective than adapting Twitter hot takes to TV dialogue. A season and a half into the spinoff, The Conners has been able to capture nostalgia without overzealously strangling it to death. It's a smaller show than its predecessor, and ultimately better off for it.

As we learn in the spinoff's premiere, Roseanne Conner died offscreen from a pill overdose. But the Conner family doesn't spend too much time grieving her loss or prompting the audience to miss Roseanne's fiery soul. Realistically, a commandeering matriarch like Roseanne would have been the glue that held this family together, but the producers couldn't afford to delve into kitchen-sink discord right away. (They saved that for Season 2, when the family fight about their grandmother's inheritance over several episodes.) Soon, ambitious but underachieving Darlene Conner-Healy (Sara Gilbert) became our prickly new lead, her dry and astringent wit swapped in place of her mother's cutting brashness.

The heart of The Conners rests in the sweet/sour antagonism between sisters Darlene and Becky (Lecy Goranson). Where overbearing Roseanne constantly hammered her sad-sack sister Jackie (Oscar-nominee Laurie Metcalf, indispensable) for her failings, Darlene and Becky match each other's basest shortcomings with mutual venom. ("You're selfish and self-centered," lobs Darlene. "You're an old bitter rat in a curly wig," Becky snaps.)

When Roseanne began, middle-schooler Becky was a bubbly, straight-A overachiever and younger sister Darlene a wisecracking, slovenly tomboy. Through the series they constantly rotated roles and power positions along the wheel of fortune: While teenage Becky eventually eloped with a ne'er-do-well and missed out on her chance to go to college, Darlene grew into a confident artist who was soon offered a scholarship to study in Chicago (and decades later returned home to live in her parents' house a single mom with two kids and a stalled career). Since the revival, Becky has gone from hating her life as a broke, alcoholic waitress to finding some measure of fulfillment as a first-time mother and nascent business owner.

Traditionally, Gilbert has received the most attention among the younger Roseanne castmembers, including an Emmy nomination, but Goranson here proves an adept comedienne, imbuing Becky with equal parts tenderness and vinegar. The sisters' adult rivalry plays out in vicious barbs each episode, but their underlying connection remains strong since the death of their imperious mother. "I don't think I've ever felt this close to you," Becky tells her sister when Darlene promises to help her navigate pregnancy alongside an addiction to alcohol. "Thank you for not being a judgmental troll for once."

One of the best choices of the new series was to introduce TV legend Katey Sagal as Dan's recurring sort-of girlfriend, Louise. Sagal, an expert at playing earthy sexpots, is a welcome addition to the cast and story, as the barmaid/musician learns how to date a hedging new widower. As the Conner family spits fire around her, Louise remains a grounded straight woman. Sagal is not a replacement for Barr any more than Gilbert is, but her nurturing sharpness and the conflicts her character introduces between awkward Dan and possessive Jackie keep the pathos simmering. Louise was never a character in the original series, but her warmth makes viewers feel like they're going home.

While the show could better develop its child characters (children were never props in the original series like they are here), The Conners has done the nearly impossible: quilt something cozy and inviting from utter shreds. As Darlene writes to Aunt Jackie in Season 2 during a fight about a business prospect, "I love you and Becky very much despite your extreme lack of awareness that your stupid idea could keep this family in dire poverty for another hundred years. Sometimes dreams are nightmares. Please come to Thanksgiving!" The Conners may nourish with pesticide, but it's nourishment just the same.