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[This story contains spoilers from the series premiere of ABC’s The Conners.]
The cast of ABC’s The Conners is still mourning the loss of Roseanne Barr’s character.
After it was revealed on the Roseanne spinoff’s season one premiere that Roseanne Conner died of an opioid overdose following knee surgery, executive producer Tom Werner and Barr’s former co-stars shared their thoughts about the TV matriarch’s fatal exit.
“I think it was important that we all be respectful of Roseanne Conner and Roseanne Barr. And we talked about it,” Werner said during a Tuesday night Paley Center panel in New York. “First of all, what made the show work last year for us, obviously, we had an extraordinary ensemble cast. But what made the show work for us is that we were touching on themes that were very relevant for our audience. This is a show about a working-class family that is very identifiable to the audience.”
As seen in Tuesday night’s inaugural episode, titled “Keep on Truckin,” the Conners initially believe that Roseanne died in her bed at home of a heart attack post-surgery. However, an autopsy reveals that Barr’s character overdosed on prescription drugs, a fact that Dan (John Goodman) struggles to accept.
The Conner family later discovers stashes of opioids, obtained by Roseanne on the black market, throughout her home. The first and only season of the Roseanne reboot showed Barr’s character developing an opioid addiction as she popped pills to manage the pain and discomfort of her problematic knee. According to the CDC, more than 72,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses in 2017, an issue that Werner wanted to “shed more light on” with The Conners.
“Obviously, if you had seen the show last year, Roseanne Conner was struggling with drug [addiction],” Werner continued. “This is a problem that has affected tens of thousands of people. Eighty thousand people died last year dealing with opioid addiction and overdoses, so this was a challenge that Roseanne Conner was dealing with last year.”
He added: “I don’t want to get too heavy, but I think this was an honest and authentic way of dealing with Roseanne Conner.”
Before the panel — which included Werner, Goodman, Sara Gilbert (Darlene), Lecy Goranson (Becky), Michael Fishman (DJ) and Maya Lynne Robinson (Geena) — Fishman spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the death of his TV mom.
“Trying to find the right way [was difficult for me]. There is no perfect way to lose someone, ever. It was important that we be honest and acknowledge that. It was also important try to find something that fit with [what happened on Roseanne], but also fit what’s going on in the world around us,” Fishman said. “Tom Werner and the writers were able to take something that’s very timely and utilize that to hopefully make a statement and to help bridge the gap with what’s going on right now in society.”
During the panel, which kicked off following a live screening of the Conners premiere, Gilbert said she and her co-stars were able to channel the heartbreak they felt over Barr’s absence — she was fired by ABC for making racist comments online — into their performances.
“What ended up happening is we wanted to make a really honest episode, and channel whatever we were feeling into the episode,” Gilbert said. “I think every family, at some point, goes through losing their matriarch, so we got the chance to tell that story, and I think it aligned with some of the emotions we were feeling and we were able to put into the show.”
Showrunner Bruce Helford previously explained that Barr wanted to explore the issue of affordable health care in America when they crafted the opioid-centered storyline for the revival of her beloved sitcom. “She wanted to deal with health care in America. She had a knee problem — it’s better now — that spurred the whole thing,” Helford told THR in March. “She said, ‘What would Roseanne Conner do?’ She couldn’t afford the deductible for surgery, so where does she turn to be able to get through work and everything else?”
But, during a recent interview with conservative activist Brandon Straka on his YouTube show Walk Away, Barr expressed her disappointment in the way her character was written out. “I wanted to show it on the show,” Barr said of her character’s addiction. “But I was never going to have Roseanne die of an opioid overdose. It’s so cynical and horrible. She should have died as a hero or not at all.”
Not long after The Conners made its debut, Barr responded to the premiere episode with the following tweet:” I AIN’T DEAD, BITCHES!!!!”
Roseanne was swiftly canceled in late May, hours after Barr posted a racist tweet aimed at Valerie Jarrett, in which the actress compared the former Obama aide to an ape. As has been previously reported, ABC would not consider any sort of Roseanne spinoff if it meant that Barr would receive any financial compensation. Once Barr agreed, The Conners was able to move forward — which allowed hundreds of below-the-line employees keep their jobs after they were unexpectedly hit by the network’s decision to cancel the show due to its star’s online controversy.
The Conners airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC.
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