‘The Conners’ Is A Reboot For Another Time and Place

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“The Conners” is not “Roseanne.” Right? I mean, it sounds like a different show. The marquee star is gone, taking with her the show’s name; the new moniker suggests a nice fresh start.

To me, just a regular millennial woman who didn’t own a TV she was allowed to turn on until she was 25, this rebirth seemed like a perfect opportunity to get to know the Conners along with “The Conners.” Yes, it’s shocking that I never watched “Roseanne,” even the reboot season. (To be fair to myself, by the time of the reboot, it was already pretty clear that its star and namesake was a vile person.)

But that’s in the past, and the future is “The Conners.” I could get in on the ground floor this time. It felt good to be on the verge of understanding, and even contributing to, cocktail party chatter again. As a sitcom lover, I’m always ready to add another to my viewing roster. So, I sat down on Tuesday night at 8 p.m., my plate of oven-roasted chicken thighs and green beans perched before me on the coffee table, and invited the Conners into my living room.

It takes more than a new name, however, to exorcise Roseanne’s ghost. I’d foolishly hoped that “The Conners” would stand separately from its predecessor, an old-school sitcom carrying with it the blue-collar concerns and penchant for wry cultural critique I’d heard so much about. Instead, the premiere unfolded like the third act of a tragedy to which I’d arrived two acts late.

First of all, as anyone could have predicted for me ― just a regular self-absorbed idiot millennial woman ― the whole 30-minute premiere episode was about Roseanne. I mean, the main character died! How could I not see this coming??  

We’re dropped in three weeks after the sudden death of Roseanne, who apparently died of a heart attack. In the first scene, the family is finishing up a dinner of assorted homemade casseroles.

“Why do people bring casseroles when somebody dies?” scoffs Harris (Emma Kenney), who appears to be Roseanne’s teenage granddaughter. I struggle to believe that a child over the age of 7 wouldn’t understand this ― I don’t recall needing an explanation when my family became casserole recipients back in the day ― but this question is necessary to tee up the first real joke of the episode: Dan (John Goodman) suggesting that they’ll keep claiming to be grieving until they learn how to cook for themselves. Hey, I didn’t say it was a funny joke.

Roseanne Conner’s absence leaves each member of the clan adrift in some way. Dan avoids sleeping in the bed he shared with his late wife. Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), Roseanne’s sister, manically reorganizes the kitchen. Darlene (Sara Gilbert) and Becky (Alicia Goranson), her daughters, fight over who should deal with the mounting stacks of bills. Harris frets about having left things unresolved with a grandmother she often clashed with. Mark (Ames McNamara), who appears to be Darlene’s other child, misses her guidance on the crucial question of which boy at school he should sit next to on the bus. Other people, who are related to Roseanne and each other in unspecified ways, pop in and out, sad but always ready with a quip.

Clearly there is a lot of backstory to all of this that I’m expected to know. Kids, always do the reading, including supplemental packets.

The one thing I know, really, about Roseanne Conner is that she was executed in the off-season to pay for the crimes of Roseanne Barr, whose long-running work in racist tweets had crescendoed to an unignorable din. Roseanne Conner is not Roseanne Barr, I believe, yet this made it very odd to hear the former mourned onscreen as a paragon untimely ripped from the family she presided over with wisdom and empathy.

Roseanne Barr, for what it’s worth, seemed to feel similarly. An hour after the premiere aired, she tweeted her reaction:  

She’s not! This rent in the very fabric of space and time seems like the most literal possible manifestation of the idea that our political and cultural reality is the dumbest of various parallel timelines. In one timeline, Roseanne is alive and the anointed leader of a horde of Pepes; in another, she’s a saintly if crotchety wife and mother who died peacefully of a heart attack.

Or, actually, not a heart attack. Halfway through the episode, already a confusing mixture of reverent sorrow and easygoing chuckles, the family learns that the autopsy has revealed Roseanne actually died of an opioid overdose. They soon discover that she’d been stashing pills she’d obtained without a prescription around the house; no one had any idea.

An opioid overdose death is the kind of tragedy that the typical multi-camera sitcom can’t really make funny. It’s Very Special Episode material, not “meet the wacky cast” material. In a way, it seems fearless to take it on, especially in a premiere ― and, given the immense scope of the country’s current opioid crisis, exceedingly relevant.  

As a viewer, though, it heightens the episode’s tonal confusion. The family reacts to the news about their loved one’s hidden addiction with even-keeled dismay. Becky, the fun-loving single sister, almost immediately wisecracks that the pills that killed her mother in her sleep were the one possession of her late parent she wanted to keep. Mostly, the show tries to treat Roseanne’s apparent addiction with a serious tone, but wry dad jokes are sprinkled into the same conversations. Every time I was cued to laugh, I instead found my face frozen in horrified bemusement.

Not that comedy can’t come from dark places. Metcalf, wild-eyed and pitch-perfect as Jackie, most aptly captures the manic hilarity that can bubble up from the depths of misery. Goodman’s Dan, too, has the weariness and grim humor born of suffering. For the most part, though, the jokesters simply seem glib.

Perhaps, once all the Roseanne ends have been tied up, “The Conners” will find its new rhythm as a serviceable family sitcom in its own right, unburdened by her shadow. But it will never really be free of it, if only because, if I’m any indication, watching “The Conners” without first watching “Roseanne” is winding up at a party where everyone seems to think you’ve met before but you can’t remember their names: disorienting and vaguely embarrassing.

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