Photo: ABC

“I know Roseanne would want me to be here to look after the family.”

“No, it would kill her.”

The fact that The Conners, the Roseanne spin-off/ABC Hail Mary, works without Roseanne Conner or Roseanne Barr isn’t all that surprising. Several reviews of the canceled revival, including my own, remarked on how the cast, including Laurie Metcalf, Sara Gilbert, and John Goodman, was able to pick up where they left off after all these years.

Advertisement

Those same reviews—well, mine anyway—also noted that the 11th season (or the first and last of the revival) wasn’t a particularly strong offering; even if you could set aside the real Roseanne’s politics, Roseanne the show was often light on the biting humor that once made it welcome in homes across the country. I still maintain Jackie got the short shrift, narratively speaking, but when Gilbert’s Darlene was able to go head to head with Lecy Goranson’s Becky, the Roseanne revival felt, if not necessary, then at least funny, even moving. And regardless of what the writers or executive producers said, the show was not apolitical, nor did it foster any real discussion of intergenerational politics—and no, a few rueful shakes of Darlene’s head don’t count as counterpoints. But I’m prepared to live and let live, now that Roseanne has gone and died.

That sounds a bit harsh, but that’s how the team behind The Conners—Bruce Helford, Dave Caplan, and Bruce Rasmussen—opted to part ways with the character in the Conners series premiere, “Keep On Truckin’.” Goodman hinted at Roseanne’s death over the summer, but ABC closely guarded the exact circumstances of it, asking critics not to give away that the character overdosed on opioids (obviously, it’s okay for me to tell you now). Barr herself attempted to spoil this reveal, but even if you already knew that Roseanne’s painkiller addiction led to her demise, it doesn’t dull the impact of those first scenes in the Conners’ comfortingly messy kitchen. Barr’s behavior casts a bit of a pall over the spin-off, but The Conners quickly distances itself from the actor even as it bids a fond farewell to her character.

Advertisement

Photo: ABC

“Keep On Truckin’” approaches grief with tact and humor, and stays true to the scrappy spirit of the Conner family. The episode opens with a title card but no credits, which means no familiar cackle or harmonica (not yet, anyway). Condolence casseroles surround the Conners (which is the blanket term for a family that includes Harrises and Conner-Healys), who have been in mourning for three weeks. There’s a slight feint, as Mary (Jayden Rey) warns her cousin that bad eating habits can cause “your heart to attack you like Grandma Rose’s.” That seems a fitting end, given the rough state of Roseanne’s health in the revival and the family’s sporadic insurance coverage. That revelation has little time to register before director Andy Ackerman checks in with individual family members to see how they’re coping. By and large, they’re not great—Dan can’t bring himself to sleep in the bed he shared with his wife of 45 years, Jackie is unmoored without her overbearing sibling, and Darlene, despite already being a mother, isn’t sure she can head up this particular family.

Ackerman’s pacing captures the surprising flurry of activity that follows the loss of a loved one, especially a parent. Having been through this, I can tell you that few people really know what to do in the immediate aftermath; most wait for someone else to tell them what to do. As one of the older members of the family, Jackie initially tries to step up, ordering the eating of the casseroles so the family can return their neighbors’ good Tupperware (a nice touch). People haven’t stopped dying just because we’re grieving, she tells them—the world hasn’t ended, even though it feels like it has. Eventually, everyone’s taken a shot at filling in for Roseanne: Bev briefly cuts through the sorrow with a well-timed joke, Darlene and Becky gamely try to shuffle final past-due notices, and Dan gives his genderqueer grandchild Mark some romantic advice. They slowly realize that the only way to get through this is together.

Advertisement

But “Keep On Truckin’” also leaves room for each family member to sort through their feelings on their own. Jackie eventually spins out, though the script from Bruce Helford, Dan Caplan, and Bruce Rasmussen grounds all that nervous energy. Her brave face is still in place, but the utter chaos she creates during a sudden kitchen reorganization—a callback to Jackie’s career as a life coach, presumably—tells a different story. What’s initially the funniest detour of the episode quickly turns heartbreaking, as Metcalf delivers a powerful speech about feeling out of place without Roseanne, tearfully confessing to her niece Darlene that “I don’t wanna leave because I don’t wanna leave her.” And in just one episode, The Conners does far better by Jackie than the entire 11th season of Roseanne.

For her part, Darlene is already a little resentful of Becky for abdicating her responsibilities, even though she’s the eldest. An old conflict briefly rears its head, as Darlene calls out Becky’s flightiness while Becky calls her “a scary little tyrant” (to be fair, Darlene takes that as a compliment). My high hopes for Gilbert continue to pay off, as she does the heavy lifting in these scenes. Away from Barr’s bluster, she’s able to communicate so much with so little—a slight slump of her shoulders silently signals her defeat long before she lets Becky off the hook. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Darlene gets fed up again before too long, even if, as Becky puts it, she’s the clear frontrunner for new matriarch. And she’s needed right away, as Dan reaches the anger stage of the mourning period. We get the other surprise of the night when first Becky, then Jackie stumble upon Roseanne’s hidden stashes of painkillers. Dan blames Marcy Bellinger (Mary Steenburgen, who looks so wan and mournful), focusing his anger on one unwell neighbor for the loss of his unwell wife. The Conners acknowledges that anger is just as valid a response as sadness following a death, but it doesn’t leave Dan stewing in it for long. He soon finds out about all of Roseanne’s other sources, and how Lanford’s un- or underinsured try to fill each other’s medication gaps. Then comes guilt, for him and Darlene, before they admit that Roseanne “never listened to anyone.”

Advertisement

Photo: ABC

It’s bittersweet, but it’s the truth, and it’s also the first real step forward for the Conner family. Roseanne’s absence is felt, but not Barr’s—her longtime castmates don’t miss a beat, and the writing is often poignantly funny. And with its nuanced treatment of tragedy, “Keep On Truckin’” bodes well for the future of The Conners.

Stray Observations

  • First, a note about scheduling: we won’t be doing regular coverage of The Conners, but don’t be surprised if we drop back in at midseason and for the finale.
  • Alas, poor D.J., doomed to be forgotten even by his new family—Mary mostly speaks to Geena, and Geena doesn’t even bother to tell him about the wet couch. Still, his joke about “having two older sisters who suck all the air out of the room so you’re practically invisible” is hilariously spot-on.
  • There wasn’t enough Bev for me, but Mary Steenburgen’s Marcy Bellinger was the perfect mix of pathetic and resilient.
  • The best Darlene zinger came in response to Geena’s threat of eternal damnation: “Reservation? We already have a cabana.”
  • John Goodman broke my heart this episode when he almost collapsed on the Conners’ front porch.

Advertisement