A "Roseanne" spin-off without Roseanne Barr: Can "The Conners" help repair the damage?

With their racist star out of the way, the ABC comedy can depict how Americans in the middle are struggling to live

By Melanie McFarland

Published June 22, 2018 8:02AM (EDT)

Lecy Goranson and Sara Gilbert in "Roseanne" (ABC/Greg Gayne)
Lecy Goranson and Sara Gilbert in "Roseanne" (ABC/Greg Gayne)

Never write off a moneymaker, especially in television. Regardless of the fury over Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet, ABC’s relatively swift firing of the star and the cancellation of the highly successful “Roseanne” revival, a sensible person had to suspect that the network was going to salvage something out of this expensive disaster. There were murmurings to that effect days, if not hours, after ABC killed the revival.

Thursday evening the network revealed its plan to ameliorate the blow of losing its first No. 1 show in 18 years. Get ready for “The Conners,” a spinoff featuring “Roseanne” cast members John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, Sara Gilbert, Lecy Goranson and Michael Fishman.

The 10-episode effort to make stew out of the flame-roasted bones of “Roseanne” is currently scheduled to air Tuesdays at 8 p.m. starting this fall, on a date yet to be announced. To place suspicious minds at ease, the press release states,“Roseanne Barr will have no financial or creative involvement in the new series.”

Here’s how ABC justifies the existence of "The Conners," according to this description in the network's press release.

After a sudden turn of events, the Conners are forced to face the daily struggles of life in Lanford in a way they never have before. This iconic family — Dan, Jackie, Darlene, Becky and D.J. — grapples with parenthood, dating, an unexpected pregnancy, financial pressures, aging and in-laws in working-class America. Through it all, the fights, the coupon cutting, the hand-me-downs, the breakdowns — with love, humor and perseverance, the family prevails.

“A sudden turns of events.” That’s certainly one way to put it.

In real life, Barr spent years honing her online trolling skills, often plying her artistry in the medium of antisemitic, racist, sexist, homophobic statements wrapped in an ample serving of whackadoodle conspiracy theory. ABC was aware of this, as was Gilbert, the executive producer responsible for making the revival happen. ABC hired her anyway because everybody enjoys money. So yeah, the racist Valerie Jarrett tweet? That was sudden, but perhaps not entirely unexpected.

In the “Roseanne” revival, Roseanne Conner was revealed to have an opioid addiction, one of the Very Important American Problems the series writers glanced across our screens like skipping stones off a lake surface. This was handily glossed over in the season finale, which closes with Roseanne sitting down with the kids and the grandkids to a feast of her favorite foods. She’s scheduled to get knee surgery the day after and only has a small window to enjoy a meal before she has to fast. Laughing loudly, she digs in and urges her family to join her.

Welp! Guess that casserole was poisoned. Or maybe Grandma Rose died on the operating table.  Maybe she vanished as part of Thanos' culling in "Avengers: Infinity War." Who knows? Bruce Helford, Dave Caplan and Bruce Rasmussen, the writers and executive producers of the new series, may choose to do something more creative, but if you watched any “Roseanne” you can pretty much predict death by anesthesia. This ain’t “This Is Us.”

A midstream change like this one isn’t unprecedented in the sitcom realm. Couch potatoes with long memories may recall the NBC series “Valerie,” a vehicle for “Mary Tyler Moore” and “Rhoda” star Valerie Harper, featured its titular star in its first and second seasons, which aired in 1986 and 1987.  A dispute between Harper and the producers led to Valerie being killed off after season two. In flew Sandy Duncan and the show became “Valerie’s Family” in season 3, when it reached its highest ranking in the Nielsen ratings charts. And it lived on for three more seasons after that as “The Hogan Family.”

So sure, “The Conners,” or whatever this sitcom ends up being called, could recapture some of the magic the return of “Roseanne” inspired.

But should we root for that to happen? Should Gilbert, an executive producer of “The Conners,” as she was on “Roseanne,” continue to profit off of an ugly mistake she had a key role in making possible?

If it can correct some of its misfires, why not? As many rightly pointed out — including Barr herself — the comic’s stubborn, idiotic addiction to racist trolling cost many fine below the line people jobs they believed would last for another 13 episodes ABC had guaranteed them when it initially renewed the series for a second season.

According to reports in various outlets, “Roseanne” executive producer Tom Werner and Barr came to an agreement enabling him to produce a spinoff through the Werner Entertainment label without involving Barr financially or creatively. (The revival was produced through Carsey-Werner.)

“I regret the circumstances that have caused me to be removed from ‘Roseanne,'” Barr said in a statement. “I agreed to the settlement in order that 200 jobs of beloved cast and crew could be saved, and I wish the best for everyone involved.”

The promise of jobs was enough of an explanation of why previously centrist Roseanne Conner went full MAGA; it should be enough to justify 10 half-hours of a spinoff.

Besides, this family has bridges to repair. One of the Conners’ qualities highlighted in the network press release is that their stories “demonstrate that families can always find common ground through conversation, laughter and love.”

However, the writers failed to achieve this in those new “Roseanne” episodes, choosing instead to use the show’s mealy-mouthed feints at addressing topics that impact all Americans to put a friendly mask on the divisive, bigoted elements of Trumpism. Mind you, it is important to note that Barr is gone and whatever influence she had over the writers’ room likely left with her. Whitney Cummings, the 10th season’s co-showrunner alongside Helford, departed as well.

At any rate, the revival’s strength had little to do with Roseanne Conner. A number of critics posited that  Darlene (Gilbert) and Becky (Goranson) are the true centers of the family; their heartfelt struggles and painful setbacks  illustrate what life is like for everyone caught in the middle of toxic political extremes.

The “Roseanne”  finale also allowed Goodman to stretch Dan in ways we hadn’t seen in episodes leading up to it: always the supportive and lovingly firm husband, in that final episode we got a chance to see Dan come close to losing it, to such extremes that it looks, for a moment, like he might keel over from the strain of dealing with a flooded house and an overdrawn bank account.

There’s certainly more to be explored with these characters, and improvements to be made with others. DJ needs some expansion, but only after Fishman takes a few acting lessons or receives some special directing.

What of the other characters? Maybe with her sister out of the way, Metcalf’s Jackie can adopt some semblance of normalcy. There’s no word on whether Emma Kenney, Ames McNamara or Jayden Rey, who played Darlene’s and DJ’s kids, respectively, are on board to return.

Part of me hopes DJ’s wife divorces his ass and takes Mary (Rey’s character) with her, considering the way Barr used Mary as a cover accessory for her character’s ignorance and the show’s, shall we say, lack of nuance and depth with regard to race: How can Roseanne Conner, Trump supporter, be racist? She has a black granddaughter, after all!

But that goes against the spirit of the spinoff’s purported purpose. “The Conners’ stories demonstrate that families can always find common ground through conversation, laughter and love. The spinoff will continue to portray contemporary issues that are as relevant today as they were 30 years ago,” ABC shared in a statement.

Common ground is a lovely state in which we all ought to want to live. But thanks in part to the efforts of Barr and the official she so deeply admires, that soil is increasingly hard to find and eroding beneath our feet more quickly that kindness can replace it, and so far little is being offered to shore it up.

The legacy of “Roseanne” is tarnished, irrevocably. But if “The Conners” can do their part to repair the angry, ragged cultural rift its originator helped to widen, I’ll be interested to watch how that happens.

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Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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