Is There Any Way for the Roseanne Spinoff to Succeed?

Sara Gilbert and John Goodman in Roseanne. Photo: Greg Gayne/ABC via Getty Images

Let’s imagine a world where ABC’s Roseanne spinoff The Conners is not an eleventh-hour financial decision by ABC to salvage a catastrophe and plug a giant hole in their fall schedule. Let’s imagine a situation where The Conners is a passion project, a just-so-strange-it-might-work idea for a sitcom that speaks to life in 2018, that’s about life inside a working-class family that straddles a political divide.

What would that show look like? What could The Conners be? The official ABC release about the spinoff has a few details: “After a sudden turn of events,” it says, “the Conners are forced to face the daily struggles of life in Lanford in a way they never have before.” It also promises “an unexpected pregnancy,” “financial pressures,” and “coupon cutting,” all in a way that will “demonstrate that families can always find common ground through conversation.”

Is there a way to translate all of that PR pabulum into a great sitcom? Yes, I think so. But first, Roseanne Conner would have to die. The press release seems to hint at something like this — “a sudden turn of events” suggests a tragedy — and frankly, it’s the only honest way to make a clean break. If The Conners is going to be Roseanne without Roseanne but the character doesn’t die, the show will quickly tilt toward the same self-loathing, ironicized mess of the original Roseanne’s ninth season. It wouldn’t be a show about a working-class family; it’d be a show about the strangeness of its own existence. Plus, anything less than Roseanne’s death leaves the door open for her return, which would be a remarkably craven gesture.

So, Roseanne has to die. And then, like the Roseanne revival always should’ve been, The Conners becomes a show about Darlene. A number of recent sitcoms have been about adult children living with their parents (Mom, The Ranch, Sh*t My Dad Says), but a show about Darlene and Becky has the unusual opportunity to treat that story as a continuation rather than a starting point. After all, it’s an immensely sad story for Darlene: She spent nine seasons on Roseanne dreaming of leaving Lanford, but now she’s back in her father’s home. It’s maybe even more sad for Becky, who has never even conceived of a way out. The Conners could finally treat those stories as a narrative anchor, rather than marginalizing them as a satellite story line to Roseanne and Dan’s marriage. It could be about the tension between two sisters who never really got each other, but who are now stuck with many of the same predicaments, and who are stuck with each other.

In the aftermath of Roseanne Conner’s death, The Conners could also become a show about grief. I know, I know: That sounds exactly like the kind of lighthearted family fare everyone is looking for. But avoiding real emotion, dodging serious discussions, and trying to put a Band-Aid over gaping wounds were precisely the problems of the Roseanne revival. The Conners would still be a sitcom, but the humor would be pegged to Darlene’s sensibility rather than to Roseanne’s. Less “mother knows best, let me swipe you upside the head and lecture you about kids having it too easy these days.” More “life is bleak and existence is short, but everything is absurd and we may as well laugh.”

There’s another reason to imagine The Conners could be successful. In addition to the consequences of her cruel, racist, and harmfully conspiratorial Twitter feed, Barr also offered much less natural acting in the revival than she had in the original series. While Goodman, Gilbert, Metcalf, and the rest of the cast hit their beats and made the show’s rhythm their own, Barr often seemed to be reading from cue cards. What once came off as a refreshingly, bracingly direct style on the original series did not translate well into the revival, where Barr seemed less concerned about being within the story and more obviously concerned about performing the story. I’m curious what The Conners could look like without that stilted performance element.

Still, the problem with The Conners is that even without Roseanne Conner (or Roseanne Barr), the revival gave little indication that it was capable of being a thoughtful, insightful show. The season finale in particular had little to do with Roseanne’s character: The Conners were faced with a flood and a health crisis that doubled as a financial morass, and none of the events of the episode turned on Roseanne making a big decision or coming to a realization or driving the story in any way. Her knee injury was important to the story, but Roseanne herself was not. Even in spite of that decentralized role, the revival failed to follow through on its intentionally provocative statements about divisions within America, and it failed to push past platitudes and petty snipes. It sought the glory of being an open-eyed look at American life, but whenever push came to shove, it flinched. It’s hard to believe that The Conners will be much different, especially because several writers and executive producers behind the revival series (including Tom Werner, Bruce Helford, Dave Caplan, Sara Gilbert, Tony Hernandez, and Bruce Rasmussen, who’s credited as writing the season-ten finale), are the creative team for The Conners.

But yes, I can imagine a successful version of The Conners. It would be a show about trying to foster your kids’ hopes and dreams even after your own did not work out as you’d imagined. It would be about the disorientation of grief and the absurdity and awkwardness of Aunt Jackie trying to fill Roseanne’s shoes. It would be about what it feels like for D.J.’s daughter, Mary, to be the only person of color in her family. It would be about Dan making a mess of his grandson’s preferred pronouns, Darlene chastising him, and Dan trying again. And it would surely have a very dark, very funny episode about Dan trying to fill out all the necessary paperwork after Roseanne’s death.

But the Roseanne revival did not present much reason to hope that we’ll see that version of The Conners this fall. It seems much more likely that The Conners will be exactly what it seems: a depressing, desperate ghost of a show that exists to plug a hole, and then slowly dissolves until it can’t even do its hole-plugging job anymore. I would be happy to be proven wrong.

Is There Any Way for the Roseanne Spinoff to Succeed?