I really didn’t want to like this reboot of the reboot.
Roseanne Barr’s wackadoodle tweeting that did in this year’s mega-successful Roseanne comeback left the show and her legacy mired in nothing but bad feelings, and it seemed to me that it would be best — oh, let me rephrase that to avoid unintentional connections — be for the best to let the show die once again.
Continued employment for the crew and cast, of course, is a good thing, but what would really be the point of doing a show that was so singularly inspired by and driven by one character, without that character? That’s not to undervalue the incredibly talented cast or endearing characters who’ve surrounded Roseanne all these years. But still, Roseanne without Roseanne … turns out, still has a bit of life left in it.
Roseanne Conner, without being flip, does not. In the least well-kept spoiler ever, Roseanne was killed off her show. We pick up with the Conner family three weeks after her funeral, and they’re still working their way through the plethora of casseroles that are the grief gifts they’re given after Rosie died from a heart attack.
Except, as they soon find out via a coroner’s office friend of Jackie’s, that’s not what killed her. Barr herself had revealed in an interview last month that Roseanne died of an accidental opioid overdose. Though Dan became aware of her pain pill addiction during a season ten episode of Roseanne, he thought she was bouncing back from her knee surgery with a minimum of pharmaceutical assistance.
But the phone call from Jackie’s friend, plus the stash of pills Becky finds while cleaning out her mother’s closet and the other stash Jackie finds hidden inside an ice bag in the freezer, provide another shock for Roseanne’s loved ones. Dan’s immediate reaction is to blame the source of Roseanne’s closet pills, a woman named Marcy. He tapes a giant handwritten sign to the side of his truck, letting everyone in Lanford know: “Thank you Marcy Bellinger for the pills that killed my loving wife Roseanne.” His daughters remove the sign, warning him he’s gonna find himself on the business end of a lawsuit, but it’s how Dan is dealing with the loss of Roseanne.
Until Marcy Bellinger comes knocking on his door. Marcy — played with heartbreaking perfection by Mary Steenburgen — is crushed to find out about her role in Roseanne’s death. But she explains to a furious Dan that his late wife had begged her for the pain pills, telling Marcy that her post-op body wasn’t healing as well as she hoped. Marcy says the cost of medicine and her neighbors’ inability to afford the ones they need sparked a ring of drug swaps, where friends would help each other out with necessary medications for themselves and their children. Marcy tells Dan she never would have given Roseanne the pills if she knew her friend had a problem, especially since she’s dealt with that problem herself. She assures Dan she’ll live with her guilt for the rest of her life. This new information about Roseanne’s secret life softens his attitude enough that he asks Darlene to give Marcy a ride home.
The revelation deepens the Conner family’s grief, but it also makes Roseanne’s death more than just a convenient way to write the fired actress out of the action. A heart attack death would have been a random and lame way to cast off a character who has been beloved and iconic and groundbreaking throughout her 30-year prime-time history (Roseanne premiered 30 years ago on October 18). But this death, at least, follows through on a story line that was begun when Barr was still front and center on her show. It plays out consequences that are all too common, especially in working-class families, especially in insurance-challenged households, especially in situations involving drug use that began with prescribed pills.
Roseanne’s death forces the Conners to deal with life and each other without her telling them how to, but Roseanne’s influence still looms large. Humor is the way the family has always dealt with hard times, and that, thankfully, doesn’t change in Roseanne’s absence. Becky and Darlene still rank on each other while trying to jointly unfurl Dan and Roseanne’s tangle of past due bills. Dan still playfully mocks daffy Crystal’s attempts to deliver helpful advice. Jackie once again spirals into well-intentioned lunacy as she obsessively rearranges the family’s kitchen, partly because going to her own home means “leaving” Roseanne.
Sarcasm, of course, continues to be the family’s main weapon against everything that’s thrown at it. When one of Mark’s young friends — the one he happens to be crushing on — offers Dan as a condolence, “People die, what are you gonna do?” Dan replies thusly: “Seen a little too much action in ’Nam, Joey?”
I’m still not totally sold on whether or not The Conners can continue to have a reason to exist without Barr. But the premiere shows they know why we’ve loved these characters for three decades now, and why we’re interested in seeing how they, as individuals and as a family, will maneuver their grief, evolve through it.
That’s enough of a reason for the Conners, and The Conners, to soldier on, and enough to keep me tuning in.
• The Conners show logo uses the same font as the Roseanne logo.
• Instead of opening with cast names and the family gathering around the dinner table, as on Roseanne, The Conners ends the premiere with the family gathering around the breakfast table and the cast’s names popping up on screen.
• Darlene’s daughter Harris feels bad that she and Roseanne fought so much, a callback to another season ten story line. Darlene tells her it’s okay, that they all know they love each other in their family, especially since Roseanne left letters for everyone telling them how she felt.
Harris: “Granny Rose wrote everyone a letter?”
Darlene, using some of that trademark Conner sarcasm to tease Harris: “Oh, God, maybe not everyone.”
Harris: “You suck!”
Darlene: “I might die tomorrow, don’t be mean.”
• Mark has boy problems, which he’d been talking to Roseanne about. He tries to continue the conversation with Dan, who listens, and points out these are the kinds of things he always left to Roseanne to handle. “It’s a measure of my deep affection for you that I haven’t run out of the room already,” Dan tells his grandson. Later, though, he helps Mark make lists to decide which boy he likes best, a hopeful sign that Dan might be more up to the task of keeping up with his family’s emotional needs than he believes.
• Special tag scenes were always a Roseanne staple, and The Conners premiere continues that tradition. Roseanne died in the bed she shared with Dan, and he’s been sleeping on the living room couch since. In the post-credits scene, he returns to the bedroom and turns down the covers and slips into his side of the bed, before messing up the blanket on her side and resting his arm across her pillow. It is a subtle, beautiful performance by John Goodman, who should net an Emmy nomination for the episode. And, I’m betting, it made a lot of people snuggle their bedmates a little more tightly afterwards.