Two things about The Conners: Sara Gilbert’s performance as Darlene continues to be the best reason to tune in. And another of the biggest strengths of the Roseanne reboot’s spin-off (sequel?) is that, even in the absence of the late materfamilias, the Conners are maneuvering their way through some pretty hefty emotional issues. Given that such matters were usually Roseanne’s domain, they’re doing her proud.
For Dan, that means deftly handling the discovery that an old friend from high school is warm for his form. Louise was a classmate of Dan and Roseanne’s, but she fled town shortly after graduation to pursue her rock and roll dreams in Chicago. Now she’s back and tending bar at La Casita Bonita, where she gives Dan free beers and invites him to check out a classic rock concert with “what’s left” of Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Two Tops, and a Righteous Brother.
Becky also notices that Louise is touching Dan’s hands a lot, and when she mentions this to Jackie, they know what’s going on, and know that Dan doesn’t. He denies it’s true when he hears their theory, but decides to talk to Louise about it anyway. When he arrives to pick her up for their concert excursion, which was supposed to include her friends, she tells him they’re going separately. Because she thought they could do something else, on their own, after the show.
Dan pooh-poohs the idea that she has any intentions besides friendship, but Louise (played by the always amazing Katey Sagal) wastes no time in letting him know Jackie and Becky were right.
“I can’t believe you didn’t pick up on it,” she tells Dan. “Every time you walk in here, I am staring at you like you’re a deep-dish pizza.”
She’s been crushin’ on Dan since she was 15, she says, but his heart already belonged to Roseanne back then. As Dan kindly, but without hesitation, tells her, it still does.
“I’m not ready for this,” he tells Louise. “I still have a thing for my wife.”
It’s an uncomfortable situation, of the variety Dan always tries desperately to avoid. But now, with Roseanne gone and his position as head of the family even more important to his loved ones, Dan is stepping up.
It also would have been very un-Dan-like to spark up a new relationship so soon after Roseanne’s death, but if that’s a storyline The Conners is going to explore sometime down the road, here’s a vote for the return of Sagal. Louise is confident, straightforward, and sexy, the kind of potential partner Dan Conner — a “catch,” according to Jackie, because, at his age, he can fall down and get up on his own — deserves. For now, he and Louise decide they’ll be friends, and they will go to that concert together. But, Louise warns, Dan may be on his own after the classic rock show, if she has a chance to “score with a Dog Night or a Pip.”
The Conner women are dealing with their own emotional baggage, and that also involves the losses of their spouses. Becky keeps Harris’s secret about getting caught by the police with a group of underage drinkers, but when Darlene finds out, she’s angry at Harris for lying and drinking, and at Becky for not sharing the info. She tries to impress upon Harris that continuing to make bad choices could derail her future, and in her anger at her daughter and her sister, Darlene points to Becky as the example of where bad decisions can lead.
Becky overhears the conversation. The whole family uses Becky’s mistakes as a punchline on a regular basis, but Darlene’s dig is particularly painful. Becky had been ready to give up her unborn child, afraid she would be unable to be a good mother to the baby. It was Darlene she went to for support, sharing her vulnerability with her sarcastic sis. Darlene assured Becky she was tougher and more capable than she thought, and it was that boost of confidence from Darlene that led Becky to decide she was at least strong enough to try to raise her child herself.
And it’s Darlene’s powerful remark to Harris that has Becky doubting herself all over again. When Darlene tracks Becky down at a pool hall, they have it out. Becky’s angry, and not just about Darlene’s latest cruel judgment. She reminds Darlene of when and why she started drinking so heavily. It was following the death of her husband, Mark. Becky had allowed herself to be vulnerable with Darlene then, too, writing to Darlene and telling her she needed her, asking her to return to Lanford.
Darlene didn’t. Not because she didn’t care, but because her own life was falling apart, she reminds her sister. Harris was just 5, and Darlene was pregnant with Mark. That’s when David left her.
She asks why Becky had never shared how hurt she was that Darlene didn’t come home when she needed her all those years ago.
“Because I didn’t want you to know how much I needed you,” Becky says. “Because you never need me. I hate being the needy one. When we were kids, I was the one who had it all together, and you were just the depressed little freak.”
Darlene tells her they’re not so different. “I’m a depressed adult freak, with just as many problems as you.
“And you think I don’t need you? Why do you think I came back here in the first place? Not just for mom and dad.”
Darlene and Becky’s relationship has always been complicated, as they went from being co-conspirators against the firm parental hands of Dan and Roseanne to being at odds as their paths diverged with Darlene’s angsty teen depression and Becky’s ambition-crushing relationship with Mark.
It’s a bittersweet line when Becky acknowledges she used to be the one with the bright future, while the dark and moody Darlene skulked around the house and wanted to be left alone by everyone. Things flipped and flopped, and now they’re largely in the same place, literally and figuratively.
So they decide to make a pact, to always be there for each other. Except Darlene insists on a “loose agreement,” instead of a pact. She’s still got commitment issues. But Roseanne would be proud.
• Lest Dan think his advice about Peter (Matthew Broderick) and his mooching ways fell on deaf ears with Jackie, she confronts Peter when he has them living the life of a Nordic couple in medieval times so he can draw on the experience for his dissertation on Nordic history. It involves Jackie skinning and eating squirrels, and doing all the housework, and continuing to pay all the bills. She finally tells Peter she’s not going to do all that anymore. “You insinuate that I’m not bringing anything to the relationship,” he says. “I’m not insinuating anything! I’m outright telling you,” Jackie responds, before refusing to bake bread and taking off for a solo meal at McDonald’s instead. Peter’s days, at last, seem to be numbered. Dan’s performance as a Roseanne substitute , advising Jackie on her love life, is another success for him.
• Lest we think the Conner family’s fortunes have changed, Dan sends Mark and Mary off to school with pancake and salami sandwiches for lunch. “You may want to trade these,” he suggests.
• And lest we think romance is a total bust for the Conners, Darlene and Ben are still going strong. She takes him to La Casita Bonita, where he holds his own in a verbal sparring match with the sisters:
Becky: “Are you serious about her, or is it just about the disappointing sex?”
Darlene: “That was wildly inappropriate. The sex is not disappointing. He’s a middle-aged man doing the best he can.”
Ben: “Okay, I get it … the gloves are off? Let’s do this. Darlene won’t commit to being serious, because she’s afraid to be vulnerable. And you [Becky] seem like a lunatic.”
Just then, Dan walks in, and Darlene ushers Ben out of the restaurant before the two fellas can meet. “We gotta do this one Conner at a time,” Darlene wisely concludes. “You barely got past Becky.”