The Conners Moves Beyond the Mess That Created It in a Strong Series Premiere

TV Reviews The Conners
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<i>The Conners</i> Moves Beyond the Mess That Created It in a Strong Series Premiere

14 seconds.

That’s how long it took The Conners to reveal the fate of Roseanne Conner.

“It’s been three weeks since Grandma Rose’s funeral,” grandson Mark (Ames McNamara) says in the third line of dialogue uttered on this new—what do we call it? Spin-off? Spin-sideways? Spin-so all the cast who returned last year still get to reprise the beloved characters they obviously have so much affection for?

The bigger reveal that Roseanne, the character, died of an opioid overdose and not a heart attack came three minutes into the new series. So all the secrecy surrounding Roseanne’s fate—and the bizarre promos that dramatically intoned, “All. Your. Questions. Will. Be. Answered.”—seems, in retrospect, even more silly. John Goodman, who plays the now-widowed Dan, revealed in an interview over the summer that Roseanne would die. And Roseanne Barr herself said last month that her character died from an overdose. The “mystery” was a case of closing the barn door after your racist star had gotten out.

But I guess that’s what happens when your show’s off-screen story is more dramatic than anything the writers’ room could have come up with. As you know, Barr was fired for a racist tweet last May (which followed a long series of questionable tweets), and the revival of Roseanne was a very short-lived success story with a stunning and rapid demise. Until, that is, ABC resuscitated the show with everyone returning, except Barr herself.

If you didn’t know all this and you just stumbled upon the series, would it work? Absolutely. While a cloud hung over the premiere as the characters worked through their grief, and it was hard to feel any sympathy knowing the real reason behind cherished Grandma Rose’s death (listen, kids, Twitter kills), the biting humor is still intact. When Darlene’s (Sarah Gilbert) sister-in-law, Geena (new series regular Maya Lynne Robinson), jokes that Darlene should make a reservation in hell, Darlene responds “Reservation? We already have a cabana.” Later, when Darlene and Becky (Lecy Goranson) argue about who is going to deal with everything, Becky says, “You’re the obvious choice to take over for mom. You already live here and you’re a scary little tyrant.”

The cast, of course, remains strong. Laurie Metcalf brings humor and pathos as Jackie tries to figure out how to fill in for her sister. She starts by deep-cleaning the couch and frantically rearranging the kitchen. “We can’t sit on the couch or use the kitchen. I think that’s a pretty good start,” Darlene tells her. Gilbert is terrific as Darlene: No one does droll delivery better; she could teach a master class in it. But Gilbert has always infused Darlene with much more than sardonic lines. And now, as a mom struggling to raise her two children and deal with the loss of her mother, Gilbert is where she belongs, front and center on the series. I’ve long wanted a show just about her, and it appears I’ve gotten my wish.

Special shout-out to Mary Steenburgen, who was heartbreaking in her short scene as the friend who gave Roseanne her painkillers without realizing she was addicted. Goodman is a world-weary widower, weighed down by grief, work, and responsibilities. He was especially strong in his scenes with Mark (Ames McNamara), as Mark tried to figure out which friend he like liked. “I got to be honest with you, pal, there’s a reason your mom and Aunt Becky went to your grandma for all this stuff. It’s a measure of my deep affection for you that I haven’t run out of the room already,” Dan says. A grandfather trying to appreciate and support a grandson he loves but doesn’t quite understand pulses with believability.

DJ (Michael Fishman) was much ignored last season (and I really don’t remember him being a huge part of the original series), and in tonight’s premiere and the episode that airs next week, he, his wife and their daughter, Mary (Jayden Rey), are more like background characters. “How about having two older sisters who suck all the air out of the room so you’re practically invisible?” he wonders. I couldn’t tell if this was some meta-commentary on DJ getting the short end of the storyline stick, or just a funny bit.

The real test will come, of course, in the coming weeks, as The Conners comes out of the shadows of the off-screen drama that preceded it. The family can’t ignore Roseanne’s death, nor can it wallow in it. Maybe that’s why the episode originally planned as the fourth, will air next week: It focuses on Becky’s (Lecy Goranson) problems and Darlene struggling to move on from David. It’s a good episode. Johnny Galecki returns as Darlene’s estranged husband, with his girlfriend, Blue (Juliette Lewis, doing her best Juliette Lewis), in tow. Galecki and Gilbert still share a crackling chemistry, and with the news of this being the last season of Galecki’s The Big Bang Theory, the mind wanders at the possibilities.

Like the new opening credits, which recreate the original with Darlene now the one to sit down last and laugh (sans the trademark cackle), The Conners will hopefully remember its roots, know where it came from, and move beyond all the mess that created it.

Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .