Even Without Roseanne, 'The Conners' Provides Audiences A Reason To Watch

Oct 16, 2018
Originally published on October 16, 2018 6:14 pm
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"The Conners" debuts on ABC tonight. It's a new version of the sitcom "Roseanne" without Roseanne. That would be star Roseanne Barr. The network canceled its successful revival of "Roseanne" earlier this year after Barr sent a racist tweet. NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans says the new show is basically a spin-off of the revival but provides its own reasons to watch.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: What may be most surprising about "The Conners" is how little you miss Roseanne Barr. ABC has asked critics not to spill the beans on why Barr's character isn't around, though it's the storyline of the first episode. But the rhythm of the show's humor remains, as heard in this scene between daughter Darlene, played by Sara Gilbert, and Roseanne's husband, Dan Conner, played by John Goodman.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CONNERS")

JOHN GOODMAN: (As Dan Conner) Your mother once told me that everything you needed she gave to you before you were 5.

SARA GILBERT: (As Darlene Conner) I have no idea what that means.

(LAUGHTER)

GOODMAN: (As Dan Conner) Yeah, I never could figure it out either. I think it's something she got off a Snapple cap.

DEGGANS: The show's early scenes let us know pretty much everyone is back from last season's "Roseanne" revival except Roseanne. And they also prove that the show's acerbic wit mixed with storylines about a working-class family's struggles remains on point, especially when it comes to Roseanne's two daughters, Darlene and Alicia Goranson's Becky, who still bicker.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CONNERS")

GILBERT: (As Darlene Conner) You're not going to just dump Mom and Dad's stuff on me, OK? I've got two kids. I've got a full-time job - no.

ALICIA GORANSON: (As Becky Conner-Healy) You're the obvious choice to take over for mom. You already live here, and you're a scary, little tyrant.

(LAUGHTER)

GILBERT: (As Darlene Conner) You're just going to compliment me and walk out?

(LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: It shouldn't be a surprise that Gilbert's character Darlene is the natural successor to her mother - cynical, given to cutting insults but ultimately devoted to preserving the family she loves. It's a sad irony that by stocking the show with great performers like Gilbert and Goodman, Roseanne Barr built a sitcom machine that could survive her departure. Goodman in particular gets a little more room to shine as Dan Conner.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CONNERS")

GOODMAN: (As Dan Conner) Oh, I'm short a guy at work. My back's acting up from hanging drywall. Turns out I forgot to eat right and exercise for the last 50 years.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) It's never too late.

GOODMAN: (As Dan Conner) That's what they say, but it is.

(LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: But the real question is, where are the Conners' politics? The "Roseanne" revival generated tons of press attention and controversy amid news that Roseanne Conner, just like Barr, was a supporter of President Trump. Conservatives and Trump himself hailed the revival's blockbuster ratings as proof of their popularity. But critics like Roxane Gay wrote in The New York Times that she liked the show but wouldn't watch it because it was, quote, "normalizing Trump and his warped, harmful political ideologies."

When Barr sent a tweet in May calling a black former Obama aide the offspring of an ape, ABC quickly canceled the show. So far, there are no obviously conservative characters on "The Conners." Darlene's brother D.J. is married to a black woman, who's now a regular character and gets several good punchlines. A gay character also surfaces in a storyline.

It seems the show has returned to its roots as an exploration of the challenges facing a working-class family that mostly avoids partisanship and values diversity. The humor is stilted and awkward at times, but its emotional core remains. That approach probably won't bring the kind of media-fueled conflict that made a huge hit out of the "Roseanne" revival, but it just might allow "The Conners" to explore the kind of class and social issues the original version of "Roseanne" came to champion. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.