Spin-offs are hardly a new thing in the realm of television. There’s an old quote that says something to the effect of, “A good show is measured by the quality of its spin-off.” Who doesn’t want to see the continued stories of fan-favorite characters with a new setting and cast? For the recently rebooted Roseanne, though, the spin-off was quite different.
ABC had a huge hit on its hands and a season 11 was all but guaranteed to be happening. Instead of using that fame to improve the show and her life, real-life star Roseanne Barr instead continued her internet ramblings of racism and blind political propaganda. After one particularly heinous Tweet, ABC didn’t hesitate to outright cancel production of Roseanne.
After negotiating with ABC to let production continue, The Conners was greenlit on the basis that Barr wouldn’t be involved in any way, shape or form. Instead of being a reason to celebrate the continuation of a beloved series, it came off as a desperate attempt from a washed-up comedian to save face. Thankfully, the cast and crew working on The Conners haven’t treated the show as such.
Still, I can’t help but feel this “new” series feels just as lost as Roseanne’s last season did.
The Conners (Season 1)
Showrunners: Bruce Helford, Dave Caplan, Bruce Rasmussen
Finale Release Date: January 22, 2019
In an attempt to address the reason why its former titular star is no longer present, The Conners starts with a ridiculously somber episode. Following on from a plotline in Roseanne’s 10th season, the beginning of this show reveals that Roseanne overdosed on pain medication and ended up killing herself. Try as they might to spin this as a moment of development, the first episode doesn’t set the stage very well.
There’s solid acting from all of the main players, but how is a comedy series going to begin with killing off a once respected and revered television character? It’s a moment where reality and fantasy collide in a very uncomfortable way and it drags down what could have been a powerful examination of loss and grieving. I’m certainly sad that fictional Roseanne is gone, but I also don’t have any sympathy because real-life Roseanne is terrible.
The very next episode also continues this low note. The writers were clearly trying to get the new characters from last season involved, but they went about it in a really clumsy way. Darlene (Sara Gilbert) leaves her children with their father, David (Johnny Galecki), for the weekend and trouble strikes. Darlene’s daughter, Harris (Emma Kenney), ends up having sex with her boyfriend and Darlene is pissed. This is all on top of Becky (Lecy Goranson) coming to terms with being an alcoholic and Darlene filing for divorce from her husband. You can just feel the laughter oozing from each scene.
This isn’t unlike a plotline you’d find in the original run of Roseanne, but that series didn’t throw random developments to unknown characters without any build-up. Harris may have been introduced in season 10, but we never really got to learn about her. Having her suddenly fall in love (supposedly) and jump to sex feels like forced drama for the sake of a TV show. There is no look at why Harris felt the need to do this or how society pressured her or even a subversion of classic sitcom tropes. It just happens, Darlene gets mad, later forgives Harris and life goes on.
After those episodes, the series does begin to find a better middle ground between drama and comedy. There are plot points that deal with some political ideologies, but most of The Conners feels like everyday life instead of soapbox preaching. As funny as Roseanne’s 10th season could be, it was always marred by Barr injecting her own political beliefs into the show and causing inconsistencies with established characters. The Conners, on the other hand, comes off more like a real successor to Roseanne than the reboot.
Becky, in particular, gets the most focus this time around. She isn’t the lead of the series (that falls more to Darlene), but the continued look at her dealing with the death of her husband and combating her destructive behaviors is very compelling. Goranson does some phenomenal work delivering heartbreaking lines and shining a new light on the relationship that Becky and Darlene have. It’s always a joy to see her in a scene, even if some of the jokes end up being, “Becky is a slut.”
I also need to give props to both John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf. Not needing to share the spotlight with Barr has given the writers a better opportunity to play into their twisted relationship and there are a lot of wonderful scenes between the two. Even when they aren’t sharing screentime, each character eventually deals with the death of Roseanne and how their lives feel empty without her presence. It’s some tough subject matter that brings out new layers of both the characters and the actors.
The newer characters, though, are just not given enough time to develop. I’m still struggling to remember the name of DJ’s family because I think they only appeared in a cumulative three episodes. It’s nice that DJ’s wife, Geena (Maya Lynne Robinson), is a part of the family, but her personality is grating. She plays out almost like a clone of Madea from Tyler Perry’s famous series and never adds anything to the scenes she’s present in.
Darlene’s children, Harris and Mark (Ames McNamara), mostly act as ways to develop Darlene instead of being true characters. There are episodes dedicated to each kid, but the moral of those episodes has more to do with Darlene assuming control of the Conner family than anything important for them. DJ’s daughter, Mary (Jayden Rey), may as well not exist with how little she brings to any given moment.
Then there is the inclusion of guest stars in boyfriend roles. Both Matthew Broderick and Justin Long have bit roles as love interests to Jacky and Darlene, respectively. Their mere presence reveals how unimportant they are to the show. ABC is clearly not going to fund big stars for a TV spin-off that has plummeting ratings each week. Both characters eventually get written off, bringing little of value to the show while sucking away screentime from the main plots.
The only new addition I ended up liking was Ben (Jay R. Ferguson), Darlene’s boss at her new job. Maybe it’s the tacky side of me, but I liked seeing Darlene get challenged and meeting someone she could call an equal. The chemistry between Ferguson and Gilbert is cozy, relaxed and fun to watch play out. It was a moment of clear advancement for Darlene that showed promise in her life. Roseanne (and by extension, The Conners) may be about how Middle America has it tough, but having a character we’ve grown old with finally find happiness was great.
Then the final episode concocts a haphazard reason to write Ben off and continue to keep Darlene in her current predicament. That basically sums up every episode: these are stories that threaten to bring new developments to the cast, but back-off at the end. Instead of creating an identity unique to this spin-off, the writers maintain the status quo.
I can’t say I didn’t have fun with some episodes, but the moments are fleeting. One week had me chuckling with glee at Darlene and Ben’s interactions, then the next week had me scratching my head about why I’m still invested in the series. Perhaps being attached to Roseanne is what keeps me coming back. I don’t have a desire for Barr’s return, but I was curious to see if my chief complaints from last season would be addressed.
Somehow, we have a show that meets my expectations while simultaneously failing to meet them. It’s wonderful that Darlene and Becky take more of the spotlight, but then the side characters suffer. It’s fantastic that Roseanne isn’t vainly trying to be funny, but then The Conners doesn’t nail the balance between drama and comedy.
The absence of Roseanne isn’t what brings this show down: the lack of ambition to embrace its new cast is the answer. It’s fine enough if you want to just see your old favorites doing the same thing each week, but there are a thousand other shows in the wake of Roseanne that handle this kind of material better.