“Roseanne” is long gone, but is “The Conners” here to stay? That’s the question ABC looks to answer with a definitive yes when its “No. 1 new comedy” returns for what will officially be its second season. Unofficially, of course, this is the third season featuring the Conner clan, including the 2017 “Roseanne” revival (which was a massive success until Roseanne Barr tweeted herself out of millions). The 2018 patch-job kept everyone but Barr, killing off her matriarch in the hopes of saving a high-rated show, and it worked — kind of. Total viewers hit upwards of 13 million when “The Conners” first premiered, but dipped to just under 9 million by season’s end. Even the low-end of those numbers tops the average for ABC’s next highest-rated series, so here we are: Season 2(ish)!
But a funny thing has been happening to recent sitcom revivals. While plenty are still being made, developed, and considered, even the initial hits have dropped out of favor. After years and years of demand, “Arrested Development” limped to a close with a widely ignored Season 5.5 this March. “Fuller House,” one of the earlier sitcom revivals during the latest craze of reboots, quietly ended its run after four seasons on Netflix. And while negative reviews certainly dampened the party for those two, “Will & Grace” received steady acclaim when it returned in 2017, pulling in three Golden Globe nominations, seven Emmy nods, and two Emmys wins for its first two revival seasons.
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And yet NBC has already announced its 2020 season will be its last. “Will & Grace” finished 11th among 20 scripted series at the Peacock last season, losing nearly half its viewers from season-to-season and dropping from 10 million viewers for its Season 9 premiere to just under 3 million for its Season 10 finale. It’s been long-feared that these revivals half a short shelf-life, as viewers check back in to see how their old friends look, sound, and act, before remembering why they said goodbye in the first place. Maybe the quality dipped. Maybe a few key cast or crew members were lost. Maybe it was just time to say goodbye.
ABC needs to push that goodbye as far into the future as possible, and “The Conners” are eager to cooperate. If the first two episodes of Season 2 are any indication, these solid sitcom entries could go on for a while. There’s no real change to what worked last year, but it does feel like the pace is spaced out, decisions pushed off, and the tipping points delayed. Take, for instance, the “Conners” focal point, Darlene (Sara Gilbert). At the end of last season, she’d been asked to move to Chicago with her boyfriend Ben (Jay R. Ferguson), but a surprise appearance by ex-husband David (Johnny Galecki) forced her to choose between a fresh start and putting her old family back together.
In Season 2, she’s still wrestling with that choice. She’s seeing them both and calling on Aunt Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) for advice. This creates the inevitable comedic cover-ups, with Jackie blocking a stairway while David hides upstairs and Darlene tries to push Ben out of the living room — you know she’s going to get busted, one way or another, but hijinks must ensue beforehand, and the producers (including Bruce Helford and Tom Werner) know how to make the waiting fun.
Similarly, it doesn’t feel like “The Conners” is ducking any topical issues, even when the show doesn’t tackle them head-on. Last year’s deportation plot — where Emilio (Rene Rosado) is deported while Becky (Lecy Goranson) is pregnant with his child — isn’t addressed in the first two episodes, but it doesn’t feel forgotten or pushed aside either. The same goes for a possible health care discussion, which could be driven by Becky’s complicated pregnancy, but has yet to be acknowledged. (The Episode 3 plot synopsis says she’s going to run into money problems, so maybe it’s coming.)
Meanwhile, John Goodman is still a reliable comedic and authoritative supporting player, while Metcalf can turn on a dime between outrageous physical comedy and heartbreaking emotional rawness. “The Conners” is stocked with great actors who can still play their roles at peak levels — but so was “Will & Grace.” How long can the same pieces that worked before continue to draw viewers? The controversy left with Barr, and the audience who wanted to see how “The Conners” now has their answer. Will enough people stick around to see a revived, altered ABC sitcom when it’s just another regular ol’ TV show?
In addition to the ravenous fan base “Roseanne” brought to the table, “The Conners” does have at least one thing working for it: This show still attracts moderate-skewing viewers, or at least a mix of conservatives and liberals. “The Conners” is about a working class family and engages in working class issues. Season 2 features a storyline about the difficulties Mark (Ames McNamara) faces at school while being out and proud at a young age, but it also talks about the financial hardships of just getting by in small town America. It’s supportive and inclusive in the ways “Roseanne” once was, without abandoning the realities of its central family.
While there are conflicting reports about how much of a right-wing audience the show has left, the show still plays in middle America, and that’s more important. If “The Conners” caters to an audience that feels underserved — much like Tim Allen’s revived “Last Man Standing,” which averaged the second-most viewers of any Fox scripted series — than perhaps it can fend off the nostalgia fade.
“The Conners” Season 2 premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.