On Tuesday night, ABC will attempt to continue the huge success the network had in bringing back Roseanne by … well, by not bringing back Roseanne Barr. The star of the show, as you may have heard, has been banished from ABC for her offensive tweeting, but the family known as The Conners is back, sitting around the kitchen table, eating and squabbling and guffawing. I can’t tell you what happened to the character of Roseanne Conner: One of the network’s stipulations for seeing the first two episodes of The Conners was that critics “not discuss, imply or in any other way reveal what happens to the character of Roseanne Conner.”
Well, alrighty then. So I can’t tell you what happens at the very start of the premiere episode. Or I could tell you that Roseanne Conner accepts a job as White House press secretary, and then wait and see if you believe me. No, what I will say is that Dan (John Goodman), Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), Darlene (Sara Gilbert), Becky (Lecy Goranson), and D.J. (Michael Fishman) are still living the working-class life in Lanford, Ill. The Conners still live in the world created by Roseanne Barr many years ago, and in its re-conception last season under the auspices of Gilbert, who as a producer was instrumental in bringing the whole gang back together. The writing as overseen by veteran Roseanne producer Bruce Helford is sharp — the tone is very similar to the 10 years of the original Roseanne you may have watched and enjoyed.
In truth, Roseanne was always a problematic show even before Barr started pushing her pro-Trump politics into it. I’m talking about its peculiar mixture of acting styles. Goodman and Metcalf are superb actors of enormous range; Gilbert has a priceless deadpan and developed solid sitcom chops as the original series progressed. Goranson is charmingly one-note, a blunt force hammering at her punch lines, and Fishman is so wooden, the writers frequently devise ways to put him in scenes without any dialogue at all. In the center of it was Barr, whose comedy was honed as a solo standup, not as a comic ensemble player. She had crack timing, but couldn’t act to save her life. Two things pushed her and her show into greatness: Goodman’s amazing generosity as a scene-sharer, and Barr’s indomitable instinct in knowing how to communicate working-class strife within the context of comedy.
The Conners will continue Barr’s mission without her. By the second episode, it’s beginning to look as though Becky is going to struggle with her fondness for booze. Roseanne was always the best sitcom this side of Maude when it came to grappling with Very Special Episode Seriousness while still eliciting laughs, so maybe The Conners will cope with it well too. And last season, the groundwork was laid for the gender-identity explorations of Darlene’s young son, Mark, played by Ames McNamara with what is beginning to look like some excellent, perhaps even remarkable, skills as a young actor capable of both amusing you and moving you.
Right now, I’ll settle for seeing Metcalf bleat and honk her way into Jackie’s lonely pain, and I’ll continue to admire the way Goodman throws away punch lines while making them sting. Will The Conners continue to attract Roseanne-size ratings? I doubt it, but never count this family out.
The Conners airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC.
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