Killing off a television character tends to present a strange paradox: A character’s absence can be so deeply felt that it manifests as an unsettling ghost-like presence. This is especially true of a show like “Roseanne”’s successor, “The Conners,” which has not simply lost a character, but the character. It’s true. Roseanne (Roseanne Barr, “The Roseanne Show”) — the dry, divisive, titular materfamilias who started it all — is dead.
“The Conners” moves on without her with grace and, of course, the Conner family’s signature brand of droll, piercing humor. It’s no easy feat: The show was tasked with explaining a character’s death (we learn it was an opioid overdose), giving its characters room to grieve and still providing humor all within a half-hour, Roseanne’s absence hanging over the episode like the patchwork afghan draped across the Conners’ living room couch.
It was a huge gamble for the executives at ABC, who bet that there might be something left for the show to work with following Barr’s abrupt firing last May. It paid off; turns out there’s a lot left for “The Conners” to work with, namely some sharp writing and excellent performances. Jackie (the splendid Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”) is coping with her sister’s death by frantically re-organizing the kitchen; Dan (John Goodman, “Argo”), now without a sparring partner, is roped into helping his gay grandson deal with his crushes; and Darlene (Sara Gilbert, “The Talk”), now the real core of the show, is the one left making sure everyone’s OK.
Without Roseanne in the picture, Metcalf, Goodman and Gilbert prove themselves the strongest actors on television. It quickly becomes apparent that it was, in fact, Roseanne Barr herself who prevented last season’s “Roseanne” reboot from really being “Roseanne.”
When “Roseanne” was revived, ABC was quick to guard against Barr’s distasteful political views by touting the show’s new progressive bona fides. Roseanne Conner now had a Black grandchild and another who was gender non-conforming. But it was the real Roseanne, and not the fictional one, who loomed over the reboot. How could anyone square those characters with Roseanne Barr’s documented racism and transphobia? How could a show about a regular family star a notorious Trump supporter?
Last year’s “Roseanne” promised frank discussions and good faith attempts to bridge the divide, but ultimately it was an empty promise. In the first episode of the season, Jackie, clad in a “Nasty Woman” T-shirt trades barbs with her Trump-voting sister. Roseanne calls Jackie a snowflake. Jackie brings Russian salad to dinner. Roseanne says something about taking a knee. It wasn’t a discussion; it was an assemblage of punchlines. And it was an enormous disservice to the fact that the original “Roseanne” had always been intensely political, without calling much attention to it.
Old “Roseanne” was about a family’s improbable resilience in the face of life’s anxieties. It captured the way families really experience politics: not through reductive strawman arguments in the kitchen, but through struggling to pay the bills and dealing with the IRS and striking at the plastics factory. That insight was on full display in the first episode of “The Conners,” which saw the family weather through grief and also come to terms with the sobering reality that the bills have to be paid and the trivialities of life go on.
In the episode’s final scene, for the first time since Roseanne’s death, Dan sleeps in the bed he shared with his late wife. He tosses and turns, readjusts the covers, makes his peace and closes his eyes. It’s unfamiliar, even strange, but there’s a way forward.