To refer to "The Conners", one of the most anticipated shows in the fall is less a commentary on their potential quality than the feeling of steeling themselves against an oncoming move. The curiosity factor and difficulty levels are high with this; There is little precedent for a show that emerged from the ashes of the loss of its titular star because it could not stop tapping racist conspiracy theories. And despite the perseverance of the cast and crew, the 2018 iteration of "Roseanne" could only be a sitcom . Roseanne Barr's real life as a far-right hero turned a celebrated family comedy into a cultural hotspot where President Trump felt the need to publicly congratulate Barr on his monster ratings and hook them up to the Hollywood elite they both came from.
So how can this cast of characters continue without the woman who has anchored her for so many years? Can "The Conners" credibly escape the off-screen chaos, shatter the specter of Barr and make a show of their own?
Now that I have seen two episodes of The Conners, I can say that the answer is … well, yes and no. I can not (yet) tell you how the show kills Barr, or much of anything that matters. But I can say that "The Conners", given the fact that everything became their own series, takes a solid stand by trusting its cast to sell hell out of a particularly delicate situation ̵
The premiere ("Just Keep Trucking") is understandably concerned with explaining the absence of "Granny Rose", making it difficult to describe without being able to get into details. Still, it's safe to say that "The Conners" does its best to spot the monstrosity of losing Roseanne even as a figure. All the other Conners – especially Dan (John Goodman), Darlene (Sara Gilbert) and Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) – are trying to figure out where they fit into the family now that Roseanne, once the glue that holds them together, has disappeared.
The sudden nature of everything is inevitably embarrassing, but the script of creators Bruce Helford Bruce Rasmussen Dave Caplan Surprisingly, squeezing lots of jokes for the occasion, and the consummate cast is more than the challenge to land them. Goodman, Gilbert, Metcalf and Lecy Goranson as Becky are particularly keen and find ways to make the personality of their characters through their mists of mourning. Goodman, who often had to take a natural back seat on Barr's high-octane performance, gets some great moments to be his rugged best when Dan falls back from his shock and twitch about the role of reluctant nutrient. Metcalf follows Jackie's signature mania and shows just how good she is by not letting a single line or gaze pass without making a meal out of it. And in the two episodes shown for critics (the premiere and an episode airing further in the season), guest stars like Mary Steenbergen, Juliette Lewis and Justin Long bring something new and interesting to the table.
Perhaps the most insightful moment comes when Becky and Darlene argue about how to deal with their loss. Becky, startled that she might be able to break away, insists that Darlene is better suited to take the lead. "You're the obvious choice for mom," she says. "You live here already, and you're also a scary little tyrant." Darlene does not totally agree (though she does of course consider "scary little tyrants" as a compliment), but Becky might as well talk about the show herself.
When the revival first premiered in March, it quickly became clear that Gilbert's Darlene would be just as prominent as Roseanne. Her storyline of having to return to her parents' home with two children and no job was the most immediate dynamic or at least the basis for a sitcom setup that is as classic as it gets. Roseanne was still the reigning matriarch, and she let everyone know at every opportunity, but Darlene's story was the one that connected everyone else and pushed the show forward. It is both natural and shrewd that "The Conners" – both the show and the fictitious family – will focus more on them once Roseanne has left the picture.
But the show can not ignore Roseanne forever. As the sentimental premiere acknowledges, and even insists, it is not a realistic option to turn from Roseanne and completely eradicate it. And yet, it's bizarre to watch the characters remember them. "Man, she was stubborn," giggles at the off-screen mess that made this restart of a revival necessary. In the future, "The Conners" are likely to split the difference and casually mention it while continuing to let the Conners live. As it stands now, the series has a chance to grow on its own terms – but for that, the "Roseanne" crowd really does have to take care of their basic curiosity to stay tuned and find out.
Comedy 30 minutes. (10 episodes, two reviewed.) Premieres Tuesday, October 16 at 8pm
Cast: John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, Sara Gilbert, Ley Goranson, Michael Fishman, Emma Kenney, Ames McNamara, Jayden Rey, Maya Lynne Robinson
Crew: Executive Producers: Tom Werner, Sara Gilbert, Bruce Helford, Dave Caplan, Bruce Rasmussen and Tony Hernandez.