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What’s 'Roseanne' without Roseanne? Why ABC's risky move with 'The Conners' just might work

Roseanne Barr, the actress and Twitter user, and Tom Werner, executive producer of "Roseanne," issued a brief joint statement Thursday, regarding the series that lately bore her name. Brought back this year after a two-decade hiatus and canceled again in May immediately following Barr’s racist tweet — a joke, she said — about a former Obama official, “Roseanne” is still dead. But an agreement has been reached to allow its characters — minus Barr — to live on a new sitcom, with the reported working title "The Conners."

"I agreed to the settlement in order that 200 jobs of beloved cast and crew could be saved," wrote Barr, who will have nothing to do with or earn from the new stories, and I have no reason to believe she is not sincere about that. For its part, ABC, which had renewed the show for an 11th season, is not expensively abandoning that train on a siding.

I honestly have no professional opinion on whether ABC should or shouldn’t have shut down the show. If Barr, duly stepping back across the line and issuing the right apologies in the right places, had been allowed to remain, I would have noted it with interest — show business is a strange business.

But I would not have been bothered, any more than I minded that “Roseanne” returned to the air in the first place, with Barr's conspiracy-theorist bona fides already well-established. (Indeed, I was glad to see the show back, and found it mostly good.) As with anyone, my personal feelings about an artist can influence whether I continue to follow her work. But I am not in the punishment business.

A matter of time

Bringing back "Roseanne" was a fingers-crossed proposition from the beginning, but one can see that it was just a matter of time before Twitter’s reward circuitry and Barr's credulous fretfulness would overcome what remained of her impulse control, and something critical would occur.

What ABC and the producers did, of course, was rid themselves of an annoyance, a troublesome show that had become unmanageable, almost parasitically taken over by a Twitter feed. Controversy is exhausting unless that’s what you’re after. But there was no way, finally, to kill the parasite without destroying the host. And so the network cut its losses — or rather, its successes, the returned “Roseanne” having made a very palpable hit — and moved on. But not, as it turned out, very far.

But for the fact that Barr reportedly retains rights to the Roseanne character, and any future spinoffs or reboots in which she might appear — without all those other characters — it would seem that the obvious way forward is to literally to kill her off. (“I can’t think of another way to dispose of her,” my editor wrote me. “Joins ISIS?” I replied.) An accidental overdose of prescription drugs would do nicely, linking back to a 10th season story line while addressing an American epidemic.

There is no reason, of course, that two timelines can’t coexist, one in which Barr keeps Roseanne alive and one in which Werner makes sure she is dead; it happens all the time in the comics. Still, a "Roseanne" minus the Conners is much harder to picture, and more hilarious to contemplate, than a "Conners" sans Roseanne. But there are a lot of ways to eliminate a character. (Or bring one back. John Goodman’s Dan Conner was dead once, seemingly, from a heart attack, and here he is alive — and once more saved from death.) The writers will have some fun working it out.

Barring some significant research, it will never be clear which portion of the massive-by-contemporary-standards audience for the returned "Roseanne" came for the nostalgia, which out of media-fueled interest, and which because they were excited that someone who seemed to echo their own worldview had a show on television, in which, albeit for the blink of an eye, she was able to give it a voice. “The Conners,” at least, can move on without that supposed subtext, and all the excited commentary it occasioned.

Hints of what could be

Still, critical second-guessing aside, there are no "shoulds" in art, only possibilities that will prove to work well or less well or not at all. As to whether "The Conners," or whatever it is finally called, will match the chart-topping success of "Roseanne" Season 10 — well, if I knew that, I would be running a television network and have a swimming pool. But it still might be good.

In fact, we've already seen hints of what it could be, in the revival season, over which Barr did not exercise her former behind-the-camera control.

“Roseanne” Season 10 was already partway to becoming “The Conners,” a multi-generational, semi-topical working-class comedy. Some of its best scenes took place without Barr, who was more of a dominant ensemble member this time out (and let it be said, very good).

Most notable were those scenes between sisters Becky (Lecy Goranson) and Darlene (Sara Gilbert, who was behind the reunion), temperamental strangers forced by circumstances to try to understand each other a little. The dust from the cancellation announcement had not yet settled when I declared, on the same social media platform that was Barr's undoing, that a Darlene and Becky spinoff is something I would watch.

Much of the commentary leveled against the revived “Roseanne” is that it was somehow less than true to the original — that 1990s Roseanne was not the same character we had known then, that the old point had been lost. “The Conners” will be subjected to similar, not wholly fair, measurement.

It's true that we come to television for consistency the real world often can't provide. But the real world is nothing but change and reconfiguration; the atomic structure of any family is always in flux, new elements are born out of old. I am interested to see what comes next.

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