ABC’s The Conners, the show formerly known as Roseanne, grapples, textually and extratextually, with the abrupt departure of a larger-than-life personality. In the world of the show, Roseanne Conner has recently died; in the real world, Roseanne Barr was fired for racist comments, following years of virulently hateful, conspiratorial, and generally Trumpian remarks. In the world of the show, Roseanne’s departure is a tragedy. In the real world, it’s just deserts. Even more just: The show works fine without her.
The Conners picks up three months after Roseanne’s death. The family is grieving but functioning, still cracking the sour, black jokes that make their difficulties bearable. (Lots of depressing cable dramas could stand to be reminded that you can take on serious, soul-crushing subjects and keep the jokes.) Aunt Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) won’t stop reorganizing the kitchen, Becky (Alicia Goranson) is avoiding helping in every way she can, Dan (John Goodman) is sleeping on the couch—which is finally being cleaned; gone, for now, is the iconic crocheted blanket—and Darlene (Sara Gilbert) is assuming the mantle of the matriarch.
“You already live here and you’re a scary little tyrant. You’re the obvious choice to take over for Mom,” Becky tells Darlene. “Why are you saying such nice things to me!” Darlene replies, sincerely flattered.
Dan and Darlene— Goodman and Gilbert, really—are now the show’s main characters, a recalibration that gives the entire enterprise a slightly more ensemble feel. Over The Conners’ first two episodes, the cast balloons to include a number of recognizable guest stars, recurring characters, and new faces, like DJ’s wife Geena, on leave from the military. (Maya Lynne Robinson takes over the role as a series regular, replacing Xosha Roquemore.) The plot is maximalist as well. The Conners are contending not only with grief but with addiction, divorce, teen sex, and coming out. It can feel a bit like five “very special episodes” packed into one, but hey, the show is just trying to keep busy.
The original Roseanne was known as the ultimate working-class sitcom, a show about struggling Americans whose day-to-day troubles you were not likely to see elsewhere on TV. The revived Roseanne also spoke to the white working-class experience, but because of Barr’s extraordinarily polarizing beliefs and behavior — even before she was fired— the “working-class” experience her show spoke to felt circumscribed, aimed primarily at people who shared her political beliefs. The reboot’s gargantuan ratings were claimed as a “victory” by Trump and others who share Barr’s worldview, and its cancellation was framed as an attack on that same perspective. The show’s attempts at evenhandedness (Roseanne was a Trump voter, but Jackie went for Hillary) and its progressive storylines (about, say, Roseanne’s gender-nonconforming grandson, whom she accepted and defended) had to be read through the filter of Barr herself: as plot devices to make her look less bigoted, as sops to liberals, as the writing staff’s attempt to temper Barr’s positions—attempts that were ultimately undone by her racist opinions and tweets nonetheless.
The Conners, then, is in some ways a more straightforward descendant of the original series than the revival was: It’s a show about the white working-class experience that has not been warped by Barr’s vile politics. With Barr gone, and the Conner clan absent its Trumpian matriarch, overt politics becomes secondary to character. Dan steps into the role of not-always-liberal foil, but his positions don’t feel like extratextual excuse-making or dog-whistling. Dan is entirely accepting when his grandson tells him he likes boys, but when Becky asks him for a job on his sheetrocking crew, he demurs. “It’s because I’m a girl,” Becky says. “I’m not gonna fall for that,” Dan replies. “It’s because you’re a woman.” Dan eventually relents, and it turns out the problem isn’t that she’s a woman at all–it’s that she’s an alcoholic. The Conners still wants to be a sitcom for both Democrats and Republicans, but instead of making hay of culture war flashpoints, it stays focused on the Conners’ bleakly circumscribed reality—and the foreshortening of opportunity that applies to the have-nots of both political tribes.
Although some conservatives will view any Barr-less version of Roseanne as a victory for the other side, in the long run—if there is one for this show—her removal frees The Conners from being treated like a zero-sum game, with every storyline a point for one side or the other. But there’s a catch: Without her, the show does not and cannot have the potent and terrifying energy of its predecessor. The Conners is in demonstrably less racist hands than it was—and so is now unlikely to be the center of the news cycle. The most controversial thing about it is that it exists. The Conners tells a damning story about American society within the world of the show, but outside of it too; the series underwent a necessary, morally correct change—for which it will likely be rewarded with a fraction of its predecessor’s ratings. The Conners isn’t bad, but it’s hard to laugh at that.