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Without Roseanne, 'The Conners' Go On

Alicia Goranson and Sara Gilbert play Becky and Darlene on ABC's <em>The Conners</em>.
Eric McCandless
Alicia Goranson and Sara Gilbert play Becky and Darlene on ABC's The Conners.

Two groups of people don't care at all about how the first episode of The ConnersRoseannewithout Roseanne — was. The first group doesn't care because they found Roseanne Barr the real person so personally and/or politically noxious that avoiding this project, made as it is by a network and a team willing to work with her until relatively recently, is a matter of principle. The second group doesn't care because they are so offended by her firing — technically, by the cancellation of the show she was on and the recreation of a show she emphatically is noton — that avoiding this project, made as it is by the network and team going on without her, is a matter of principle.

But there are those whose interest will depend on how the show itself is working as of the premiere, and to them, I say that the answer is: hit and miss. (And I also say: here there be "spoilers," by which I mean descriptions of what happened on the episode I'm reviewing.)

Surprisingly, the misses are largely in the department of comedy. There are some very clumsy jokes in this first half-hour as the writers try to balance the (not really that surprising) news that Roseanne Conner has died with the need to get at least some laughs out of it. Dark comedy around death was actually a strength of the old Roseanne. (Please behold the greatness of Laurie Metcalf screaming "DAD'S DEAD!") But here, there's an early struggle for footing — with the comedy MVP being Alicia Goranson, whose take on the self-involved adult Becky remains strong.

The character of Geena, DJ's wife (now played by Maya Lynne Robinson, who replaces Xosha Roquemore, seen once last season via Skype), was introduced without much context. We didn't see her with DJ very much, so what we know of her remains more told than shown. She quickly was tasked with making jokes about how Darlene needs to find Jesus, a scene that didn't work at all. Obviously, the idea is that the family knows her — although it appears that they've spent little time with her because she's in the military — but the audience doesn't. And fleshing out her character by having her lecture Darlene about religion, with jokes that were pretty watery, wasn't the best way to serve the actress or the story.

But Roseannewas always more than just funny; it dealt with family and conflict and relationships. And there, the first episode of The Connersexcels. The news that Roseanne did not die of a heart attack as the family had believed, but instead died of an opioid overdose (the result of the addiction to painkillers the series began to explore last season), hits everyone hard. No one harder than Dan (John Goodman), who believed he had successfully cleaned the pills out of the house and is heartbroken to learn Roseanne was still getting them — and hiding them from him.

There's also a delicate scene between Darlene (Sara Gilbert) and Jackie (Metcalf) that suggests that while they're grieving, they're also trying to forge a bond with each other. And maybe, they're hoping that bond will be healthier than the one either of them sometimes had with Roseanne herself. There are hints of great stuff to explore here about Darlene's dueling desires to turn into the best parts of her mother and to avoid turning into the worst parts of her mother. And Jackie has, indeed, always seemed overly dependent on Roseanne's family to give her a personal life, and her determination to rearrange the kitchen is just the right way to visualize it, although the moments where they wanted that development to be funny were, again, not really successful.

It's hard to say what the future holds for this family from a narrative perspective; it's hard to know how much of this season the writers intend to devote to grief. There's certainly enough story with these characters to make a terrific show. But it needs to be funnier, or it won't survive as a comedy.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.