Usually, the biggest question going into a new TV season is, “Which of these new shows are worth watching?” (You can find that answer here.) But this fall, the biggest TV-related question seemed to be, “How is ABC’s new Roseanne spinoff, The Conners, going to address the absence of Roseanne Barr?”
Now, after four months of silence—and an enigmatic marketing campaign that leaned into the widespread curiosity about the character’s fate—The Conners’ Tuesday night premiere revealed that, as had been suspected all along, Barr’s Roseanne Conner has died.
(In case you’ve been off the grid for the past five months, Barr’s racist tweet in May led ABC to cancel Roseanne and cut ties with the actress, just two weeks after celebrating her and the hit revival at its upfront. One month later, the network announced a Barr-free spinoff, with the rest of the cast intact, called The Conners.)
While the character’s death was expected, the premiere, which picks up three weeks after her funeral, did have a twist related to her demise: While the grieving family thought Conner had suffered a heart attack, they learn from the coroner that her death was caused by an opioid overdose. Her character’s pill addiction, which resulted from knee problems, had been a storyline in last season’s revival.
With that question now answered, as well as the one about what The Conners’ opening credit sequence would look and sound like (it continued the familiar camera pan around the Conner family at the kitchen table—the Roseanne theme song kicks in halfway through—with John Goodman’s Dan now the center of attention), it’s time to put aside all things Barr and focus on the following: Not only does The Conners not miss a beat without her, but it’s actually a better show without its polarizing star.
The Conners is fall’s best new broadcast comedy (admittedly a low bar given the mediocre freshman sitcom class), because without the baggage of Barr and her incendiary Twitter feed, which clouded last year’s revival, the show can focus on what it does best: finding humor and heart in the struggles of a middle American family, in a way that no other sitcom on TV has been able to replicate.
Roseanne’s demise gives meaty material, both comedic and dramatic, to costars Goodman and Laurie Metcalf (as Roseanne’s sister Jackie)—two of the country’s best actors—as they respectively cope with Roseanne’s death. “I don’t even know where I belong,” says Jackie, inventing tasks around the house to keep her occupied, while a haggard Dan decides to publicly shame the neighbor (Mary Steenburgen) who supplied Roseanne with some of her pills. “I can do this, or drive my truck through her house,” he reasons.
It’s also a strong episode for daughter Darlene (Sara Gilbert), who had already quietly become the focal point of last season’s revival, and proves more than up to the task of filling the void left by Barr.
Much like March’s season premiere of Roseanne was steeped in politics (Roseanne and Jackie hadn’t spoken since the 2016 presidential election), The Conners debut is focused solely on the late Roseanne Conner, with several observations about the character that also seemed aimed at Barr herself: “She never listened to a damn person in her life,” said Dan, while Darlene added, “Man, she was stubborn.”
Ad buyers fully expected that curious audiences would tune in for Tuesday’s premiere—where ABC got as much as $300,000 per 30-second spot—but some were taking a wait-and-see approach to the rest of the season, waiting to see how many would stick around for subsequent Conners episodes.
If viewers bolt after the premiere, it will be their loss. As I mentioned in my spoiler-free review earlier this week (you can see that video, below), The Conners doesn’t lose a step without Barr. Yes, Roseanne Conner will always be a part of this family, but Barr no longer needs to be a physical presence on the show for it to succeed.
This is driven home by the show’s strong second episode, airing next week, which features the return of Darlene’s estranged husband David (played by The Big Bang Theory’s Johnny Galecki) and his new serious girlfriend (Juliette Lewis, who once played his sibling, in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation).
That episode tackles sex, relationships, alcoholism and divorce, with the same signature mix of laughs and tears that was a staple of Roseanne, in both the original run and revival. And, just like Tuesday’s premiere, it puts to rest any doubt that there is life in this show and these characters without Barr.