It would have been a typical television handling of events: Teen star leaves successful series for college, teen’s character leaves TV home for art school, loyal audience bids the character farewell, cast moves on with the business of entertaining.
But the series is the top-rated “Roseanne,” which will not handle the turn of events in typical TV fashion when the show returns Sept. 14. The teen is Darlene Conner, the sassiest daughter in America’s first television family. And the actress is Sara Gilbert, perhaps the only college freshman up for an Emmy award this year.
When the 18-year-old Gilbert announced that she was Yale-bound this fall, the powers that be on “Roseanne” did the unthinkable: They committed to keeping Gilbert such a regular part of the series that most viewers won’t know she’s moved to the Ivy League.
“Our hope is that even though she is away, she’ll still be a very important presence in the show,” explained Jay Daniel, one of the executive producers on “Roseanne.”
The decision to invest the time and money is, at the least, a testament to Gilbert’s star potential.
“It’s very important to us. Hers is obviously a very special, unique voice that you couldn’t possibly replace on the show. We’re going to make every effort possible to make sure we don’t lose that voice,” Daniel said.
He put it mildly. Preseason taping was put into overdrive to allow Gilbert to squeeze in three full episodes and a number of partial scenes that will be inserted into subsequent shows. And in an unprecedented move planned later this season, the cast and crew will set up shop in an as-of-yet unnamed New York location to film additional episodes with Gilbert--assuming she has her homework finished. Plus, there’s already talk of putting Gilbert to work over Christmas and spring vacations.
It’s all much different from last season’s elopement of older sister Becky when Lecy Gorason entered Vassar--her character just appeared on the other end of phone calls for a handful of episodes. “Roseanne” writers are sending Darlene to art school in Chicago. Much of the season will focus on how Darlene adjusts to college life and copes with being away from home.
Gilbert, meanwhile, is still shocked by the commitment from her “Roseanne” family.
“Just from a logistic standpoint, I was surprised,” Gilbert said in an interview. “I’m really flattered, and sort of relieved that I’ll have the opportunity to do both things.”
Gilbert, whose Emmy nod makes her one of the youngest actresses to be considered for the supporting actress award, shrugs off comments that now is not the time to take a break from her career:
“It just felt like the time to go. I’ve done my thing here, and I’ve really had a wonderful experience. I’d like to continue doing (“Roseanne”) as much as possible, but also move on to something else.”
She follows the lead of actresses Jodie Foster (Yale), Brooke Shields (Princeton) and Gorason, who have incorporated higher education with film or TV careers. Like her predecessors, Gilbert plans to blend into the crowd.
“I think that everybody who goes to school--especially the people I met at Yale--has something about them that is out of the ordinary,” said the hopeful psychology major. “It’s going to be new and different for everybody. Because everybody will be experiencing the same thing, it won’t be such a big deal about me.”
One thing she will share with many of her well-connected classmates at Yale is a famous name.
Gilbert comes from an established show business family: Her sister Melissa is best known for “Little House on the Prairie.” Her grandfather Harry Crane was the creator of “The Honeymooners.” Her mother Barbara, a former talent agent, got then-6-year-old Sara her first role in a commercial.
From there, her career took off. After a string of television movies, she landed the role on “Roseanne” at 13. More recently, she’s been dabbling in film.
Perhaps because Gilbert has done so much of her growing up on-camera, she is looking to college for some normalcy. But even the optimist herself admitted she may not find it, what with feature film work in the summers and her interest in writing and directing. And then there’s the possibility of developing a television series of her own after graduation. . . .
Gilbert laughed, pulling her legs closer to her chest in attempt to literally stop herself from getting too far ahead of herself.
“I don’t think I can really have a game plan, because it’s still so up in the air. So my game plan is just basically to do as many shows as I can for as long as (“Roseanne”) is on, and just take it from there.”