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Review: ‘The Conners’ and ‘black-ish’ risked mixing comedy and COVID-19. The gamble pays off

Tracee Ellis Ross as Dr. Bow Johnson, now a frontline worker in the COVID-19 pandemic, in ABC's "black-ish."
(ABC)

Finding humor in the depths of a pandemic is like searching for sunlight at the bottom of the sea. But ABC’s signature comedies “The Conners” and “black-ish” dived into the murk head first when both returned Wednesday with new seasons and of-the-moment storylines.

Turning the horrors of the day into prime-time sitcom fare is a risky proposal at best. Celebrated political satirists like John Oliver and Stephen Colbert took time to find their footing at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and “Saturday Night Live” is still struggling to do so, which means expectations — even for these topical productions — were guarded.

Both comedies, however, manage to squeeze humor out of the dismal realities of lockdown and viral surges while still honoring the pain and loss many American families have endured since March. Each household features frontline workers at different ends of the economic spectrum and folks struggling to cope. And each show strikes its own balance of snarky/smart humor, empathy and newsworthy candor, highlighting what it takes to muddle through unprecedented times.

So what does it take? Humor and the support of family, or course.

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To celebrate Season 7 of “black-ish,” ABC’s “bold and unapologetic” sitcom asked L.A.'s Kadir Nelson to create an artwork to match. Get a first look here.

“Black-ish,” now in Season 7, finds Dr. Rainbow Johnson, or Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross), on the frontline of the medical crisis in Wednesday’s episode, “Hero Pizza.” The Johnson family has been sheltering in its spacious home, yet the strain of the experience is starting to show.

Bow’s working tirelessly at the hospital to save lives. We don’t see her in action, but it’s clear in conversations she has with coworkers during breaks that they are witnessing a horror most of us will never understand. She sees what happens when safety protocols slip and is determined to keep her family safe. That means everything from strict social distancing measures to screaming out the front window at folks on the street who have the gall to hug one another.

She’s rattled by the carelessness of those around her, even family members. “I’m really trying to believe that we can get through this, but it is so hard when people won’t do the simplest things for the greater good,” she says. “I did not sign up to fight a deadly virus with one hand tied behind my back.”

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Husband Dre (Anthony Anderson), an advertising executive now working at home in his boxers, is having his own crisis, and it’s of course ego-based. He likes to call himself an “essential worker,” because he sells “hope” in inspirational commercials about hand lotion, even after being schooled by a colleague during a Zoom conference: “We sell cars and mayonnaise to people who hope their jobs are coming back.” He wants to feel as useful as his wife, whom he’s terrified to go near even though she’s fastidiously decontaminated.

Junior (Marcus Scribner) is trying to maintain social distance inside their “family bubble” but breaks the rules — and Bo’s trust — when he breaches quarantine to see his girlfriend. And much to everyone’s chagrin, Grandma and Grandpa (Jenifer Lewis and Laurence Fishburne) are treating lockdown like a second honeymoon. The twins’ expressions of disgust say it all.

In short, each member of the Johnson family represents a different aspect of dealing with life during COVID-19, while also poking fun at how well we are or are not managing this seemingly endless crisis.

Lecy Goranson, left, and Sara Gilbert take on factory work amid the COVID-19 pandemic in "The Conners."
(Eric McCandless/ABC)
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“The Conners,” now in its third season, focuses more on the economic fallout from the spread of COVID-19 in “Keep on Truckin’ Six Feet Apart.” As America would have it, this working-class family can’t catch a break.

Dan (John Goodman) has to lay off some of his crew to make ends meet, and he is risking his health by doing most of the drywalling himself. Aunt Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) is delivering food by bike since business at her restaurant took a hit. Darlene (Sara Gilbert) and Becky (Lecy Goranson) have gotten jobs at their late mom’s old employer, Wellman Plastics, sorting hand sanitizer bottles on a production line.

Wearing face masks and gloves, they note how much their new jobs remind them of “Laverne & Shirley” and recite the chant — “Schlemiel! Schlimazel!” — that started the sitcom’s theme, before adding a modern twist: “We’re not gonna make it!”

Laurie Metcalf and Lecy Goranson discuss the Season 3 premiere of “The Conners,” ABC’s first comedy to go back into production during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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There’s a couple of great social-distancing gags here, and the episode drives home the point that no one knows exactly what we’re supposed to do to stay safe, given the mixed messages and actions from Washington, D.C.

Their scraping-to-get-by existence looks much different from the Johnsons’ relatively cushy world. The Conners’ friends are getting evicted, folks are losing their health insurance, dreams are shattered when Dad’s short of cash and the mortgage has to be paid.

Aspiring writer Darlene realizes that career dreams are a thing of the past, at least for someone in her economic strata. “My future’s over,” she says. “We’re supposed to do better than our parents. We’re not supposed to be going backwards. We’re gonna end up as immigrants on a ship back to Ireland.”

“The Conners” can come off as ham-fisted when leveraging topical themes for its family dramedy, but it’s not a new dynamic for audiences accustomed to watching the show or “black-ish” react in near real-time to the world outside. This time, though, the situations in ABC’s flagship family sitcoms hit especially close to home.

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‘The Conners’
Where: ABC
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)





‘black-ish’
Where: ABC
When: 9:30 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language)





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