‘The Conners’ is no stranger to crisis. But tackling COVID-19 is ‘really melancholy’
Two years after the death of Roseanne Conner, the surviving Conners are still in turmoil. They’re now dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the troubles just keep piling on.
But that hasn’t stopped “The Conners,” ABC’s comedy about a struggling working-class family, from finding laughter and light in the darkness.
A spinoff of the short-lived “Roseanne” revival starring Roseanne Barr, which was canceled in 2018 after its namesake made racist comments on Twitter, “The Conners,” entering its third season, continues to tackle topical issues facing the country. The hardships on families wrestling with the impact of COVID-19 are center stage as the Conners confront a dire financial situation and internal family tension.
The impact of the coronavirus also has been felt behind the scenes — the series was the first ABC comedy to go back into production, and strict guidelines requiring masks and social distancing were instituted before the cast and crew returned to the set.
“I was hesitant — it seemed too early to come back because no one else was doing it,” said Laurie Metcalf, who plays Jackie Harris. “When I heard all the safety measures being taken, we all felt more comfortable to take that first step. And we’ve all been very strict about it.”
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Meanwhile, there’s been a halt to the live audiences that would attend Friday night tapings.
Lecy Goranson, who plays Becky Conner, misses their instant reactions: “They were so excited. Many of them have been watching the show since the ’80s. They know our characters.”
When last we saw “The Conners,” which has established a solid foothold in the ABC lineup, Dan Conner (John Goodman) learned that the bank was about to foreclose on the family home and wouldn’t extend his overdue mortgage. Jackie and Becky have sunk their inheritance money into reopening the Lunch Box diner. As the season opens, the Lunch Box is closed except for takeout and delivery because of the pandemic, and it’s struggling to stay afloat. Unable to hire a delivery person, Jackie delivers orders on a bike, and Becky is forced to take a second job at Wellman Plastics.
In an interview via video conference last week, Metcalf and Goranson discussed working during a pandemic and their feelings about the continuing plight of the Conners.
When did you know what would be happening to the Conners this season, and what’s it been like returning under very different circumstances?
Laurie Metcalf: I knew it would become part of the show because “The Conners” has always been dealing with what’s going on in everyone’s life. The iffy part was knowing how it would be dealt with in terms of the cast and the crew. We come in minimal contact when we actually shoot our scenes together. We drop our masks and sometimes we’re closer than six feet. But it’s for a very short period of time, and then the masks go on again and we will scatter.
We’re doing a lot of testing and sanitizing, but the environment has been a comfortable one and one where everyone is dedicated to looking out for each other. We have to stay on top of it without becoming complacent.
Lecy Goranson: The Conners are always going through crisis, so the family is somewhat prepared for something like this. They’re constantly in a state for fighting some greater force, and they band together as they do that. This is no exception. As in real life, the Conners are handling the COVID situation differently. The younger generation has their stance — my TV nephew Mark [played by Ames McNamara] is really adamant about things.
It’s interesting — everyone needs new content and are looking to shows coming back. We all need to laugh. But it’s still really melancholy. There is so much going on the world and there’s huge financial risks. It’s pretty frightening for the majority of Americans, and that is really reflected in the show in how the Conners are picking up the pieces now.
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The show has always found humor in dire situations. But what’s happening with the Lunch Box is happening with restaurants all over the country. It’s a wrenching situation.
Metcalf: It couldn’t be more relevant than where we last left the Conners. Becky and Jackie sunk their inheritance money into this restaurant and now the two of them are in a predicament like so many people.
Goranson: There were so many stakes in Becky’s and Jackie’s journey to open the Lunch Box. They had to fight hard and have their business plan. They risked some of their familial relationships to get it going. Things got really tense.
Metcalf: It put a wedge in the family. This is the most intense situation that Jackie has had to deal with. She’s gone though relationships and other stuff, but the stakes on this are pretty high. They used their safety net to open. It’s do-or-die for this place.
Is it harder this season to strike that delicate tone between seriousness and humor?
Metcalf: It comes from the writers. They do the heavy lifting for us, walking that fine line. I don’t know how they do it but the tone is right on the page as a blueprint of how to play the scene. But it’s very different without that live audience. We don’t get that adrenaline boost we would get on Friday night. We’ve got a great crew that still finds us semi-funny in rehearsal, and they will chuckle so we sort of know what’s working. But it’s been a learning curve to do [it] without an audience after all these years. And now we’re doing it out of sequence. When we have the audience, we do it like a play. Now we jump around. But we’re finding a new momentum. And all of us are so grateful to be back, that’s for sure.
But I bet you are looking forward to live audiences again.
Goranson: Yes! But who knows when that will be?
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)
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