The morning of May 29 was already expected to be a critical point in the timeline of ABC’s revival of “Roseanne.”
Executive producer Bruce Helford had gathered the writers on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank to begin work on the follow-up season to what had been a remarkable blockbuster return of the groundbreaking family sitcom. But a racist tweet about President Obama’s advisor Valerie Jarrett shared in the wee morning hours by the show’s controversial namesake, Roseanne Barr, was hindering the process — to put it mildly.
“We were seeing all these tweets, and then we were seeing the news coming out, and everything else,” recalls Helford, who also worked on the original series, inside the show’s production offices. “By 9:30, I think I had a hundred texts. And I get to the office and my mind was like, ‘OK, we’ll just see what happens.’”
Before 11 a.m., the top-rated comedy had been canceled.
“I just remember there were dozens of bagels just sitting there,” says Dave Caplan, who was a co-executive producer at the time.
Nearly five months later, ABC is preparing to unveil “The Conners,” its much anticipated spinoff of “Roseanne” — without its sharp-tongued matriarch. The rejiggered revival of the blue-collar Conner family — continuing on with John Goodman (Dan), Laurie Metcalf (Jackie), Sara Gilbert (Darlene), Lecy Goranson (Becky) and Michael Fishman (D.J.) — premieres Tuesday. But will viewers, particularly Barr supporters upset by her ouster or others whose admiration for the sitcom diminished because of Barr’s behavior, show up?
It was like slamming on the brakes and everybody went through the windshield.
A few days before the verdict will be in, Helford, Caplan and Bruce Rasmussen — all serving as executive producers on the current show — are gathered inside the show’s production office, reflecting on the last few months. They each describe it in different terms:
“An emotional roller coaster ride that ends really good,” Rasmussen offers.
“If we were writing that scenario,” Caplan counters, “starting from something that was so unfortunate, it really could not have ended better. We love the show we’re doing now.”
And then the more direct: “It was like slamming on the brakes and everybody went through the windshield,” Helford says. “And, like, the car blew up.”
But they managed to get a new used car. Not long after the cancellation of the “Roseanne” revival, talks quickly began among the producers, ABC and Carsey-Werner, the show’s production company, about whether there was any possible way to salvage the popular comedy. With hundreds of jobs on the line between the cast and crew, could they move on without its titular character who had proved to be the sitcom’s most unfiltered voice about the plight of the working class?
“And then there was a secondary element, after we answered ‘yes’ to that,” Caplan says. “Which was: The legacy of the show is so important. We just can’t let it end this way.”
“The Conners” charges ahead with 64% of the crew and writers, according to producers. The rest, they say, had landed other jobs. Another factor of the new series: Barr could not profit or have creative involvement in it, an agreement that was reached between Barr and executive producer Tom Werner.
We were not in a hurry to jump past it. We wanted it to play out in the way it would naturally play out in the lives of these characters.
The producers are unequivocal when they say the premiere episode of “The Conners” was the hardest episode of television they’ve ever had to write. “We labored on it long and hard,” Caplan says, “because it was difficult to strike the right emotional tone.”
It’s not the first time TV writers have had the task of writing a lead character off a show, of course, but this situation was certainly a precarious one. It implores the viewers to separate the character from the lightning-rod star.
“It’s difficult, because there are so many emotions,” Rasmussen says. “You feel one way about things that are said, about the person. And you feel another way about the character.”
“Roseanne Conner was very beloved by her family, so in the event that she’s not around in their lives for whatever reason, there has to be an appropriate amount of grief and reaction caused by that,” Helford said.
For Gilbert, who is also an executive producer on the series, it proved to be cathartic.
“I think it was definitely an emotional experience,” she said in a separate phone interview. “I think the writers captured how emotional it was for [the actors]… we are capturing what happens when a strong matriarch is not part of a family at some point — something that, at some point in our lives, we all have to deal with.”
The producers are tight-lipped about just how they’ve elected to write the character off, although reports have already circulated online. Nevertheless, the absence of the character will be felt throughout the 10-episode season — down to the opening theme sequence long linked to Roseanne Conner’s hearty cackle.
“To address it appropriately, we had to give it the appropriate amount of time,” Caplan said. “We were not in a hurry to jump past it. We wanted it to play out in the way it would naturally play out in the lives of these characters.”
At the same time, the producers say, removing the linchpin from the show has freed space to develop the other characters in considerable ways.
“Dan, in the absence of Roseanne, has had to step forward in a lot of ways,” Helford says. “And Darlene, Becky and Jackie all have gaps to fill in the matriarchal role. And they all have very strong opinions the way Roseanne did.”
If there’s one thing the producers were intent on carrying over to “The Conners,” it was the way in which “Roseanne” was grounded in the everyday struggles of a blue-collar family trying to make ends meet — with a healthy dose of wisecracks to make it all bearable. While the premiere episode of the “Roseanne” revival was the most direct in talking politics — when we’re re-introduced to Roseanne Conner, she is a proud Trump supporter, while her sister Jackie (Metcalf) is a Hillary Clinton supporter — “The Conners” won’t be any more political than the original “Roseanne.”
“It’s political only in the extent that what the family is going through is what every family in America is going through that doesn’t have the wherewithal to stay above water,” Caplan says, “ We are always trying to write about what it’s like for 40% of this country that can’t pay its bills. There’s something wrong there. And we’re trying to examine what that thing is and what are the emotional lives of the people that have to go through it.”
I’m sure Roseanne will have a point of view about the show...
Adds Rasmussen: “The Conners are experiencing the political issues of the day, but they are experiencing it in their day-to-day lives, like we all do.”
The “Roseanne” revival, a re-visiting of the hit ABC sitcom more than two decades after it went off the air, was the unexpected hit of last season. It was the third most-watched program of the 2017-18 season, according to Nielsen, drawing an average of about 18 million viewers during its run. A high bar to reach for any show in the era of Peak TV. And one “The Conners” will no doubt be measured against when ratings for the first episode come in.
And although the premiere episode will at least benefit from interest in how “The Conners” handles Barr’s exit, those involved with the show say they have conservative expectations for its performance.
“It would be unfair to measure [‘The Conners’] against the ‘Roseanne’ premiere, as those numbers exceeded even our own expectations last season,” ABC Entertainment President Channing Dungey said via email. “We will look at how it does competitively against other new comedy premieres this fall.”
ABC refrained from sending press advance screeners of the premiere episode of “The Conners” — as is typically the protocol with new shows. But the network did host screenings Friday in Los Angeles and New York to select press to view two episodes of the new series, including the premiere that will reveal how Barr is written off the series.
Critics, who had to agree not to divulge what happens to the Roseanne character in their reviews, have already weighed in on the new series: The headline from the Daily Beast said “‘The Conners’ Is Almost Sweet Enough to Make Up for the ‘Roseanne’ Fiasco”; Variety’s critic wrote: “given everything it went through to become its own series, ‘The Conners’ makes a solid case for itself by trusting its cast to sell the hell out of a particularly tricky situation — but there is just no escaping Roseanne, or Barr, completely.” Meanwhile, L.A. Times critic Lorraine Ali proclaimed that “The Conners” is “sharp, funny and cuts deeper than its predecessor.”
Those involved with the show say they have no assurances from Barr that she’ll refrain from openly criticizing the show or otherwise do something that could affect viewership.
“I’m sure Roseanne will have a point of view about the show,” said Werner, whose Carsey-Werner company executive produced the original “Roseanne” and its recent revival and spin-off. “I can say that I feel that we handled this situation in a way that would have been appropriate for Roseanne Conner. I don’t know how [Barr will] feel when she sees the show, but I’m very proud of it.”
If viewers are still undecided about their tuning-in prospects, the producers had this to say:
“If you’re not sure, just check it out,” Helford says.
“Give it a chance, really,” Rasmussen says
“For all those people who love the show,” adds Caplan, “everything that they like will be there.”
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)