Roseanne Barr’s exit wasn’t part of the plan when ABC decided to reboot her eponymous series, but you wouldn’t know it from Tuesday’s premiere episode of “The Conners.”
Viewers have every reason to expect this forced reincarnation to be terrible. When “Roseanne” returned in March, it drew impressive ratings, but its ability to play the blue-collar blues — a rare acknowledgment on prime-time TV of unemployment, piled-up bills and the daunting cost of medicine — was overshadowed by reaction to its lead character’s unabashed support for President Donald Trump.
Then came the tweets. In the wake of Barr’s racially tinged comments about Barack Obama aide Valerie Jarrett, ABC swiftly canceled the series, stating that her words were inconsistent with the network’s values.
Of course, that didn’t stop executives from devising a way to keep raking in cash. The 13 episodes of the new “Roseanne” brought in $45 million in advertising revenue and a new season was expected to bring in at least $60 million, according to Kantar Media.
Financially, marching on without the show’s title character was a risk worth taking. Artistically, it deserves to pay off.
ABC gave critics a look at two episodes of the new series, but only on the condition they not reveal how Roseanne Conner is no longer in the picture. Fine. What can be said is that the explanation seems completely natural, as if the writers knew last year that the character might disappear. It’s heartbreaking — but also hilarious.
“Laughing inappropriately is what Mom taught us to do,” says older daughter Becky (Lecy Goranson) in Tuesday’s premiere. Goranson, often overshadowed by her castmates in the show’s original run, finally gets to do more than bicker with younger sis Darlene (the perfectly sardonic Sara Gilbert), especially in scenes that reveal a drinking problem. Her performance is the show’s most pleasant surprise. What shouldn’t come as a shock is how sharp the rest of the cast remains, particularly John Goodman as a grieving Dan, and Laurie Metcalf as flustered sister Jackie. A scene in which Jackie edges toward the breaking point while rearranging the kitchen just might earn her a fourth Emmy.
In 1990, Barr briefly boycotted the show after one of her many backstage skirmishes, forcing writers to cook up a story line in which her character only briefly appears. The episode, in which Jackie and Dan put aside their differences to manage the household, remains one of the show’s finest.
This time, the two get plenty of support, and not only from the regulars. Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen, Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki make memorable appearances.
Barr’s contributions can’t be brushed under the ratty couch. Her brand of dark humor, along with her insistence that Americans struggling to pay the bills should command center stage, remain vital to the series. The disgraced star may not be in a position to unleash one of her signature cackles, but viewers have every reason to roar — and breathe a sigh of relief.