SPOILER ALERT: This review contains details of the The Conners debut tonight.
“Pierce Brosnan is a much better singer than he gets credit for,” proclaims Michael Fishman’s DJ Conner while listening to the Mamma Mia soundtrack in one of the closest to genuinely funny lines of the Roseanne spinoff set to premiere on October 16 on ABC.
Rising out of the racist tweets from Roseanne Barr herself and the subsequent crash, burn and cancellation of the President Trump praised blockbuster sitcom revival by the Disney-owned network, the much anticipated The Conners is fundamentally just another multi-cam, if you know what I mean?
From the two episodes that I’ve seen, the adequate offering with solid core performances from Fishman, John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, Sara Gilbert, and Lecy Goranson is packed with jokes and one-liners you can see coming long before they land and full of scenarios you’ve seen a million times before on the small screen.
Bleached of the Donald Trump associations and politics that made the March 27 Roseanne return debut crackle with confrontational relevance, the Gilbert, Tom Werner, Tony Hernandez, Bruce Helford, Bruce Rasmussen and Dave Caplan executive produced Conners distinctly doesn’t seem to want to cause any waves for itself or the network – and that’s the biggest problem.
Like Two and a Half Men without Charlie Sheen or The Who without madman drummer Keith Moon, what The Conners noticably lacks most of all is a bit of the crazy. Without the rightly so disgraced Barr providing that frenzied tension that orbits everything she’s ever done, the spinoff stays pretty much in the middle of the road. Which, let’s be brutally honest, is a pretty dangerous place to be if controversy is the currency of the media landscape in 2018.
How the absence of Barr’s much discussed but nowhere to be found character came to pass is something that the EPs and ABC don’t want revealed until The Conners launches on October 16. It makes some degree of sense if you are trying to attract eyeballs for a potentially hobbled premiere and salvage some of the massive audience that Roseanne delivered to a suddenly ratings rich ABC and the network entertainment boss Channing Dungey earlier this year.
However, being that she wasn’t abducted from her Illinois town by aliens, didn’t move away nor is in a coma, to pull out a trio of usual tropes, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes, Batman or Nathan Fillion to figure it out as Roseanne herself has speculated on what happens to the role she originated in 1988. Regardless, Roseanne’s presence looms large over the opening episode of the spinoff and through the season, from what I’ve seen.
Pulling plots from the nine-episode much watched revival season that ran this spring, there has also clearly been some recycling or recontextualizing of ideas and scripts that were in play for a Season 11 of the May 29 cancelled show. That’s to be expected, but what is a surprise is how tepid from the darken tones of the Helford, Caplan and Rasmussen penned “Keep On Truckin’ season opener onwards, the narratives of working class economic and struggle, gay grandsons, grieving sisters, new love, alcoholism, and teenage sex turn out to be in execution.
If your expectations are middling or you are looking to kill some time before Fillion’s The Rookie has its opening on October 16, The Conners is still quite watchable, if for no reason than the strong talent of Goodman, Metcalf and Gilbert as the acerbic heir to her mother Darlene. Plus there’s an almost harrowing appearance by Mary Steenburgen, subplots galore from the grandkids, the return of now The Big Bang Theory star Johnny Galecki to his role as Darlene’s now estranged husband and still sniveling David, the introduction of a role for Juliette Lewis and Justin Long to the ensemble, and a sharp Maya Lynne Robinson as DJ’s back-from-active-duty spouse.
Also, The Conners isn’t the Darlene show.
While the focus on Gilbert’s character is greater, she has not, as far as I can see been shifted predominantly to the fore. In the vacuum of how or even if The Conners would take shape, that had been widely anticipated after Barr’s not all together unprecedented vicious social media attack on former Barack Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett ripped Roseanne apart.
Look, with a preordained slot on the schedule for the renewed original, ABC moved Heaven, Earth, and a lot of its ad sales’ bottom line this summer to find a way to salvage something from a tragedy out of what appeared to be the triumph of the return of Roseanne this year after over 20 years off the air.
With such talented people on both sides of the camera, there is a chance that The Conners won’t end up being an idea best left on the shelf like the return of fellow 1990s giant Murphy Brown and many reboots, revivals and spinoffs. Right now, having seen the first and fourth episode, the biggest anticipation I have for The Conners is how Roseanne herself is truly going to react next week – and that’s a very dangerous place to be.
Editors note: This review originally ran October 12.