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By Ani Bundel

“The Conners” are back — or at least most of them. It’s still the same house, the same couch and the same humor of the original series. In fact, liberated from the dead weight of the show’s original star, Roseanne Barr, the reboot is free to be the version of “Roseanne” audiences remember. The question is, are fans willing to tune in without her?

ABC decided to bring back “Roseanne” with the idea that the show would simply pick up two-plus decades later, with only the march of time having passed between seasons nine and 10. With audiences all too aware of the titular star’s right-wing turn over the intervening years, not to mention her support for President Donald Trump, this seemed like a natural setup. Showrunners anticipated that Roseanne's personal pivot to the right would mirror the stereotypical trend of older relatives gradually succumbing to the siren call of Fox News.

Showrunners anticipated that Roseanne's personal pivot to the right would mirror the stereotypical trend of older relatives gradually succumbing to the siren call of Fox News.

Indeed, everything about the reboot was quite calculated. "Roseanne" was arguably the first network series since the 2016 election to openly target the segment of Fox viewers (and Trump voters) who complain that the “liberal” entertainment media leaves them out. The resulting ratings were better than expected, with the 10th season of “Roseanne” averaging 13 million viewers over nine episodes. It was renewed for a second season almost immediately.

But while ABC seemed happy enough to trade on Barr's opinions, the writers of the series did not appear to share her views. The result was a show whose very existence was far more controversial than the actual episodes, which were mostly milquetoast appeals to open-mindedness.

But the real problem was Roseanne herself. The fact that ABC was giving her a platform created controversy before any episodes aired. And sure enough, within days after the season finale, Barr was fired for horrifically racist remarks that were simply too onerous to ignore.

Still, given that many millions of viewers cannot be tossed aside so easily in this day and age of overall declining broadcast viewership, ABC was soon making noise about how unfair it was that all the hardworking crew members were losing their jobs over one star’s antics. While the motivations for “The Conners” may have been cynically capitalist, the outcome is a blessing in disguise for fans, and maybe ABC as well. “Roseanne” minus Roseanne feels less like a “Garfield minus Garfield” comic, where the empty space speaks volumes, and more like the show everyone wanted in the first place.

The episode embargo specifically says reviewers cannot reveal what happens to Roseanne on the show, but in truth, what happens to her character isn’t that important. The elephant in the room has been removed, allowing co-stars John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf and Sara Gilbert to explore their full potential. What remains is the often-humorous take on blue-collar family life that fans will remember from the early years of the show. Even Becky (Lecy Goranson) gets to have good lines, like this one: “Laughing inappropriately is what Mom taught us to do.”

Image: SARA GILBERT, LAURIE METCALF
Sara Gilbert and Laurie Metcalf have much more room to shine in a post-Roseanne world. Eric McCandless / ABC

Because of the drama that preceded the new show, some awkwardness in the early episodes would be expected. But “The Connors” cast and writers handle a complicated situation well. Metcalf’s character, Jackie, in particular shines.

Barr’s Twitter rant mostly torpedoed the show's Emmy hopes. In the end, only Metcalf snagged a nomination. (She did not win, but even the Emmy hosts noted how remarkable it was for her to land a nod in the first place.) The show seems deeply aware of what a star they have in Metcalf and are bound and determined to use her skills as much as possible — hint, don’t ever let Jackie reorganize a kitchen — even as the show focuses on being more of an ensemble piece going forward.

The series will probably never be about Jackie, though, even if she does remain its secret weapon. If anything, without Roseanne, Gilbert’s Darlene becomes the de facto lead, with Goodman’s Dan as her main supporting actor. Darlene has always been a fan favorite, as well as a favorite in the writer’s room, and they lean into her caustic humor to full effect now.

Oddly enough, the show’s title change may be its biggest problem. One of the reasons broadcast executives love these reboots is the way they are able to trade on well-known franchises. Audiences knew what “Roseanne” was when they heard the name of the show. “The Conners,” on the other hand, is a name with far less brand recognition.

Will the result be a ratings crash? ABC hopes not. Arising renewed from the ashes of “Roseanne,” “The Connors” doesn’t deserve that fate either.