(Warning: This post contains spoilers for the series premiere of The Conners.)
So now you know how Roseanne died.
The eponymous star of Roseanne's overdose from opioids was the worst-kept secret in modern-day sitcom cancellation history, but it's fine. It makes sense. And you know what? The Conners just may be better off without her.
As expected, Roseanne's ghost lingers over the Lanford, Illinois, home she died in, both for the knowledgeable viewer and the family. In the wake of her death, the adults — and here we mean Dan (John Goodman), Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) and Darlene (Sara Gilbert) — as well as the kidults — Becky (Lecy Goranson), DJ (Michael Fishman) and the actual children — are left reeling, coping with grief and confusion in myriad, compelling ways.
But that may not last long. The Conners wisely adds more meat to this story right away. In the premiere, grandson Mark (Ames McNamara) confides in Dan about his attraction to another boy, hinting at a logical shift away from Roseanne (if this thing is gonna have legs) with a story that simultaneously allows us to see Dan adapting to new, unsettling ideas with compassion as he's always done on the series. Roseanne Barr may not be forgotten, but The Conners asserts that going forward, she may not necessarily be missed.
How times change. Imagining Roseanne without Roseanne seemed absurd and sad just a few months ago. As the show's cantankerous center, Roseanne functioned as the unpredictable tornado, the force of nature we could count on to rattle the cages of convention until the hinges blew off. Without her, reason dictated, there would be nothing. But the surprise here is that The Conners works as a smoothly scripted, well-lubricated machine without its messy matriarch — so well that life without her isn't just feasible, but possibly even more fun than that time Roseanne reemerged from hiatus as a partisan meanie whose jokes brushed up against the edge of racial prejudice.
One way The Conners reconciles its noticeable absence is by sneakily heightening the traits Roseanne was known for among the adults who already carry those genes. For instance, Darlene has a frank sex talk with her daughter Harris (Emma Kenney) in an upcoming episode that's reminiscent of the kind of sex talk Roseanne would've had with Darlene back in the day, making Darlene ever more the struggling, sassy parent with surprisingly progressive values. Dan is (still) the explosive enforcer with a heart of gold. Jackie now herds the cats as Roseanne used to, but with eccentric charm instead of frightening shrieks.
Both John Goodman, playing an angry, sad partner with aplomb, and Laurie Metcalf, able to make Jackie's tics and quirks bloom in full without a diva edging in on her spotlight, shine so much brighter and fuller than ever before; you begin to see them anew. Becky remains the comic relief, and some of her tête-à-têtes with Darlene and Dan inch a little bit further than the standard sitcom guffaws of yore to make viewers actually laugh out loud. Nobody in the cast will have the same bite as the Mama Bear, but with all her best attributes evenly distributed now, it looks like the family can pick up, move on and do just fine in spite of that empty seat at the head of the table.
The Conners isn't without flaws. DJ often feels like the doofusy afterthought, and we still don't know much more about his wife Geena (Maya Lynne Robinson) and infrequent speaking daughter Mary (Jayden Rey), making them both seem like checkmarks on a diversity form rather than funny, flawed characters central to the story. And while The Conners' strength continues to be its depiction of working poor people left behind by digitization and globalization, there comes a point, after what seems like the 90th reference to health insurance, that all subtlety seeps out of the windows like gas.
Still, what The Conners has to say it says well, and, free of associations with Roseanne Barr's personal politics and ugly online attacks, The Conners can now do what Roseanne did best — show Americans in the heartland scratching and surviving — without the baggage. Who knows how long this third iteration of the show will continue on but, if there's an Emmy for turning a dumpster fire into a lovely and livable home, this one deserves it.
The Conners airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on ABC.