“Are we horrible for laughing?” asks Darlene (Sara Gilbert), early on in the series premiere of The Conners. She and her sister Becky (Alicia Goranson) are sitting in the familiar Conner kitchen, heavy with memories of their now-absent mother, and finding solace in dark humor, as this family has always done. “Laughing inappropriately,” replies Becky, “is what mom taught us to do.”
Will viewers feel horrible for laughing at The Conners? It will likely be difficult for most people to judge ABC’s new family sitcom — starring the former cast of Roseanne, minus Roseanne Barr — on its own merits, given the ugly and unfortunate pile of baggage that comes with it. But based on the first two episodes screened for critics by ABC (under the condition that reviews do not reveal how Roseanne’s character is written out), The Conners is an above-average family comedy with a strong cast and sharply-drawn characters that could very well exist for several seasons on their own — if, of course, the audience is able to let go of the past.
Though the first episode, “Keep on Trucking,” features several references to “Granny Rose” as the family moves on without her, there are no traces of Roseanne herself — Barr’s name appears nowhere in the credits (nor does she receive any financial benefit from the show), and her face seems to be entirely absent from the family photos on display in the Conner living room. As for that family, they are coping with their new normal as we would expect them to — and we do have expectations, because Darlene, Becky, Jackie (Laurie Metcalfe), Dan (John Goodman), and DJ (Michael Fishman) are characters we’ve known for decades. The Conners may be in a uniquely unfortunate position, having to escape the dark shadow cast by its former star, but it also has a unique advantage in characters who come fully formed, with a history and 10 seasons of story to draw from.
Turns out, it’s just as funny to watch Roseanne’s sister Jackie attempt to help the family by trying to set up a “work triangle” in their unorganized kitchen, even if Roseanne isn’t there to watch her do it. Jackie’s panicky spiral into uselessness (“There’s nowhere to put the corn holders,” she laments, standing in the middle of the even bigger mess she made) is a highlight of the first episode which, for reasons I can’t disclose, has its share of dark moments.
The new Conner dynamic means we’ll get a lot more Metcalf (always a good thing) and Gilbert, whose Darlene appears to be the unofficial lead — both of the family and the sitcom. Hardship has only sharpened Darlene’s caustic humor, which is always at its best when she’s launching her deadly deadpan at Becky. (When her sister says she can’t help with a family obligation because she has a date, Darlene snaps back, “Can’t you just stay vertical for one more day?”) Darlene’s history with David (Johnny Galecki) continues to be an ongoing storyline, as they co-parent their gender-curious little boy Mark (the fantastic Ames McNamara) and sullen teen daughter Harris (Emma Kenney). ABC also screened the Oct. 23 episode, “Tangled Up in Blue,” which features a wonderfully loopy guest appearance by Juliette Lewis as David’s girlfriend, Blue, a neo-hippie who’s eager to be a third voice in David and Darlene’s parenting pair. “I lived on a weed commune,” she coos dreamily, “and we all shared in the raising of the children.”
As for Goodman, both he and his character seem a little adrift in his new circumstances. Goodman always played the role of comedy back-up to his larger-than-life costar, and it looks as though it may take a while before the actor feels comfortable playing off his TV kids without his TV wife as wing-woman. That said, Dan and young Mark share several sweet moments in the premiere, and Goodman can still deliver the hell out of a down-the-middle punchline like “I forgot to eat right and exercise for the last 50 years.”
Will this be enough for viewers, queasy about what came before, to give The Conners a chance? For those on the fence, I’d say if you liked the original and its short-lived revival, this incarnation will feel like a new — and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny — window into the lives of old friends. Grade: B
The Conners premieres Oct. 16 at 8 p.m. on ABC.