Full spoilers follow for The Conners series premiere, titled “Keep on Truckin’.”
Life goes on. That’s the biggest takeaway from “Keep on Truckin’,” the first episode of ABC’s The Conners, which retools last year’s hit Roseanne revival as a distinctly Roseanne-free endeavor. Indeed, the character of Roseanne is dead, but based on this premiere, The Conners feels very much alive.
The Conners, of course, was born in the wake of Roseanne Barr’s racist social media activity, which led to the show being cancelled after a successful tenth season that had just resuscitated the classic sitcom after some 20 years off the air. But as anyone who remembers failed spinoffs like Joey or AfterMASH will tell you, it’s a dicey proposition to follow up a beloved hit show with a new iteration that doesn’t feature the main character that made said show a success.
And yet, The Conners works without Roseanne. And, so far, it works well. Right off the bat in the opening scene here, the writers address Roseanne Conner’s absence head-on. Yes, she died between seasons, seemingly of a heart attack a few weeks before the episode begins. The lack of Roseanne Barr, on the other hand, is skirted throughout the episode. Will the show somehow address the issue of racism and/or social media scandals at some future point? It wouldn’t be Roseanne… um, The Conners if it didn’t.
But this show is essentially still Roseanne, despite the title change and jettisoning of its namesake, and it can largely thank the 10 previous seasons of the original for being able to pull off this unlikely feat. As a series, Roseanne always found its strength in its ensemble cast and their characters’ unfolding lives as much as in its titular star, and with all of those players back — but with John Goodman’s patriarch Dan Conner now the de facto head of the pack — The Conners is as vital and funny and relevant as ever, and without the baggage of the real-life Barr to deal with.
Indeed, so far The Conners isn’t as politically-minded as Roseanne was last season, focusing less on the hype of Left versus Right and more on actual issues. (ABC made two episodes of The Conners available to IGN in advance of the season premiere. While this review pertains only to the first episode, we can say the other installment sticks to this strategy of issues over politics as well.)
As for the premiere, as Dan, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), Darlene (Sara Gilbert), Becky (Lecy Goranson), D.J. (Michael Fishman) and the rest deal with the grief of their wife/sister/mother’s passing, the episode is nonetheless able to keep the mood consistently light. The one-liners and zingers fly as frequently as usual, but the real-world spin that separated the original show from the sitcom pack also remains as the family learns that it was, in fact, Roseanne’s addiction to prescription painkillers — a plot thread from last season — that actually took her life.
This sets the table for some emotional moments amid the humor, particularly in a scene between Gilbert and Metcalf where they confront their grief, and for Goodman, who finds that he can no longer sleep in the bed that he shared with his late wife for 30 years. Goodman somehow manages to even look like a grieving widower, but his grief turns to anger when he learns the truth about his wife’s death and sets out to shame the woman (an effective Mary Steenburgen in a small role) who provided Roseanne with the pills that led to her accidental overdose.
Of course, in the world of The Conners nothing is that clear cut, and Dan knows it. By the end of the episode, as Dan takes the seat at the head of the table where Roseanne once sat in the iconic opening credits of her show, the world of Lanford feels different… but also OK. Life goes on, even for the Conners.