In some ways, the premiere of The Conners was not surprising in its matter of fact dealing with the departure of the Roseanne Conner character. As Roseanne Barr herself had previously revealed, her on-screen alter ego died as a result of an opioid overdose, which is a detail that the show wasted little time in revealing.
When the episode, “Keep on Truckin,” began, what we were presented with was a family still dealing with the pain of loss, desperately trying to pick up the pieces while initially under the impression that Roseanne had died of a heart attack. But then, the autopsy ultimately reveals the real cause of death was that opioid overdose, which leads to the discovery that she had gotten pills from a friend, which in turn sends Dan (John Goodman) over the top, publicly attacking this woman as the killer of his wife — until it’s revealed that Roseanne had actually been hoarding pills, which are being discovered around the house. All of which leads to some pretty powerful moments in the episode itself.
Taking the stage at Paleyfest the same night the show aired, executive producer Tom Werner explained, “There are a lot of choices in television, but this is a show about a working-class family that is very identifiable to the audience. When we talked about what to do moving forward… if you’d seen the show in the last year, Roseanne Conner was struggling with a drug [addiction]. I think it was important that we all be respectful of Roseanne Conner and Roseanne Barr, but as we talked about it… what made the show work for us is, I think, we were touching on themes that were very relevant to our audience.
“I think there will be people talking about this and how it affects the family,” he adds. “It obviously touches on health care issues and the fact that Marcy Bellinger was sharing drugs with other people in the community. In part, it’s because we know prescription drugs are expensive… I think this was an honest and authentic way of dealing with Roseanne Conner. We’re doing a comedy, [but] this is a problem that affects tens of thousands of people, opioid addiction — 80,000 people died last year dealing with opioid addiction and overdose. We felt that this is something that could shine a light on that problem.”
Roseanne Barr responds to Roseanne Conner’s death.
One person not pleased with that particular light is Roseanne Barr herself, who, immediately after the episode aired, tweeted, “I AIN’T DEAD B—–S.” Which was followed by a joint statement from her and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach:
“While we wish the very best for the cast and production crew of The Conners,” it begins, “all of whom are deeply dedicated to their craft and were Roseanne’s cherished colleagues, we regret that ABC chose to cancel Roseanne by killing off the Roseanne Conner character. That it was done through an opioid overdose lent an unnecessary grim and morbid dimension to an otherwise happy family show.
“This was a choice the network did not have to make. Roseanne was the only show on television that directly addressed the deep divisions threatening the very fabric of our society. Specifically, the show promoted the message that love and respect for one another’s personhood should transcend differences in background and ideological discord. The show brought together characters of different political persuasions and ethnic backgrounds in one, unified family, a rarity in modern American entertainment. Above all else, the show celebrated a strong, matriarchal woman in a leading role, something we need more of in our country.
“Through humor and a universally relatable main character, the show represented a weekly teaching moment for our nation. Yet it is often following an inexcusable — but not unforgivable — mistake that we can discover the most important lesson of all: Forgiveness. After repeated and heartfelt apologies, the network was unwilling to look past a regrettable mistake, thereby denying the twin American values of both repentance and forgiveness. In a hyper-partisan climate, people will sometimes make the mistake of speaking with words that do not truly reflect who they are. However, it is the power of forgiveness that defines our humanity.
“Our society needs to heal on many levels. What better way for healing than a shared moment, once a week, where we could have all enjoyed a compelling storyline featuring a witty character — a woman — who America connected with, not in spite of her flaws, but because of them. The cancellation of Roseanne is an opportunity squandered due in equal parts to fear, hubris, and a refusal to forgive.”
The Ratings for The Conners
For anyone wondering about the viewership of the season premiere for The Conners, according to the Nielsen Ratings, the episode scored a 7.7/13 audience share. While this was reportedly down about 35 percent from the ratings of last season’s massively successful premiere of Roseanne, nobody expected those kinds of numbers. All in all, it was a solid debut, but the real question will be how much the audience will decline next week and in the weeks to follow. That will be the test of whether or not the show is a success beyond its 10-episode production order.