When one of television’s most iconic couches returns Oct. 16, it won’t be supporting the leading lady that popularized it.
As the countdown to the Roseanne Barr-less “The Conners” premiere continues, speculation about how Barr’s character will be written off remains rampant, with producers refusing to confirm whether Barr’s own revelation that her character is killed off from an opium overdose is true. (Barr was fired and the “Roseanne” revival was canceled in May following a racist tweet from the actress and producer; she relinquished all rights to the characters in order for “The Conners” to move forward.)
“We want people to watch the show and see what happens and how we [wrote Roseanne off],” says executive producer Bruce Rasmussen. “You don’t want to be flip about how you do this. A lot of people cared about that character and it’s separate from whatever feelings they had about the person and her political views and the things she said. We wanted to honor that character. People can have their opinions after that.”
“The Conners” was officially greenlit in June when series regulars John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, Sara Gilbert, Alicia Goranson and Michael Fishman inked new deals. The resurrection is touted as saving hundreds of below-the-line jobs, and so far has confirmed several guest stars including original series star Johnny Galecki, Juliette Lewis, Justin Long and Steve Zahn.
To dig into the challenges of reimagining a reboot, Variety caught up with Rasmussen and fellow executive producer Dave Caplan. Here, they discuss incoming storylines and tones, crafting this series without its matriarchal figurehead, and paying homage to the iconic images and characters from the past 30 years.
How political is “The Conners” compared to “Roseanne?”
Rasmussen: We are living in a time where people are very anxious and can’t afford to go to the doctor and all that other stuff. So we’re writing in the same way we wrote last year about the economic things. If some of those feel political, they’re political, but we’re not doing any more of the Trump stuff. It’s more about working-class people and how they live their lives. If that comes off as political in spots then that’s how people will perceive it.
Where does the inspiration for those storylines come from?
Caplan: The newspaper. The past lives of the characters. We’re really lucky to inherit characters that have long histories and as they continue to live their lives they face new challenges. In America 2018 there’s no shortage of challenges, especially when you’re living in a lower income bracket in America. It’s tough and there are a lot of challenges and there are a ton of stories there for us tell.
What were conversations with the cast like before forging ahead with the show?
Caplan: It was a huge vote of confidence to get all these actors back. These actors are in tremendous demand and they didn’t have to come back and do this. The fact that they wanted to and they knew they were going to be challenged by the scripts that we’re writing and they knew they wanted the legacy of the show to be what it deserves to be. It was a real blessing for us and I think it says a lot about what they think of the show.
Rasmussen: Very few shows have gone on after the lead character has left, so part of it was how do we make a show that works without that central character? It was a little surprising to me that it was as easy as it was to move forward without that character, but the other characters came to the fore more. We’re going to get more involved in the characters’ personal lives this year. It really is where are they at in their lives now and what does that mean and what are they going to be dealing with?
There have historically been shows that continued without their leads— did you look to any for inspiration or have any conversations with producers in a similar situation?
Rasmussen: When Dave and I and [showrunner] Bruce Helford were talking about this, we did think about “Valerie” and “The Hogan Family” and we just referenced that, but that was the only other one we could remember this happening to. We didn’t remember how they did it and we didn’t talk to anybody about how they did it.
Caplan: Historically, we went back and took a brief look at the far history of television, there were things like “The Danny Thomas Show” where they dealt with a major character leaving, but this was kind of unprecedented. We knew it would be, and that it might be difficult from a writing standpoint to do it honestly and not break the bond of honesty that we feel we have with our audiences. We felt that if it came off as artificial in any way it was just going to be a disaster. So we wanted to try and do it in the most emotionally honest way possible.
Beyond the premiere, what kind of lasting presence does the Roseanne character have in order to not feel disingenuous to audiences that are aware the mother figure is absent?
Caplan: What’s interesting about the absence of the Roseanne character is that these other characters have to step up and fill a void. It puts them through changes that are interesting for people that know these characters. And even if they’ve never watched the show before it’s still going to be fascinating to see how people adapt when something happens in their lives. Everyone has tragedies in their lives, or has someone they love leave them. And you have to adapt and you have to grow, and that’s what these characters are going to be going through in an interesting way.
Rasmussen: We do track the lack of the Roseanne character through multiple episodes.
Given the new ensemble feel, were there specific characters you were excited to take deeper dives with?
Rasmussen: All of them. What we did last year with Becky was a blast. To see that character, who was the perfect student and the smart one, sort of not have reached her potential and be dealing with drinking was fun. To see that character fall apart a bit and see her battle through things and deal with the loss of her husband and that stuff.
Caplan: One of the things that’s really interesting this year is we get to see the growth in Dan’s relationship with Mark [Ames McNamara], who is Darlene’s son. They have a really special connection that we actually feel between the actors on the stage, and it transfers over to the characters. There’s this multi-generational thing going on between them that is really magical. That’s just one of the relationships we think are really sparking this year.
Was there catharsis in delivering those kinds of episodes, given the emotion impact Barr’s firing had on the cast and crew?
Caplan: It was cathartic for everybody. There were a lot of people on the stage that were close to Roseanne Barr. And while nobody condoned what she said, there was history there of people that worked together for a long time. Doing these new episodes were a little bittersweet to begin with and now they’re morphing into a new normal that feels really good and positive.
Rasmussen: We felt a responsibility to the show, like the actors did, because we all loved the show and we didn’t want it to end with that moment. So to be able to come back and write more for these people and let them live a little bit longer was a real gift.
How do you balance the darker tragedy of this situation with the comedy of the series?
Rasmussen: From the beginning the show has been great at alternating really dark subjects with the comedy and that’s how these people have dealt with the adversity in their lives. They laugh at it. They make fun of it. So the first episode has both of those things and the audience responded really strongly to it. Because the show has a history of how it deals with things when they go sideways, it was just more of continuing that legacy.
What iconic images or moments continue to take root in “The Conners”?
Rasmussen: We’re doing a Halloween episode, which the show is known for.
Caplan: A lot of the iconic things that people were used to from the old show continue on to the new show. It’s the same family, it’s the same couch, with the same iconic throw on the back of it and so there’s an awful lot that will look familiar. It’s just people adapting to a new normal.
Was there pressure in creating a new opening sequence?
Caplan: The opening will be reflective of the new dynamic of the characters and we hope will still give people the same feeling of family and joy they have from the previous one.