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The ‘Roseanne’ Spinoff Can’t Escape Roseanne (Column)

It’s official: ABC has decided to continue telling the story of the Conner family, even though the network is trying desperately to wash its hands of Roseanne Barr. The move saves hundreds of jobs and gives the cast and crew another chance to tell the stories that ABC and the huge “Roseanne” audience say they want more of. It’s unclear now just how “The Conners” will excommunicate its former star, who was still the lynchpin of the entire series despite Sara Gilbert’s Darlene getting a more central role. But one thing seems for certain: it will be near impossible for the spinoff to ever truly spin itself out of Roseanne’s shadow.

In fact, that was already the case for the “Roseanne” revival from the second it was first announced. On the one hand, it made sense given the recent groundswell of revivals. On the other hand, its star had spent the years since the show first ended descending into a black hole of political conspiracy theories and racist rants. ABC knew this, and decided it didn’t care as long as the new “Roseanne” could bring in a reliable audience like the old “Roseanne” — a gamble that, at least at first, paid off. But the show never truly stood on its own. Every episode inspired new controversies and new questions about the viability of doing business with someone as volatile as Barr. Though some stories were self-contained, many others winked at the dissonance between the fictional show and the ever-pressing realities surrounding it.

Watching the “Roseanne” revival wasn’t like watching any other sitcom on TV, and not because it was the only show that dared speak to political fractions and the working class. (There are, even on ABC itself, so many others doing the same.) Watching the “Roseanne” revival meant thinking about the place of “Roseanne” and complications of elevating a figure like Barr in the world at large. The show was, despite its cast and crew’s insistence otherwise, just as much about its extratextual implications as anything happening onscreen. And for a while, that worked to its advantage. Being such a huge part of the zeitgeist is a significant leg up when the zeitgeist gets as crowded as it does now, with more TV to choose from than ever before. But quickly enough, the very reason why “Roseanne” was such an unavoidable topic of discussion — Barr herself — was the reason why it folded in on itself.

I can’t lie: a part of me is fascinated to see how “The Conners” will try to distance itself from this mess while trying to keep its audience in tact. (Plus, the fact that it’s keeping Gilbert, John Goodman, and Laurie Metcalf around means it won’t be unwatchable, at the very least.) The most obvious answer is that it might kill Roseanne off, possibly in a self-aware wink to the fact that its original finale killed her husband, Dan (Goodman), off. Perhaps it will just send her away, exiling the character in narrative purgatory to let the others go on without her.

But no matter how the new show sees fit to say goodbye to the woman who started and ended it all — and given how much the franchise has depended on her as both a creative voice and lightning rod figurehead — it seems unlikely that she won’t come back to haunt it.

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