SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not seen the premiere episode of “The Conners,” which aired on Tuesday, Oct. 16 on ABC.
The Conners family returned to TV on Tuesday night without their matriarch, Roseanne.
Of course, art imitated life in the premiere episode of the reboot, which was the result of “Roseanne” being abruptly cancelled, following racially-charged remarks made earlier this year by Roseanne Barr.
“It was an emotional day for everybody,” Sara Gilbert said on Tuesday evening at the Paley Center’s annual Paley Fest in New York City, recalling the first day back on set without Barr. “We’ve been a cast for 30 years, so obviously if somebody is not there, we’re feeling it and it’s noticeable.”
The character, Roseanne Conner (Barr), was written off the series by dying from an accidental opioid overdose. For the cast, the loss of the character on-screen was therapeutic, as they were able to channel their feelings of losing Barr into their performances.
“What ended up happening is we wanted to make a really honest episode, and channel whatever we were feeling into the episode,” Gilbert explained. “I think every family, at some point, goes through losing their matriarch, so we got the chance to tell that story, and I think it aligned with some of the emotions we were feeling and we were able to put into the show.”
“I think our reaction in many ways was probably the reaction of many fans. We were heartbroken and devastated,” cast member Michael Fishman said, urging the audience to embrace the new direction of the show without Barr.
“I think fans of the show should know that we respect their commitment to it. We respect this legacy,” Fishman said. “And that we don’t forget our past or where we’ve been, but there are really new and exciting stories coming forward. This family is really complex…I think people are going to really like the direction that we take as we start to explore all of these new avenues and new relationships.”
The decision to kill off Roseanne by way of a drug overdose was not taken lightly. As the “Roseanne” franchise revolves around a working class family dealing with realistic real-life problems, the writers wanted to target hot topic issues like drug use, health care and the opioid epidemic, which results in tens of thousands of deaths per year in America.
“I think it was important that we all be respectful of Roseanne Conner and Roseanne Barr,” executive producer Tom Werner said. “Obviously we’re a comedy, but this is a problem that has affect tens of thousands of people…we felt this was something that could help shine a light on something, and what is wonderful about the show for me is that when it’s over, people have felt like the spent a half hour and it was worth their time. I think people will be talking about this…This was an honest and authentic way of dealing with Roseanne Conner.”
Sitting alongside Werner, Gilbert, Fishman, Lecy Goranson and newest cast member Maya Lynne Robinson, Goodman admitted, “I’m still angry,” but noted that he wants to embrace change and feels grateful for another chance at the franchise — although he did joke, “I never hope to use the word reboot again!”
“A lot of the motivation for this reboot was audience-directed,” Goodman said. “We just didn’t want to leave them hanging like that, after we had a taste of it last year. I’d like to think that maybe they’ll give us another chance.”
Goranson chimed in, “I hope that the audience can feel our strength of getting through what we went through, and giving it life and being strong and coming together. I hope that energy comes through.”