It was a year ago last week that ABC swiftly canceled its hugely successful “Roseanne” reboot, following racist comments on Twitter by star Roseanne Barr. Out of the ashes came “The Conners,” which has been renewed for a second season after strong reviews and solid ratings.
A year later, the decision to keep going made sense. But star and executive producer Sara Gilbert admits she and the rest of the show’s cast and producers weren’t so sure it was a good idea at first, after those shocking turn of events.
“We were all scared,” Gilbert told Variety‘s “My Favorite Episode” podcast. “It was definitely a risk to come back. And we didn’t know how it was going to go. We didn’t know how the reviews were going to go.”
Then came the positive reviews for the first episode, which revealed the death of Roseanne Conner. From there, the show moved on. “We just thought, ‘wow,’ we pulled it off somehow. … It wasn’t an easy decision to make on any level. I think a lot of the cast had a little tug of war in their mind.”
Gilbert said filming this season of “The Conners” was cathartic after having brought back “Roseanne” — only to see it go away again. “We got to get out all of our feelings and our grief … through the season,” she added.
Asked to choose he favorite episode of TV ever, Gilbert identified the hourlong very special “Family Ties” episode from Season 5, “A, My Name Is Alex.”
Gilbert remembers the episode’s lasting impact on her. Coincidentally, “The Conners” showrunner Bruce Helford was working on “Family Ties” that season, and the two have discussed that very episode — and how they might try something similar now.
“It would be great this year to have some influence of that,” she said. “Our show’s not that far from that tone. … I’m going to be vague, but yeah, but something where it’s like loosely inspired. You’ll get to see possibly like people’s inner life in a certain way.”
We sat down with Gilbert to discuss that “Family Ties” episode, as well as the tough transition from “Roseanne” to “The Conners,” and also her decision to leave her CBS daytime show “The Talk.” But first, we discussed the brand new news that she and veteran producer Tom Werner are forming their own production company called Sara + Tom. Listen below!
“A, My Name Is Alex” was written by “Family Ties” creator Gary David Goldberg and Alan Uger, and directed by Will MacKenzie. The episode first aired on March 12, 1987.
In the episode, Alex’s friend Greg is killed in a car accident, leading to Alex’s survivor’s guilt that he was supposed to be in that car as well. Eventually he sees a therapist, and the episode morphs into a stage play as Alex (Michael J. Fox) recounts his life and the people in it.
The two-part episode was heavily promoted at the time and won the 1987 Emmy for writing in a comedy series. It’s still remembered today for breaking the sitcom form.
“I remembered it being so poignant,” Gilbert said. “Here was a family sitcom that took the death of a friend of one of the lead characters and turned it into an episode where he psychologically explores himself. And whether there’s a God, and his guilt over surviving and who he is as a human being, and if he’s selfish. I mean, all these questions that you would say, ‘We can’t do that on a sitcom. We can’t do that in a comedy.’ And the way they break the form, it turns into a play.”
Gilbert notes that “The Conners” is similarly looking to balance comedy with dramatic elements — and doing so even more than “Roseanne” did back in the day. “You want to honor the original show, and then keep up with the times to some degree,” she said. “We just naturally want to go deeper. We’ve been making less episodes, which has allowed us to make the show more serialized and have these really complete arcs. So I think we’ll try to do that again, even though it’s a bigger order [next season].”
“My Favorite Episode” spoke to Gilbert right after she announced Sara + Tom, her new production company with Werner, the former Carsey-Werner principal whose company was behind “Roseanne.”
“[It started] with me coming to him originally wanting to reboot ‘Roseanne’ and then moving on together to ‘The Conners,’ and other ideas started coming up,” she said. “It’s almost like the choice was made for us. We work so well together and have such great chemistry, so it just felt like a natural extension of what we were already doing.”
As for her decision to depart “The Talk,” which she created nearly a decade ago, Gilbert said it was time — given her busy schedule. Besides “The Conners” and her new production company, she also appears on Netflix’s “Atypical.”
“Something had to give,” she said. “And I’ve been lucky enough to do the talk show for nine years. And so that felt like the right move is, ‘OK, I’ve done that. And I’ve fully explored it.’ And now it’s time to do other creative ventures.”
Gilbert said she won’t miss having to discuss her life on TV anymore. “There is some relief and thinking like, ‘Wow, if I go through anything in my personal life now, I don’t have to talk about it,'” she said. “That’s a been a stretch for me, because I’ve never been a very public person. I think I put myself on the show to try to push the boundaries like that and grow spiritually and psychologically, but I’m okay with letting that piece of it go.”
Variety’s “My Favorite Episode With Michael Schneider” is where stars and producers gather to discuss their favorite TV episodes ever — from classic sitcoms to modern-day dramas — as well as pick a favorite episode from their own series. On “My Favorite Episode,” some of the biggest names in TV share their creative inspirations — and how those episodes influenced them.