ABC comedy “The Conners” found bright spots of humor in the darkness of the past year — confronting the impacts of COVID-19 head-on, from family finances to addiction, while balancing the show’s trademark authenticity with heart, hope and humor.
“We’re a show that’s sometimes brutally honest with our audience and they expect that,” says executive producer Dave Caplan. “We felt like we had to reflect what this family was going through with COVID just the same as the people [watching] at home. We know that the Conners’ struggles are our audience’s struggles.”
“The Conners” — which is ABC’s top-rated comedy this season — has always humorously explored the economic anxieties faced by family members, a thread that continued through the pandemic as Dan (John Goodman) had trouble paying the mortgage (family members helped him cover it), Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) took to delivering meals to keep the Lunch Box diner afloat, while Darlene (Sara Gilbert) and Ben (Jay R. Ferguson) were trying to start a business. Darlene ended up taking a job at Wellman Plastics, where her mother and Aunt Jackie worked in the early seasons of the original “Roseanne,” a situation that initially seemed dire but ultimately proved uplifting.
“While she was sort of bummed that she was doing what her mother had done, it led to a promotion for her — the first Conner ever to make it into lower management,” Caplan says. “So there were difficulties, but there were also some unforeseen benefits, because the Conners are really good at keeping their head down and falling forward and sometimes that works out.”
Star and executive producer Sara Gilbert, who plays Darlene Conner, says she was most proud of the storyline around income inequality that involved Darlene’s son, Mark (Ames McNamara), trying to get into a magnet school.
“Because of the pandemic, the inequities have been exacerbated, and we explored his struggle and also the guilt, pressure and anger I feel as his mom,” Gilbert says. “In light of what the world has gone through this year, I found it to be a very moving and timely episode.”
Executive producer Bruce Helford says it was important to show the Conners finding creative ways to manage in the new normal. With trick-or-treating canceled at Halloween, the Conners came up with the idea of having the youngest family members trick-or-treat at doors within the family’s house instead of going out into the neighborhood.
“We tried to show the sense of humor that would get you through these tough times,” Helford says. “But the pandemic affected every storyline we did in some way or another.”
That included Darlene being unable to move out to live with Ben because she needed to help Dan pay the mortgage on the family home, which led Ben’s mother (recurring guest star Candice Bergen) to confront Dan about his motivations for not selling the house.
“It is another example about how money affects everything for the Conners, like it does for most Americans,” Caplan says. “It affects relationships and hopes and dreams and pervades everything.”
Helford adds with a laugh: “I’m just such a TV junkie, I wanted to see Murphy Brown fight with Dan Conner. She was wonderful coming in and portraying a very different kind of character.”
Producers didn’t initially intend to give COVID-19 to any of the show’s characters, but as the pandemic dragged on, they felt it would be unrealistic for everyone to be spared. So they wrote an episode where Dan’s girlfriend, Louise (recurring guest star Katey Sagal), got sick.
“That was a huge story point for us,” Caplan says. “Dan immediately wanted to go take care of her [but] the family said, ‘You can’t do it, you can’t go,’” Caplan says. “When he went over to go take care of Louise, she wouldn’t let him in, and they had a lovely scene on opposite sides of a door.”
A timely story on trans workplace discrimination also featured prominently in “The Conners” during the 2020-21 season. Wellman Plastics manager Robin (recurring guest star Alexandra Billings) came out as transgender after Robin decided to quit over company-mandated drug testing.
A storyline the producers always intended to revisit — Becky’s struggles with drinking — became even more relevant during a period of isolation. Lecy Goranson, who portrays Becky, earned a Critics Choice Awards nomination for supporting actress in a comedy series this season.
“For us the clock was always ticking on this story,” says Caplan, noting that Becky stopped drinking cold turkey when she became pregnant. “People don’t just stop an addiction on a Tuesday; they struggle with it.”
Becky’s descent begins after a dinner with an old friend whose success causes Becky shame and regret about the path her life took. After endangering her baby’s life, Becky ultimately goes to rehab but still resists confronting her past choices until a breakthrough scene opposite Dan in a therapy session. Helford credits Caplan’s doctorate in media psychology with helping to craft the scene where the Conners come together to support Becky in rehab and Dan blames Becky’s late husband, Mark, for her failure to meet her potential.
“We always knew Dan didn’t like Mark, but we didn’t know the depths of it,” Helford says. “[Following the psychology] helped us navigate what really happens and what things would be triggered in Becky, and all of that came out with a gritty honesty. I don’t think many shows would have gone that deep.”
Caplan says what was eating at Becky wasn’t simple.
“She couldn’t figure out how to mourn Mark and blame him at the same time, and then she figures out that she had a part in giving up what she gave up to Mark,” Caplan says. “We take of leap of faith with our audience who we think is pretty smart and we say, ‘We’re not going to give you the simple, normal TV version of this resolve. We’re going to give you the complicated one.’”