Why The Conners is my favorite sitcom today.
All television shows and networks in 2020 were forced to adapt to the global coronavirus pandemic. Jimmy Fallon hosted The Tonight Show from his Long Island residence, contestants from American Idol auditioned in front of their webcams, and newscasters all over the country learned how to light and frame their living rooms.
Sitcoms and dramas were the most affected. Big productions were postponed or, in some cases, cancelled even after being renewed early in the year. Filming and premiere schedules were altered for the foreseeable future.
Unsurprisingly to those of us who have been watching since the start, the show that has made it out alive and the most unscathed is The Conners, the reboot of a reboot of the ’90s sitcom Roseanne.
Roseanne was known to provide a realistic depiction of a working-class family in the Midwest, dealing with issues of everyday Americans that most sitcoms shied away from — financial burden, drug abuse, abortion, and racial prejudice, to name a few. Because the show dealt with a culture and economy that reflected the real world—but wasn’t often seen in the fictional world of TV — Roseanne did not have to change its premise much when it came back in 2018 with the original, now older cast. Instead, the show doubled down on its middle-class focus and stood out amongst the numerous other brightly-lit, cheery, goofball sitcoms that still get picked up every year. The first episode of the reboot, for example, dealt with Roseanne and her family’s political split, with the matriarch proudly voting for Donald Trump, while her sister Jackie walked into the house angrily wearing a pink pussy hat.
After the real-life Roseanne was fired from ABC for a racist tweet that went viral later that year, the show managed to adapt without her. The show was renamed The Conners, and Roseanne was written off the show, having died from an accidental opioid overdose— mimicking a reality plaguing many Americans today.
Though The Conners has dialed down on the divisive politics in the forefront of the Roseanne-led season, it still deals with a variety of real-world issues not typically taped in front of a live audience. One of the most frightening scenes in any sitcom of the past few years was in The Conners’ 2019 Thanksgiving episode, when Aunt Jackie and her niece Darlene get into a shouting match, leading to Jackie slapping Darlene in the face, immediately recoiling and terrified of what she had just done. A continuing story in the series features the eldest Conner daughter, Becky, struggling as a single mother raising her newborn baby, after the baby’s father was deported by ICE.
TThe Conners' 2020 season took on the unavoidable: COVID-19. Taped in an audience-less studio (the laugh track is still there though), the premiere episode, which aired in October 2020,, begins with John Goodman’s character Dan held up at the front door of his house by his grandson wearing a face mask, checking his temperature before he allows Dan to go inside. Meanwhile, Jackie is delivering meals on bicycle, since no one can dine inside her restaurant during the pandemic.
Synopses of the show’s episodes may seem like they’re filling out a current events bingo card, but with the sharp writing of the characters and the strong performances by the actors who portray them, the series continues to feel more real and genuine than any of its contemporaries. If shows like Everybody Loves Raymond or King of Queens were still around today, I’m not so sure the characters would be able to adapt to the new world of face masks, mass unemployment, or family health issues without looking pandering or silly. Any other multi-camera sitcom dealing with the coronavirus tends to look more like an SNL skit than something authentically topical. The way The Connors and Roseanne were developed, it would actually feel jarring to not see the pandemic mentioned in the show.
What makes The Conners especially genuine is the storyline of the pandemic added on top of the existing storylines in the show. Like all of us, the show’s writers and cast did not anticipate this world-changing experience when envisioning the next season. At the end of season 2, filming for which wrapped pre-pandemic, Dan had been failing to pay the mortgage on the house the family lives in, with the threat of eviction. A glimmer of hope came when Darlene and her boyfriend Ben offered to use the money they saved from their magazine business to move into their own apartment to help Dan catch up on his mortgage payments.
Fast forward to months into the pandemic. With record unemployment, Darlene and Ben lose advertisers for their magazine in droves. It prevents them from making any possible moves financially, and both Darlene and Becky are forced to get jobs at the local plastic factory where their mother and aunt once worked. Though the coronavirus has affected each character in the show, it does not feel as if the pandemic has taken over as the main character or exploded the storylines, instead adding relatable context to the character’s issues. Because of that, there is still a bit of escapism you can expect when watching a sitcom on a Wednesday night at 9 p.m.
One thing noticeably untouched throughout most of the season was the other major story of 2020: the movement for racial justice and against police brutality. In a show featuring a predominantly white cast that hasn't been afraid to tackle issues of prejudice, not addressing the resurgence of Black Lives Matter felt like a missed opportunity, let alone a shirked responsibility. It feels like an especially big disappointment considering the blatantly racist remarks tweeted by the former star of the show, which ultimately got her fired. The protests of summer 2020 were briefly addressed when Darlene’s daughter Harris faced a choice between keeping her job or joining “a protest.” Though I did appreciate the thought about the privilege of being able to have time to protest, it did not properly illustrate the amount of conversation and emotions that the Black Lives Matter protests brought about in American communities. (Also, Aunt Jackie was a cop in the earlier iteration of the show! There were plenty of chances to discuss defunding the police, right there!)
While the 2020 television zeitgeist consisted of fatigue-inducing Zoom-quality video shows or pre-pandemic archived series on streaming services, The Conners held up its promise of a refreshing quality of funniness to television again while continuing to keep its original grounded thesis in line. While imperfect in being a comprehensive time capsule of such a wayward year, The Conners was far more successful than any of its ilk at telling 2020 like it was. Did I mention that it’s actually funny?
So how will The Conners handle this year? Perhaps it may start to feel too on-the-nose to dedicate storylines to vaccine misinformation or Biden agendas, and instead focus on America’s attempt to get back to a normal way of life through the eyes of this family. I don't doubt that The Conners will find more American problems to deal with, as there is no drought in that department in 2021.
Season 4 ambitiously started with a live broadcast premiere episode (declaring at the start that the entire audience is masked and vaccinated), but the gimmick sacrificed the episode’s quality, with weird live interstitial interviews with real people that have the last name Conner, compromised set changes that broke the 4th wall, and filler recaps of where the characters left off last season.
I await to see where the direction of this season’s Conners goes when it is not a live broadcast, especially in this new phase of the pandemic and the ability of the show to uniquely write characters that can deal with modern society in their own way. Much like the questions I have about my own life in the coming months, I often wonder — what happens next for the Conners?