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'The Conners' Confronts Coronavirus
October 21, 2020  | By Mike Hughes

When we last saw the Conner family, their lives were in a familiar state of tatters.

Dan's drywall business was stumbling, and his home was near foreclosure. One daughter (Darlene) struggled to start a local magazine; another (Becky) was tried to cope with belated motherhood.

Could anything else go wrong? Definitely. "The characters were built for disaster," producer-writer Bruce Helford said in a virtual session with the Television Critics Association (TCA).

The Conners season-finale aired in May but was taped before the virus shutdown. Now the show is back, at 9 p.m. ET, Wednesdays; its return (Oct. 21) makes ABC the first network this season with a first-run night of situation comedies.

And yes, the pandemic is instantly reflected. As Helford put it: "A family that knows how to get through hard times…is thrown a curve like never before."

Dan (John Goodman) has three children and four grandchildren, plus his late wife's sister (Laurie Metcalf), his girlfriend (Katey Sagal), his daughter's boyfriend (Jay R. Ferguson), and more. This little house is often stuffed, and he's had trouble paying for it.

Viewers met these people 32 years ago as the scope of TV comedies suddenly broadened.

That was a post-Bunker era when sitcoms were filled with white-collar comfort. The most popular one, The Cosby Show, centered on a doctor married to a lawyer.

Then Roseanne (as it was called back then) arrived in 1988. Roseanne Barr starred as Dan's wife, working with her sister Jackie at Wellman Plastics, where their boss was George Clooney. "Working with George was fantastic…. He's infamous for being such a practical joker," Metcalf said.

Viewers embraced it instantly. In its first year, Roseanne was second only to Cosby in the Nielsen ratings; the next year, it tied Cosby for No. 1. It spent four more years in the top-four and two more at No. 10 and 16. After ratings fell the next season, it ended its nine-year run.

Two decades later, ABC timidly approved a reboot, for eight late-season episodes. Ratings were huge, so the show was given a key spot in the fall line-up then was dropped after Barr's tweet drew disdain.

Sara Gilbert (who plays Darlene) led the charge to keep the show alive. It returned with Dan widowed.

Goodman, 68, describes him as a guy who's "pretty much where I'm at – broken-down, a shell of my former self, and on my knees, begging for mercy from God."

And wishing he could get mercy from the bank. The third-season opener flashes the money problems and brings key job changes. As usual, it finds a fair amount of humor and hope.

The second episode, Helford said, will be keyed to its Oct. 28 date. It "discusses Halloween because Halloween won't be the same this year," and the spooky holiday was always a Conner favorite.

It also addresses "the polarization of America."

The show has always been like that, willing to turn serious suddenly. One episode, Gilbert said, "deals with toxic work environment."

Chances are, it will be funny, and the Conners will survive.

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