In September, Roseanne Barr revealed her Roseanne character would die of an opioid overdose on The Conners, and so it was. Tuesday’s premiere episode—essentially the start of the 11th season of Roseanne, sans Roseanne—continued a narrative thread introduced last season regarding Roseanne’s dependency on pain meds due to a bum knee. Though her husband Dan (John Goodman) thought she’d abandoned the pills days after her surgery, it turned out she’d continued taking them. According to her sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) on Tuesday’s premiere, “She must have taken the pills right before bed, and with her health issues, it was enough to stop her breathing.”
Topical and relevant to the show’s plot, this method of killing off Roseanne was a logical, even easy, choice. After firing Barr in May after her racist tweet about Valerie Jarrett, a former senior adviser to Barack Obama, ABC had the choice of abandoning the revival of a classic ‘90s sitcom that had performed strongly or picking up the pieces and continuing the show without its creator, namesake, and narrative center. That the network chose the latter is not surprising because there was still money to be made and cultural clout to uphold. Throwing Roseanne overboard meant that the entire ship didn’t have to go down with her. In a statement that accompanied the announcement of The Conners in June, Barr said, “I agreed to the settlement in order that 200 jobs of beloved cast and crew could be saved, and I wish the best for everyone involved.”
It is nice that everyone involved doesn’t have to suffer the consequences of Barr’s bigotry, though given her history of racism and Islamophobia on Twitter alone, at least some who stand to continue to profit from this property had to know what they were getting into. They had effectively signed up to work with and for a ticking time bomb. And regardless of its logic, turning her character’s death into another teachable moment about the opioid crisis that is ravaging the U.S., was a way of turning the character into a victim of a system she had no control over. It was safe but also kind of gross—a little too respectful for someone so hateful. Yes, there is a difference between Barr the human and Roseanne the character, but given how much attention her racist tweet and subsequent firing took up, Barr’s bigotry will forever be tied to this show. It is as much a part of its legacy as anything the show has depicted. The premiere marked missed opportunity for catharsis in some kind of over-the-top death by fire or animal maiming, or even something that spoke to Barr’s own lack of impulse control and bigotry. Shit, they could have at least had her take too many Ambien and go out that way in a reference to her bullshit excuse for what she said about Jarrett. (Additionally, the scene in which the cause of Roseanne’s death was revealed was punctuated by a tonally askew joke from Becky, who found a bottle of opioids in Roseanne’s closet. After Dan confiscated the bottle of drugs Becky said, “That’s the only thing from mom’s closet that I wanted.” Because I guess a the end of the day, even if they killed your mother that you’re grieving for, we can all agree that drugs are still a lot of fun.)
As much as the premiere of The Conners focused on Roseanne (almost every scene involved a discussion of her death and/or moving on from it), it also seemed to want to sweep under the rug the real-life reasons for the predicament it has found itself in. It felt very...how do you say? White.
But, of course, playing to the center is good for business and this is a show predominantly about white people. And at least the death ticked off Barr, who released a statement after the premiere with her friend Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. “We regret that ABC chose to cancel Roseanne by killing off the Roseanne Conner character,” it read in part. “That it was done through an opioid overdose lent an unnecessary grim and morbid dimension to an otherwise happy family show.” Could have been grimmer and more morbid if you asked me.
As if to prove she’s learned nothing, Barr’s statement went on to gripe further about her firing:
Yet it is often following an inexcusable – but not unforgivable – mistake that we can discover the most important lesson of all: Forgiveness. After repeated and heartfelt apologies, the network was unwilling to look past a regrettable mistake, thereby denying the twin American values of both repentance and forgiveness. In a hyper-partisan climate, people will sometimes make the mistake of speaking with words that do not truly reflect who they are. However, it is the power of forgiveness that defines our humanity.
Blah blah blah. No one is entitled to a sitcom with their name on it!
The episode of The Conners also touched on Darlene’s 10-year-old son Mark’s crushes on boys in his class and Jackie’s quest to find the perfect spot in the kitchen to put the coffee machine. Its third segment concluded with the new credits, which made the episode, essentially, the longest show intro of all time (or at least one of them).
Now that all that’s out of the way, The Conners seemed to be saying, it’s time to move on. But given all that’s come before The Conners, can Roseanne Barr ever truly be out of its way?