John Goodman as Dan, Sara Gilbert as Darlene. (ABC)
Earlier this year, when Roseanne Barr was forced to exit the revamped Roseanne after just one season, questions were raised about how ABC could even consider keeping the show going. How on Earth do you make Roseanne without Roseanne? We got our answer last week with the premiere episode of The Conners, in which the titular family is in the aftermath of dealing with Roseanne's sudden (off-screen) death. It took only three minutes for the audience and family to simultaneously find out what killed the matriarch: an overdose of prescription opiates.
On seeing the episode, real-life Roseanne quickly issued an objection. "We regret that ABC chose to cancel Roseanne by killing off the Roseanne Conner character," Barr's statement said. "That it was done through an opioid overdose lent an unnecessary grim and morbid dimension to an otherwise happy family show.”
The statement smacked of hypocrisy. The pain pill storyline was originally introduced in the rebooted season of Roseanne. At the time of that episode, Sara Gilbert (who plays Darlene) said in an interview: "I know it was really important for Roseanne to tackle the issue of opioids. She has always been in touch with issues that the country is facing and wanted to bring a voice to those, and bring humor to it as well."
Barr confirmed this on The View, after the Roseanne revamp courted controversy for portraying her as a Trump supporter. "I wanted to show an accurate depiction of our country," she said. In one episode, Roseanne tells her Hillary-supporting sister that she voted for Trump because: "He talked about jobs, Jackie. I mean, he shook things up. This might come as a complete shock to you, but we almost lost our house."
Since its 1988 inception, Roseanne has acted as an important representation of the struggles of certain working-class Americans. Barr was right in her initial stance that the same communities that ultimately swayed the vote in Trump's favor are the same communities that are shouldering the brunt of the opioid crisis. In losing her job, she seems to have lost sight of the whole point entirely.
The fact that The Conners picked up the opioid baton in its premiere is far braver than it is "grim." And honestly, it's long overdue. Since the opioid crisis turned into a national epidemic, practically the only prescription painkiller addiction we've seen on network television was Kevin's in This Is Us. His story was that of a wealthy, famous Hollywood actor who injured himself on a film set and spiraled into addiction as a result. It was an important conversation-starter, though not a particularly relatable one. Without The Conners (and yes, Roseanne), where else would we see an older white woman with a loving family struggling with this particular addiction? Frankly, little space is offered for it to be done at all.
Roseanne Conner's addiction resembles reality a lot more accurately than Kevin Pearson's. The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that: "The Midwestern region saw opioid overdoses increase 70 percent from July 2016 through September 2017"—40 percent more than the national average. And Scientific American lists "economic insecurity and poverty" as "a major risk factor for addiction... It is no coincidence that the collapse of the white middle class has been accompanied by a rise in all types of addictions, but especially addiction to opioids."
Roseanne was the perfect place to explore this, and so, consequently, is The Conners. In the premiere episode, Dan harkened back to previous Roseanne episodes, when he first found out the cause of death. "We knew she had a problem," he said. "She was only on pain pills for two days after the surgery, then it was just Ibuprofen." He went on: "It doesn't make any sense. I flushed all her pills." It is Becky that finds the deadly medication in her mom's closet, and the family are startled to find it has someone else's name on the label.
It's details like these that demonstrate The Conners' dedication to reflecting the realities of millions of Americans, just as Roseanne once did. The 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that 75 percent of opioid misuse starts with people using medication originally prescribed for others.
The Conners didn't stop there. Through allowing the woman who gave Roseanne the pills to offer her side of the story, the show offered an indictment of the US healthcare system on a broader scale. "Nobody can afford their meds," a remorseful Marcy tells Dan. "We all help each other... Roseanne called me... She said that she needed those pain pills to get back to work because you guys were running out of money... I never would have given them to her if I knew she had a problem. I know what it's like to have that problem."
By including this scene, The Conners succeeded in painting a vivid picture of what it's like to live paycheck-to-paycheck, without the luxury of insurance. It showed what happens when people self-medicate and mismanage what are supposed to be legal drugs. Most importantly, it explained just how America got itself an opioid crisis in the first place. A study published earlier this year, based on 2016 spending, found that, while the cost of American healthcare is nearly double that of other high-income countries, it has "the worst population health outcomes.” It was easy to get a sense of that in The Conners' first episode, in a matter of minutes.
In doing all this in one 22-minute episode, The Conners actually did Roseanne's original legacy proud. For Barr to miss the point so entirely isn't surprising exactly, but it is rather frustrating. In the end, it was obvious that Roseanne Conner's opioid-related death wasn't really what the real-life Roseanne was upset about. Rather, it was about being excluded from her own show because of her own mistakes. The end of her statement let slip what was really going on.
“After repeated and heartfelt apologies," Barr said, "the network was unwilling to look past a regrettable mistake, thereby denying the twin American values of both repentance and forgiveness. The cancellation of Roseanne is an opportunity squandered due in equal parts to fear, hubris, and a refusal to forgive.”
The opposite is true. The Conners didn't squander a minute of airtime. It transformed a much-anticipated plot necessity into something of national significance. It succeeded in painting a picture of just how hard it is for the poorest people in America to stay afloat. It succeeded in demonstrating the ordinariness of the opioid problem in 2018. And it even gave us one or two laughs.
Ultimately, the show managed to overshadow the specter of what Roseanne Barr has become. That might have been too much for her, but having a place to start these difficult conversations is what we as a nation need. In its first episode, The Conners promised to give us just that.