ABC’s ‘The Conners’ is tackling the pandemic head-on

(Photo courtesy of Eric McCandless/ABC) John Goodman, left, Ames McNamara, Sara Gilbert, Lecy Goranson, Jay R. Ferguson, Laurie Metcalf and Katey Sagal star in "The Conners."

With television production ramping up again during the COVID-19 pandemic, some of TV’s popular series will return to distract viewers from the harsh reality of 2020 life.

“The Conners” won’t be one of them. Oh, the show is returning on Wednesday (8 p.m., ABC/Ch. 4) with its third-season premiere. But the sitcom won’t be avoiding the pandemic — it will be jumping right into the middle of it.

Patriarch Dan Conner (John Goodman) and his family — including Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), Darlene (Sara Gilbert), Becky (Lecy Goranson) and D.J. (Michael Fishman), as well as grandchildren, Darlene’s boyfriend Ben (Jay R. Ferguson) and Dan’s girlfriend Louise (Katey Sagal) — are quarantining at home, wearing masks and social distancing. And Dan is hoping that the bank won’t foreclose on the house in the midst of the pandemic.

“I know there are a lot of shows that probably aren’t going to be reflecting what’s really going on,” said showrunner Bruce Helford, “but we felt that it was an obligation to our viewers and to stay relevant and to show them what it’s like for a family that knows how to get through hard times but is thrown a curve like never before.”

“The Conners” has been enforcing “rigid protocols on the stage” for cast and crew since it resumed production. “And the way we’re reflecting life” in the scripts “is pretty close to the exact thing,” Helford said. “We’re being extremely, extremely careful with everyone’s health. We’ve never had to be in the business of keeping everybody healthy before, but we take it damn seriously.”

Metcalf admitted she was “nervous” about returning to the set, “But when I saw all the safety precautions that had been taken ... I felt much more comfortable. The weirdest part for me, I guess, was when we finally did tape a scene and finally dropped our masks, and that felt very naked.”

COVID considerations are part of the scriptwriting. “We keep everybody reasonably distanced,” said writer/executive producer Dave Caplan. “So scenes with an awful lot of extras really are off the table for now.”

(Photo courtesy of Eric McCandless/ABC) Danny Trejo and John Goodman in the Season 3 premiere of "The Conners."

And appearances by guest stars will be limited. In Wednesday’s season premiere, Danny Trejo appears as the Conners’ new neighbor, Tito — but he and Dan approach each other only briefly at arm’s length, with Tito on the porch and Dan inside the house.

And, while the previous 262 episodes of “Roseanne” and “The Conners” were all recorded in front of studio audiences, “We feel that the risks aren’t worth the benefits even if we’re testing people,” said Gilbert, who’s also an executive producer. “As an actor, I can ... feel like it affects my performance, but the producers swear it doesn’t. So you guys will have to judge.”

Life after Roseanne

“The Conners” is, of course, a continuation of “Roseanne,” which was revived in 2018 — 21 years after it ended its original nine-year run. The show returned to great ratings, but nearly foundered when its star, Utah native Roseanne Barr, unleashed a racist tweet and the network fired her.

(Adam Rose/ABC via AP) Roseanne Barr, left, and Laurie Metcalf appear in a scene from the comedy series "Roseanne." The comedy about the blue-collar Conner family and its brassy matriarch returned in March as a success for ABC and Roseanne Barr. The magic evaporated in May after Barr’s racist slam of Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. ABC called her tweet “abhorrent” and canceled the series.

But “The Conners” rose from the ashes of Barr’s self-immolation. The remaining characters returned, dealing with the aftermath of her prescription-drug induced death.

After two seasons, we don’t hear as much about Roseanne anymore.

“We’ve gotten away from it,” Goodman said. “I think Dan has accepted it. And while he’ll move on, she’ll always be a huge part of his life.”

It’s not like the show pretends Roseanne never existed. And, according to showrunner Helford, “There will still be occasional mentions” of her going forward.

“It doesn’t feel like it would be honest to move on completely,” said Caplan. “That’s just not the way it works in real life. She’s a part of Dan, she’s a part of this family.”

Clooney returns — sort of

When “Roseanne” premiered in 1988, 27-year-old George Clooney appeared in 11 episodes as Booker, Roseanne and Jackie’s boss at Wellman Plastics.

In Wednesday’s season premiere of “The Conners,” there’s news that the plant has just reopened. And, yes, a couple of family members are looking for work.

There’s also a 32-year-old clip of Metcalf and Clooney acting opposite each other in “Roseanne” — and Jackie’s comments are hilarious. Metcalf said that working with Clooney was “fantastic” and that, even back then, he became “infamous for being such a practical joker.”'

Pandemic or no pandemic, they’d love to have Clooney reprise his role. (Reportedly, he’s turned them down more than once.)

Gilbert said that both Clooney and Johnny Galecki (“Big Bang Theory”), who reprised his role as David in several episodes last season, are “welcome anytime they want,” Gilbert said. “If they call us and say we want to be there tomorrow, they’re welcome.”

However, there’s “nothing in the works” for either of them.

(Photo courtesy of Eric McCandless/ABC) John Goodman and Katey Sagal in the Season 3 premiere of "The Conners."

Dan’s future ex-girlfriend?

A major plotline in Season 2 of “The Conners” was the burgeoning romance between Dan and Louise. And she’s back in the Season 3 premiere.

But there’s a major question about how much we’ll see of her, given that Sagal has signed on to star in “Rebel” — an hourlong drama based on the life of Erin Brockovich — that’s slated to premiere on ABC sometime in 2021.

According to Gilbert, Sagal wants to remain a part of “The Conners” and producers plan to “keep her a part of the family … as her schedule permits.”