Scott D. Pierce: ‘Roseanne” without Utah-born Roseanne Barr turned out just fine

Sara Gilbert deserves a lot of the credit for the success of ‘The Conners.’

(Eric McCandless | ABC) Jay R. Ferguson and Sara Gilbert in "The Conners." The ABC sitcom, an offshoot of "Roseanne" without Roseanne Barr, is starting its sixth season on Feb. 7, 2024, with Gilbert as an executive producer.

Improbably, the biggest sitcom star ever born in Utah made a major comeback in 2018 — two decades after her show, “Roseanne,” went off the air and three decades after it premiered. The “Roseanne” revival was a critical and ratings success and, suddenly, Salt Lake City native Roseanne Barr was once again on top of the world.

For nine episodes, that is. And then Barr posted a racist tweet, “Roseanne” was canceled and it looked like the end for her fictional family.

(Greg Gayne | ABC via AP) Sara Gilbert, left, and Roseanne Barr in a scene from "Roseanne."

That is, until executive producer Sara Gilbert — who also starred as Roseanne’s daughter, Darlene — convinced ABC the show could go on without Barr. The Roseanne character was killed off, the other characters continued as “The Conners,” and the sitcom is about to enter its sixth season.

Perhaps most improbably of all, “The Conners” is good. Very good. Arguably as good as “Roseanne” ever was. Certainly better than the final seasons of the original, nine-season run (1988-97).

And, while Gilbert certainly deserves a lot of the credit for that, she attributed the show’s continued quality to the show’s writers and her fellow producers. “I think we just got so lucky” because they are “brilliant.”

“And, of course, the characters, originally created a million years ago,” she said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “Really solid, unique characters that tell relatable, working-class American stories.”

Obviously, things have changed for the characters since 1988, when Darlene were just 11. Now, Darlene is in her mid-40s, she’s the mother of two teenagers, and she recently married for the second time. Just when she finally landed a great job, she had to sacrifice it in order to put her son through college.

The Conners continue to struggle to make ends meet, which is still not the sort of storyline you see often on sitcoms. And the characters reflect a reality not often seen on TV.

“That’s the hope,” Gilbert said. “Even though so much of the country is living these circumstances, that’s not always the experience of people in Hollywood. And so that’s not always the stories they’re writing. Whereas our writers generally come from a working-class background, and really want to tell those stories.”

(Eric McCandless | ABC) Sara Gilbert as Darlene and John Goodman as Dan in "The Conners."

Sara is not Roseanne

Gilbert is at least sort of in the same position that Barr was during the original run of “Roseanne” — a position to exert her influence and her will on the production. But while Barr was a terror on what was a chaotic set, constantly battling with the show’s producers, Gilbert has taken a different path.

Yes, when she talks, people listen. ”I guess they have to, right?” she said.

But, Gilbert said, “I always try to treat everybody with respect and listen to what everybody thinks and feels. ... I guess maybe if you listen to people, they also listen to you. So I don’t think it’s necessarily being a producer or not being a producer. It’s just all being in it together and wanting the best possible outcome.”

And there’s plenty of evidence to back her up on that — not the least being that all of the cast members are signed to one-year contracts each season, “and everybody always comes back,” she said. “I think everybody wants to be here.”

(Disney) Top row: Ames McNamara as Mark, Lecy Goranson as Becky, Jay R. Ferguson as Ben, and Emma Kenney as Harris. Bottom row: Laurie Metcalf as Jackie, John Goodman as Dan and Sara Gilbert as Darlene.

A surreal experience

Gilbert, 49, was just 13 when “Roseanne” premiered in 1988. She played Darlene Connor in all 222 episodes of that series’ original run, then reprised that role when “Roseanne” was revived for nine episodes in 2018. She’s continued to play Darlene through five seasons and 93 episodes of “The Conners,” with Season 6 premiering Wednesday at 7 p.m. on ABC/Channel 4.

“I mean, it’s unbelievable. It’s just — it’s a very surreal experience. And something that I know almost no one gets to live,” Gilbert said. “So I’m very grateful that I’ve had this sort of bizarre turn of events where I get to do the same show 35 years later.”

And work with a lot of the same people.

“There’s the cast, of course, who I adore and who feel like family,” Gilbert said. “But then there are the people behind the scenes – people that I’ve also known for 35 years that you all aren’t seeing.”

Darlene lives inside of Sara

Gilbert acknowledged that it “sounds cheesy” to say this about her character, but “I feel like she lives inside of me.”

She recalled when John Goodman appeared with her on “The Talk” — CBS’s daytime show, which she developed, executive produced and co-hosted for nine years — and the two of them did “a little sketch” in character as Darlene and Dan Conner.

“I remember going back to my dressing room, and it brought me to tears,” she said. “I was just, like — oh, my God, I miss this. And I have to do this character again.

“And it seemed like the right time in America. And I also knew exactly where it lived in me. There’s sort of like a rhythm I can feel. There’s a good tightening that happens in my stomach.”

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