The Real Story Inside the Roseanne Blowup: The Cast of The Conners Speaks Out
Sara Gilbert, John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf open up about their new show after Roseanne's abrupt cancellation
They’ve sat together and laughed around this timeworn kitchen table on the Warner Bros. set in Burbank countless times over the past 30 years. But today Sara Gilbert, John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf are understandably apprehensive. It’s the first time they’ve spoken collectively since the reboot of their hit show Roseanne was abruptly canceled by ABC in May after its star Roseanne Barr tweeted a racist statement about former White House adviser Valerie Jarrett.
Despite being known for frequently controversial behavior, Barr encountered a swift condemnation from many corners, including from Gilbert, who soon took to Twitter as well. “Roseanne’s recent comments about Valerie Jarrett, and so much more, are abhorrent,” she tweeted. “I am disappointed in her actions to say the least.” Now Gilbert, Goodman and Metcalf, though justifiably wary of engaging in a discussion about Barr herself, are feeling something besides shock or disappointment, something closer to relief: gratitude. All three are appreciative that the aftermath of last spring’s outrage has yielded a spinoff, The Conners, and they are also grateful to the former matriarch for allowing the new show to proceed. Notably absent from The Conners is Barr; ABC has said she agreed to have no creative or financial ties to the show, which was crucial for the spinoff to move ahead. “That was a very big deal,” says Goodman. “To give us a chance.” And while each star is still adjusting to the loss of a family member—both on and off-set—they’ve found strength in their deeply rooted love for the series. “There was the feeling of not wanting it to go away until we were ready,” Goodman adds. “There was a debt owed to this fictional family. We’ll figure out how to get through this, the family will, everybody will. We want to finish telling this story.”
Stepping back onto the set last year for the show’s critically acclaimed 10th season was a surreal experience for everyone involved. From the shabby furniture to the cluttered decor of the midwestern family’s working-class home, the replicated minutiae of the house “was bizarre,” says Goodman, 66. “Everything was the same.” Although Barr’s volatility was long demonstrated, revisiting their characters—blue-collar father-of-three Dan, his daughter Darlene and his sister-in-law Jackie—from the hit show, which first ran from 1988 to 1997, was an easy decision for all of them. “I jumped in right away,” says Metcalf. “I had always hoped for maybe a one-show reunion, just to get everybody back in the room again and also remembering what a great working energy we had, all of us together.” Gilbert, 43, who began working on the series when she was 13, also opted to return as a producer for the revival. “I had a very strong desire to protect the show,” she says. “That’s why I wanted to produce it, because I felt like I could be some kind of gatekeeper, hopefully, for having integrity in terms of how it matched up to the original.” From day one “it felt so right,” Goodman adds. “Everybody was extremely grateful to be back, and anything that feels that good is bound to affect somebody.” With stellar ratings during its mid-season premiere, the limited series was immediately picked up and then renewed for another season. “It’s the kind of history that you really can’t buy in an ensemble, because we really have lived it,” Metcalf, 63, says of the reboot’s success. “I was just awash with sentimentality and more appreciative of it,” adds Goodman. “It was a great feeling.”
Then, on May 28, replying to a tweet about Valerie Jarrett, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, Barr made a racist comment (which has since been deleted). The next day the fallout was immediate, with ABC denouncing Barr’s “repugnant” statement as “inconsistent with our values” and canceling the show. “I remember I was in my kitchen, and maybe my daughter or my wife told me,” Goodman recalls of first hearing about the tweet. “It just didn’t seem true. Then it got true. I was consciously trying to accept it. Just like, ‘Okay, this is happening, just breathe and go with it.’ Underneath I’m trying to get out of a plastic bag that is closing in on me, but I’m trying to be calm on the surface. I remember that contradiction.” Gilbert took the same approach when it came to processing the news. “I don’t remember too much,” she says. “It was more just, ‘Okay, what are we dealing with today?’ I was just kind of taking things one step at a time as they came.” In New York City, where she was performing Three Tall Women on Broadway, Metcalf “was home, and I saw it on the news, actually,” she recalls. “And I [first] thought, ‘Oh, I wonder if we still have a show.’ Because of how heavy everything became.”
In the weeks following the cancellation, each of them grappled with the now-tainted quintessential comeback story. Goodman tried to focus on “the hope of resurrecting it,” he says. “It was so unbelievable to do this show, and it was like easy come, easy go. I had a bad time for about a month. And then other things started going wrong. I fell down the steps and broke a rib. My wife got sick—just all kinds of weird stuff happened at one time. But I just had a feeling that it would work out.” Initially Metcalf wasn’t as confident. “I was trying to reconcile myself to the show being gone,” she says. “Because I wasn’t in the loop of any other possibility except it being gone. So I was trying to be resigned to that. And you know, coming off such a high, it was hard to wrap our heads around.” Compartmentalizing seemed to work best for Gilbert. “It was more just, today we’re dealing with what happened and the cancellation, and then it was the network pretty shortly thereafter started to talk to us about what could come next,” she says. “You know, after the dust settled. I tried not to think too much about anything other than what I was dealing with at each step.” The idea of a spinoff without Barr was both appealing and worrisome for the cast, and as a producer, Gilbert insists there were “a lot of moving pieces” before it could even possibly move forward. “There was a lot of risk involved,” says Metcalf. “But we all decided as a group to take the risk, knowing that we could be judged by deciding to come back.” In the end the biggest appeal was “the fact that we’re all together again,” says Goodman. “And supporting each other—that’s a very strong feeling among us. We’re leaning on each other when we do this show. It’s different, but we can create something new from it. Let us finish the story on our own terms. Come along with us and see how we do.”
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When shooting for the spinoff began in August, the cast searched for the best way to embrace their new world without Barr. “It was awkward but not awkward,” says Metcalf. “It was right but not right, wrong but not wrong. We were sort of looking at each other like, ‘How do you feel? How is everybody?’ Checking in.” The show, which will reportedly kill off Barr’s character, depicts the Conners adjusting and moving on together. It was a parallel that wasn’t lost on the actors. “Sara and I had this scene in the first show where we addressed the grief,” Metcalf recalls. “Sometimes when you’re an actor and you have to go to that place, you substitute something, but in this case there was no need to do that, because it was there. And it was real. And still makes me choke up, because that part of it’s been really hard.” All three felt strongly that they owed it to the show’s fans to allow them to process the absence of Barr’s character as well and were grateful to the writers for managing to do it with laughter. “Any sadness that we feel over what we’ve lost we’re hopefully channeling in an honest way into the show,” says Gilbert. “And our show has always been able to deal with heavy topics, particularly for a sitcom. It’s been kind of built into the mix.” While none of them have spoken with Barr since her tweet (both Gilbert and Metcalf say they have reached out but haven’t heard back), the comedian remained in the news for much of the summer (see box) even as her colleagues focused on getting back to work.
Now when The Conners premieres on Oct. 16, viewers will find the Lanford, Ill., family dealing with loss in a manner befitting the original series. “We have to react to what’s missing, but everything else is pretty much the same,” Goodman says. For future story lines, Metcalf would love to see Jackie “at work” in her new profession as a life coach, and Gilbert hopes to delve more into newly divorced Darlene’s dating life. Dan, as always, says Goodman, “just wants to be left alone.” More than anything, the three of them are hopeful fans “can tell that we’re presenting this in as heartfelt a way as we can,” says Metcalf. They all nod in unison around the table and smile. “I hope they feel they’re on this journey with us,” adds Gilbert. “And we don’t want to let them down.”