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Why The Conners' Take on the Pandemic Is Worth Celebrating

Other quarantine shows have focused on privileged people insulated from physical and economic danger. Not this one.
  • Sara Gilbert and Ames McNamara in a scene from "Keep on Truckin' Six Feet Apart," the Season 3 premiere of The Conners. (Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC)
    Sara Gilbert and Ames McNamara in a scene from "Keep on Truckin' Six Feet Apart," the Season 3 premiere of The Conners. (Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC)

    Americans had only been sheltering at home for a few weeks when, on April 10, the Food Network announced that it had engaged Amy Schumer to host a quarantine cooking show. At the time, I thought this was a horribly premature call on the network's part and a crazy career move for Schumer; there was still plenty of TV, and who would possibly want to watch a show the very existence of which reminded us of our unpleasant but temporary confinement? Well, the joke's on me: the show is charming, and was even nominated for an Emmy; on top of that, five months after its series premiere, it's still literally anyone's guess how long it'll be before it's safe to risk inhaling near someone who doesn't live with you. Schumer and the Food Network were pioneers who have been followed by dozens of home-shot reality shows; home-shot dramedies came next. Traditional TV series productions eventually returned to soundstages in the U.S. — with new COVID safety precautions in place — toward the end of the summer. The Conners was one of the first to return, and we're all lucky it has; while I watch a lot of shows that I hope never acknowledge the pandemic at all (The Bold Type, I am begging you, just pretend it never happened), The Conners is one I was actually eager to see address it, and the Season 3 premiere did not disappoint.

    See, when we left the Conners at the end of Season 2, they already weren't doing great — and that was pre-pandemic (for them, though not for their audience). Becky (Alicia Goranson) had impulsively decided to enter into a green card marriage with Emilio (Rene Rosado), father to her baby, so that even though he'd previously been deported to Mexico for being undocumented, he would be able to return to the U.S. legally after two years as her husband, and be in their daughter's life. Then Emilio even more impulsively decided not to wait out the two years, instead returning to Lanford immediately to hide out from ICE with his aunts. Dan (John Goodman) had reluctantly confided in his girlfriend Louise (Katey Sagal) that his bank was threatening to foreclose on his second mortgage if he didn't come up with $4000, and although Dan had intended to keep this secret from the kids, Louise told Darlene (Sara Gilbert), who in turn convinced her boyfriend Ben (Jay R. Ferguson) to bail Dan out with the money they'd planned to use to rent their own apartment -- money that Dan tproved too stubborn and proud to accept. Other shows close their seasons with cliffhangers like "Which great job offer will the protagonist accept?" or "Will the attractive young people smooch?" The Conners toys with the possibility that more than half a dozen people — including three minor children — will be forced from their home.

    As we rejoin the family in last night's Season 3 premiere, everyone is pretty much, to put it bluntly, fucked. Jobs that were moderately precarious before now require superhuman levels of hustle just to be barely viable. Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) and Becky are running a diner without diners; they can't pay anyone to deliver orders, so Jackie is doing it herself. Dan apparently still has drywall jobs to complete, although Jackie discovers when she drops off his lunch that he's laid off his whole crew because he needs the money for the mortgage (and, yes, his bank is still carrying out evictions in the middle of a pandemic); he's trying to do all the work himself, more than halfway through his sixties with a history of significant cardiac issues. Not even Ben and Darlene, the "knowledge workers," are safe: all their advertisers have pulled out, so the magazine they've been working on is going to fold, never having launched. It doesn't come up in the premiere, but presumably Louise the singer doesn't have a lot of gigs booked in the weeks and months ahead. (The show's producers seem not to be sure how the pandemic has affected Michael Fishman's D.J., judging by the fact that he's not in the episode at all.)

    In the cold open, Dan reads that Wellman Plastics, where Jackie and Roseanne (R.I.P.) worked in the first season of Roseanne, is reopening and hiring 200 people. "I remember visiting you guys at work and watching you robotically doing the same job over and over again and thinking, 'Wow, it must really suck to be an adult,'" comments Becky. "And it does!" Darlene notes that it'll be dangerous to work there, given how close together employees will have to stand on the line. But by the end of the episode, she's tearfully given up her dream of being a writer, and Jackie's had to lay Becky off from the restaurant, so they both find themselves in line to interview for the jobs their mother and aunt quit more than 30 years earlier. "We're supposed to do better than our parents," says Darlene. "We're not supposed to be going backwards. We're going to end up as immigrants on a ship back to Ireland." This "joke" has barely left her lips before she has an even more horrifying thought: "Oh my God, what if they don't hire us?"

    They do, and Becky and Darlene end up working side by side just like Roseanne and Jackie — now packing up purse-sized bottles that will eventully be filled with hand sanitizer, and briefly joking about Laverne and Shirley before realizing they're old enough to be those characters' mothers and bumming themselves out. It's the last of the many bummers that fill out this episode, though things could certainly be worse; Dan's belatedly relenting on the matter of accepting rent from the kids has saved the house (for now), and with Emilio in Lanford, Becky has child care for the baby while she goes to work at the factory. But one can easily predict the challenges the family will face this season as the pandemic continues and the government offers no support: Dan's one-sexagenarian-man drywall crew losing out on construction jobs; Jackie being forced to sign the diner on to a restaurant delivery app that takes an unconscionably high cut of her already tiny profits; Wellman failing to enforce proper COVID protections for employees and keeping them compliant with threats of workforce cuts, on which it will be able to follow through since it's not a union shop. And if someone in the family gets exposed to the virus at their frontline job... does anyone in that house still have health insurance?

    Other scripted shows set in the pandemic have largely sidestepped the economic crisis that has attended it by revolving, as most TV shows do, around characters who are rich (or, as they or their creators would likely describe them, "upper-middle-class" or simply "comfortable"). Freeform's Love in the Time of Corona includes a secondary character who lost his job and has moved back in with his parents; quarantining is no problem, though, since he can just stay in the guest house on their property. NBC's Connecting... at least acknowledges the reason for the lockdown is all the people who are dying by including Jazmin (Cassie Beck), a doctor in New York City, but the other characters' jobs, if they even work, don't come up in the pilot; we do, however, get to hear a lot about how Garrett (Keith Powell) and Michelle (Jill Knox) are "thriving" in lockdown, enthusing about making their own ramen and "urban homesteading."

    The anthology series Social Distance, on Netflix, impressed me with "And We Could All Together / Go Out on the Ocean," in which the brilliant Danielle Brooks plays Imani. A home aide to a disabled woman, Imani is forced to set up two nanny cams in her apartment so that she can keep an eye on her pre-tween daughter since she has no options for child care that won't risk potentially exposing her — and, thus, her client — to the virus. Other than that, though, the series mostly showcases characters who are economically privileged; no one's having a ton of fun, whether they're holding a funeral on Zoom or trying to explain to a young boy why he can't go see his sick mother when she's closed up in the same house with him... but the houses they're in are spacious and bright, and no one is at the door trying to evict them.

    It's easy to hand-wave economic pain if your starting point is a cast of characters in a secure setting with plentiful resources and options, but that is never what The Conners has been about. Though Roseanne lost the thread over the years (and, uh, that goes at least double for Roseanne herself), it arrived at the tail end of the Reagan years and offered a strong critique of where and whom his Revolution had failed. Watch this cold open, from a 1992 episode that reminds us that this year's foreclosure threat on The Conners isn't the first that Dan's been forced to deal with.

    Roseanne has such ferocity, such a clarity of purpose, such righteousness, and a completely reasonable and reasoned line of argument for this worthless politician. She doesn't necessarily expect to get any of the things she's demanding, but she knows they're what Lanford needs for its residents to live lives of any kind of dignity. Flash forward 28 years: her daughters are in line to beg for the jobs she and Jackie and all their colleagues triumphantly quit in protest of a tyrannical new boss enforcing brutal new production quotas; when Darlene cries that she and Becky are supposed to be doing better than their parents, she seems to be blaming herself for the fact that they haven't, not the economic system that has been rigged against them even worse than it was rigged against Dan and Roseanne. As the season goes on, I hope Darlene will find some of her mother's fire and aim that anger at targets that deserve it (by which I mean I hope producers will speak to the mood of the moment and let it radicalize their characters).

    One more note about the old clip above: Mark Blum, who plays State Rep. Mike Summers, died of COVID in March.

    Other than Superstore, no scripted show that takes place outside of a hospital is better suited to dramatize the anxiety, uncertainty, and absurdity of the pandemic, when workers who can't do their jobs from home are being hailed as "heroes" while being denied hazard pay; when doctors and nurses aren't being supplied PPE but for a while did, in some cities, get a nightly applause break. As shows return, I know more and more of them are going to try to tackle this subject, whether they have a good reason to do it or not. The Conners has lots of good reasons, and it had to explore them. It's important for at least one corner of scripted TV portray what pandemic life is like for people who don't get to spend it "urban homesteading," and who barely even have the leisure time to be mad about it. Hard as it is to watch the family suffer this on top of all the struggles we've already seen them go through in the 30-plus years we've known and loved them, I'm glad the show is here to tell this story.

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    Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.

    TOPICS: The Conners, ABC, Food Network, Amy Schumer Learns to Cook, Connecting, Love in the Time of Corona, Roseanne, Social Distance, Amy Schumer, Danielle Brooks, Jay R. Ferguson, Jill Knox, John Goodman, Katey Sagal, Keith Powell, Laurie Metcalf, Lecy Goranson, Michael Fishman, Rene Rosado, Roseanne Barr, Sara Gilbert