In a World of Sadcoms, ‘The Conners’ Is the Saddest
In the 2010s, culture writers identified and taxonomized a new kind of TV comedy: the sadcom. In Vulture, Jenny Jaffe cited BoJack Horseman (depressed former sitcom sitcom star happens to be an animated horse), and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (kidnap and sexual assault survivor tries to rebuild her life). The Guardian’s Rachel Aroesti mentioned Fleabag (absolute mess reckons with her responsibility in a friend’s death) and Transparent (the effect on a family when a member comes out as trans).
And the sadness hasn’t stopped ever since: Through Better Things and Back to Life, Atlanta and Bad Sisters, Catastrophe and You’re The Worst, and into our current moment with Barry and Beef, TV keeps serving us comedies that mostly make us feel bad. However, the sadcom discourse tends to overlook the saddest of them all. Before its Season Five finale airs tonight, we must ask: Has The Conners gotten too bleak?
To be fair, bleakness is in the show’s DNA. We first met its characters, in 1988, on Roseanne, the ABC sitcom based on the stand-up comedy of its titular star. At the time, TV’s most beloved sitcom families were wealthy. Parents had jobs like therapist (Growing Pains), TV journalist (Full House), lawyer and obstetrician (The Cosby Show), ad exec (Who’s The Boss?) and architect (Family Ties). Hell, the family on Mr. Belvedere even had a butler. Roseanne was different. The Conner family of Lanford, a distant Chicago suburb, was headed by drywall contractor Dan (John Goodman) and plastics factory worker Roseanne. Their employment was precarious. Bills got paid late, if at all. But Roseanne and Dan loved their three kids enough to teach them their native language: sarcasm.
And tragedy inspired some of their most enduring and hilarious moments.
Roseanne ended its run in 1997, a very specific cultural moment — mid-internet boom, pre-Clinton/Lewinsky scandal. And in 2017, a very different cultural moment, ABC announced plans to revive Roseanne. By that time, its star’s politics had evolved from vaguely left-leaning to eclectic. She evolved from participating in Pride marches and Occupy Wall Street protests to Trump partisan with QAnon adjacency. Hollywood was trying to understand Trump voters, and Roseanne had already made a lot of money for ABC (and presumably could again). It made sense, until it didn’t, and in May of 2018, after years of posting inflammatory tweets, Roseanne made one too racist to be excused, and she was summarily fired. Without Roseanne, Roseanne became The Conners, and premiered on the network that fall. The show was essentially the same, but producers killed Roseanne Conner, off-screen, of an opioid overdose.
This is a perfectly Roseanne way of addressing the scandal around the real Roseanne. It’s consistent with her character, who had been established as abusing pills in the first revival season, and it dramatized a real social issue. Every version of the show has drawn inspiration from the stresses working-class Americans faced. When a new boss at the factory imposes draconian production quotas and won’t hear reason, Roseanne, her sister and their colleagues, lacking a union, have no recourse but to quit in protest. What was once a solid middle-class job had been stripped of its security, and the jobs Roseanne has to take in the aftermath all pay worse. When she finally aces an interview for an office job, she loses out due to a lack of a college degree. Attempts at entrepreneurship — a motorcycle shop for Dan, a diner for Roseanne — also fizzle out.
The Conners doesn’t just carry on this tradition, it triples down on stories drawn from real-life headlines. Dan and Roseanne’s daughter Becky (Lecy Goransen) gets accidentally pregnant by an undocumented immigrant who gets deported after an ICE raid on the restaurant where he works. Their other daughter Darlene (Sara Gilbert) finds out her son Mark (Ames McNamara) is taking ADHD meds that weren’t prescribed to him so that he can keep his grades up. In 2020, the show even did an episode during the New Hampshire primary, live on each coast with real-time election results. The next season, Dan finds out the hard way that his bank is still foreclosing on delinquent mortgages at the height of the pandemic.
In other words, one of the show’s biggest strengths has always been its authenticity. But what has made The Conners feel so oppressive is that telling an authentic story about working-class Americans in 2023 is miserable. It was easier to believe, in the Clinton and even Bush I years of Roseanne’s heyday, that while Dan and Roseanne were struggling, their children might fulfill their hopes of social mobility. But in the 21st century, we’ve seen Darlene lose multiple writing jobs, including at publications that never even got the chance to launch. Becky and Darlene’s younger brother D.J. (Michael Fishman) has a good job, but keeping it has meant living away from his daughter (Jayden Rey). Becky is finally fulfilling her dream of a college degree, but being both a full-time waitress and a full-time student severely limits the time she can spend with her young daughter (Charlotte Sanchez). Dan himself is still working, pushing 70, and still in constant danger of losing the family home. Several of the Conner grandchildren who’ve resided there haven’t seen the federal minimum wage raised in their lifetime. Things are not trending up for people at the Conners’ economic level.
The show is so grim, in fact, that even the characters’ successes are depressing. Alcoholic Becky gets her life together after a rehab stint the family can barely afford. After her daughter Harris (Emma Kenney) decides against college because it would require taking out a usurious 20-year student loan, Darlene secures a tuition waiver for Mark at one of his safety schools by giving up a management job at a factory to work in the college cafeteria. In doing so, she rejects Dan’s advice that she stay in management so that she and her husband Ben (Jay R. Ferguson) can save money and maybe retire someday — a dream Dan has apparently given up on achieving for himself. Dan only convinces Jackie’s husband Neville (Nat Faxon) that it’s okay for family members to depend on each other by getting himself arrested on a false charge to spare Neville a DUI. Darlene is gifted a plus-one for a free trip to Hawaii when the old friend who booked it for herself dies of brain cancer.
These aren’t situations from which one generally expects comedy to be wrought on the set of a multicam sitcom with garish studio lighting and a live audience laughing loudly when they can, because mostly they can’t.
Roseanne’s (first) final season took a major left turn when the family won $108 million in a state lottery. When the revival launched in 2018, the events of that entire season (including Dan’s death) and some that preceded it (Jackie’s marriage and the births of her son Andy and Roseanne’s son Jerry) were hand-waved away, and rightly so: That plot turn wasn’t well-received, because Conners with fuck-you money aren’t really the Conners. But can’t something go right for them without a huge asterisk? Mark couldn’t have gotten the contrabassoon scholarship he was hoping for? If someone had to develop an addiction to the diner’s new lottery machine, did it have to be Becky? With everything else they have on their plates, did the writers also have to give Ben and Darlene bed death?
I’m so glad The Conners exists, because there really are no other shows like it on TV anymore — shows that care enough about working-class people to tell their stories honestly. I understand that the overarching story is one of downward mobility. But I’ve known and loved these characters for 35 years, and none of them is an emotional abuser or an assassin. Maybe once in a while they could notch an unmitigated win.