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How ‘The Conners’ deals with the absent Roseanne — and why it’s worth having the show go on

Spoiler alert: This post discusses specific plot points of the Tuesday, Oct. 16, premiere of ABC's "The Conners."

Lecy Goranson (left),  Laurie Metcalf, and Sara Gilbert in a scene from "The Conners"
Lecy Goranson (left), Laurie Metcalf, and Sara Gilbert in a scene from "The Conners"Read moreEric McCandless/ABC

Spoiler alert: This post discusses specific plot points of the Tuesday, Oct. 16, premiere of ABC's The Conners.

Turns out Roseanne Barr was right when she told a YouTube interviewer that her character from Roseanne dying of an opioid overdose would be the backstory for ABC's spin-off The Conners.

Where Barr was wrong was in suggesting it was done to "cruelly insult the people who loved that family and that show." She helped lay the groundwork for this story, after all, in last season's revival of Roseanne, and even if this ending isn't what she had in mind, telling it this way might do some good.

It certainly did ABC some good: Though ratings for the spin-off's premiere didn't come close to the estimated more than 18 million viewers who tuned in last March for the return of Roseanne, the post-Barr sitcom attracted an estimated 10.5 million viewers, the network said Wednesday, and was the evening's No. 1 show among the 18- to 49-year-olds advertisers target. It was also the most-watched new series debut since last year's premiere of ABC's The Good Doctor.

How many of those 10.5 million were there just to see how they'd kill off Roseanne Conner remains to be seen. (Will you tune in next week?)

As viewers learned Tuesday in the premiere of The Conners, which opens three weeks after the character's death, Roseanne did not, as her family  had assumed, succumb in her bed to a heart attack. Instead, an autopsy revealed she'd died of a drug overdose.

For people who at least at some point loved Roseanne — count me among them — this is a sad ending for a character who made millions laugh. And, no, I don't think the writers' choice has anything to do with Barr's politics or with the racist tweet that got her hit show canceled last spring.

We're talking about someone who saw herself  as a truth-teller. And the truth is that Roseanne Conner, whose increasing use of pills to deal with knee pain she couldn't initially afford to have fixed was a plot point in last season's revival of Roseanne, very well might have been unable to easily kick that habit after surgery.

>>READ MORE: Can Wednesday's 'Nova' on 'Addiction' change the way we see it?

"It doesn't make any sense. I got her knees fixed. I flushed all her pills," her husband, Dan (John Goodman), says after learning the autopsy results. He's angry when he learns that Becky (Lecy Goranson) has found some pills Roseanne had stashed in a bottle bearing the name Marcy Bellinger, whose pills he'd first discovered her with in an episode last spring.

He's still angry when Marcy (guest star Mary Steenburgen) shows up to complain about the sign on his truck that blames her for his wife's death. He's unmoved by Marcy's explanation that a group had been sharing pills to help one another afford medication, and that Roseanne had come to her, complaining that her knee wasn't healing fast enough and that she needed pain pills so she could get back to work, because, she said, she and Dan were strapped. But then Darlene (Sara Gilbert) tells her father she's found another stash of pills, and that "it's not just Marcy."

I'm not crazy about TV's  habit of killing off mothers, but if The Conners was going to do it anyway, why not have Roseanne's death send a message?

More than 200,000 people died of overdoses involving prescription opioids between 1999 and 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reports that the number of those deaths was five times higher in 2016 than in 1999. The risks of using drugs like hydrocodone, oxycodone, codeine, and morphine include "misuse, addiction, overuse, and death, especially with long-term use," says the CDC.

So applying that last risk to Roseanne isn't a stretch.

There's nothing funny about any of this, of course, but what I've seen  so far of The Conners — including next week's episode — suggests the family Roseanne leaves behind is still the family she made.

As Becky said in Tuesday's premiere, "I'm tired of crying. And laughing inappropriately is what Mom taught us to do." I happen to believe laughter is sometimes an appropriate response to overwhelming grief.  But then, I come from that kind of family.

It doesn't hurt The Conners, either, that many of the cast members who are continuing with the story of this Lanford, Ill., family — particularly Goodman, Gilbert, and Laurie Metcalf — are strong actors, some stronger, honestly, than Barr, whose vision may have been largely responsible for Roseanne's success, but who never got over cackling the loudest at her own jokes.

Sure, it's hard to see Dan trying to figure out his place in a bed without Roseanne, because I always loved them as a couple, particularly in that spot, where they had so long been a reminder that middle-aged people with middle-aged bodies still have sex.

But Goodman is terrific as a man who's also trying to figure out his place in a family that now has a gaping hole in it. Metcalf's Jackie, rearranging the kitchen for better "flow," is comically sad. Gilbert's life as a sardonic single mother of two could be a show in itself.

So as long as The Conners doesn't try to pretend that the hole doesn't exist — or that moving a few things around will somehow disguise it — it's worth sticking around for a bit to see if there's life, and comedy, after Roseanne.