What does a television network do when the off-screen difficulties of the star of an eponymous sitcom reach the point where the actress has to be written out of the series?
Can TV audiences be expected to continue watching the show once she’s gone, and the focus shifts to the remaining members of the family?
No … I’m not talking about THAT star.
More than 30 years before the tumultuous departure of Roseanne Barr (and “Roseanne”), this same scenario played out in an NBC comedy called “Valerie.”
The star was Valerie Harper — best known for portraying Mary Tyler Moore’s sidekick Rhoda back when, if the star was large enough, the show was named after the performer and not the character.
Harper starred on the modestly successful “Valerie” for two seasons beginning in 1986 before behind-the-scenes battles over salary led NBC to take the only step possible for a family sitcom.
They killed Valerie (the character, not the actress) in a car crash and renamed the series “Valerie’s Family” … then “Valerie’s Family: The Hogans” … and ultimately “The Hogan Family.”
Actress Sandy Duncan was brought in as aunt and surrogate mother figure to the kids in the family and the show lasted until 1991 when it finally died … although not in a car crash.
What’s happening with the remnants of “Roseanne,” meanwhile, is more the result of a train wreck — Barr’s indefensible outburst (never mind Ambien, you couldn’t even blame “stupid pills” for that) which led to her ouster and the cancellation of the series — with producers and network executives rummaging through the rubble to see what, if anything, can be restored and resume running.
This leads to two rather obvious questions: Would it work? ... And would anyone watch?
There were gifted performers — Laurie Metcalf and John Goodman, primarily — in the ensemble behind Barr, but those characters always have been positioned as planets orbiting the star. They’ve spent much of the time — in both the show’s first run, and in this past season’s reboot — reacting to the Roseanne character.
Who becomes the focal point after Barr’s supernova?
Press reports indicate that Sara Gilbert’s rebellious daughter Darlene would become the new axis for such a re-imagined series. Gilbert, also an executive producer of the reboot, has been particularly outspoken in condemning Barr’s racist Twitter tirade — often commenting that the star’s actions tarnished the work that cast and crew had accomplished.
But Darlene is an apple that fell far from the tree that was the core of “Roseanne.” She’s a single parent with a wayward husband whose politics were an utter rejection of those of her mother — and, more importantly, her mother’s fanbase.
So, who exactly would watch “Roseanne’s Family” ... “Roseanne’s Family: The Conners” ... “The Conner Family” ... or even “Darlene”?
Let’s start with the obvious — not those who believe Roseanne Barr got a raw deal, whether they live in the heartland or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
What would be left for them? The Roseanne character represented their viewpoint, as the rest of the characters pushed back against the tide. Her abrasive arrogance resonated like a siren’s call for those who made the reboot a surprise smash in the ratings.
Also likely not to watch are those who held their noses politically and watched to see what is increasingly rare on TV these days — “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat” among the exceptions — a family sitcom that deals with an actual “family” and not the kind of workplace or age-group “families” that now dominate the genre.
These folks aren’t likely to tune in to watch a show that has the shadow of a missing eponymous elephant in the room — even should they bring in Sandy Duncan as a surrogate mother.
Carrion-eaters in the hindsight business have used this nuclear meltdown to climb their ever-present soapboxes to clamor that ABC should never have rebooted “Roseanne” in the first place — citing the star’s infamous Nazi baker photo and conspiracy-theory laden social-media posts alone as proof. There’s watching some TV shows as guilty pleasures, and then there’s being shamed into guilt for watching.
So, if fans of Roseanne (the star, not the character) won’t be in lock-step with a show without her, and the casual viewer who could enjoy Roseanne (the character, not the star) won’t be compelled to watch … who’s left?
Even those of us who vicariously enjoy a good pop culture train wreck every now and then won’t have reason to tune in — since that train left the station, and the tracks, before such a re-imagined show could emerge.
When Valerie Harper was replaced on her series, there were headlines — but nothing to the extent of the coverage today’s multi-pronged, 24/7 media have given to the wreckage and rust that remains of “Roseanne.”
The best thing for all involved would be to walk away while they can, take long showers, and convince themselves that this entire final chapter played out in the same manner as the final season of the original “Roseanne” … as a figment of someone’s imagination.
Mail Tribune senior designer Robert Galvin, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, still wonders what happened to Chuck Cunningham after he went upstairs ... never to return.