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The Show Must Go On - Sara Gilbert Takes The Lead On Her Series' Rebirth, "The Conners"

Posted By Chris Green, Tuesday, December 11, 2018
It’s a truism by this point that every successful project follows its own unique path to the screen. But even if you’ve been working in and observing the TV business for a while, the unlikely journey of The Conners can bring you up short. Here we have the reboot of a No. 1 network series that was itself a reboot of a No. 1 network series from two-plus decades ago, triggered by the dismissal of its star and namesake, the result of incendiary comments made on a communications platform that didn’t even exist during the original series’ heyday. We can remember the days when Roseanne’s 1997-98 season (when the Conner family won the Illinois state lottery) struck us as kind of weird. Turns out we just lacked sufficient imagination.

One individual has had a closer-than-ringside seat to the rollercoaster of the series’ recent history: PGA member Sara Gilbert, who portrayed wise-beyond-her-years daughter Darlene Conner on the original series, then returned to the character while playing an even more pivotal role as an executive producer on the relaunched series. When Roseanne Barr’s twitter comments cut short the victory lap for the triumphant reboot, Gilbert was among the handful of producers who re-raised the show from its second death, helping to retool it into The Conners and into its own niche in TV history as the show that survived not one but two cancellations, plus the firing of its central star. Nobody ever said producing TV was an easy gig, but since when was it ever this crazy?

It was, for sure, not a position that 1990s-era Gilbert ever dreamed she’d be in. During the series’ first run, she reflects, “I think I was so young that I wasn’t really thinking about exactly what the producers did … I wasn’t exposed to that piece as much because I was always on the floor, you know? I understood what a director did far more than I understood what was going on with the producers.”

Gilbert didn’t make the jump directly from acting on the show to producing its reincarnation. She earned her first producing stripes as an EP on The Talk, the popular daytime gabfest hosted by a rotating group that has included Sharon Osbourne, Julie Chen, Sheryl Underwood and Gilbert herself. “By the time I started with The Talk,” she recalls, “I had grown up in Hollywood and probably had a greater sense of what I was getting into than when I was a kid on [Roseanne]. I had worked on a lot of productions and had made a short film, so I had some experience at that point.” Not every actor makes a smooth transition to the producer’s chair, but Gilbert found the role agreed with her. “I guess one of the surprises I had, as a producer, was how much you can actually impact the final product just by doing quality control and figuring out how you can keep that product as good as possible,” she says. A different aspect of the job provided even more direct gratification: “Something that I didn’t expect that has been a really pleasant surprise is the joy of hiring people. What I love is being able to give somebody a job.”

Certainly growing up on sets helped Gilbert find her legs as a producer. “Being on all of these productions through the years,” she observes, “you kind of learn through osmosis. It was a little like when I first directed, I was worried I didn’t know how to do it, but people kept saying, ‘No, you know more than you think you do.’” It also didn’t hurt to be working on the rebooted Roseanne with seasoned pros like Tom Werner and Bruce Helford, who Gilbert cites as key mentors in guiding her through her initial encounters with scripted series production.

But 2018’s Roseanne and The Conners owe a direct debt to The Talk, not just as the training ground for their future executive producer, but as the vehicle that set the reboot(s) in motion. “I had been thinking about if there was a way to reboot the show,” Gilbert reports. “It had been on my mind, but I had read in articles about people not wanting to do it, and I was working under this assumption that no one wanted to do it. John Goodman came on [The Talk] and we did a little sketch based on it … he said he would want to do it when we were on the air. So I just thought, you know what? I’m gonna check it out. And then I was pleasantly surprised that everybody was in—everyone just thought that no one else wanted to do it,” she laughs. “I just kept getting yeses.”

Two of those yeses loomed especially large. One, of course, was Roseanne Barr herself, Gilbert’s first call. “I talked her through it, what we would do and how I thought we would do it, and she came on board.” The next call was to Werner, one of the lead producers of the original series. After showing him the clip of Goodman and herself from The Talk, he was excited but had his doubts that his former partner Marcy Carsey would be inclined to support the project.

“I said okay, I’ll call Marcy,” Gilbert relates. “I appealed to her that we should do it. She kinda just said, ‘Go ahead … I’m not really producing right now, but I give you my blessing.’ And that was that. The rest of the cast immediately said yes, they were all excited, and we sold the show pretty quickly.” 

Once the show was a go, development began in earnest. Though Gilbert isn’t a credited writer on the series, she had plenty of ideas to bring to the show and shared them with the small circle of primary collaborators, including Werner and Helford, Barr and fellow EP Whitney Cummings. “We were all kind of talking about what we wanted to have in there and what was important to each one of us,” she reports. “It was a dialogue over the entire time in pre-production, and it never really stopped. Even with the new show [on its feet], we continued talking about what stories we wanted to tell and where these characters were going.”

Whatever conversations Gilbert and her fellow producers might have had, they were the right ones. ABC’s rebooted Roseanne blew the doors off of Nielsen ratings, with its March 27 premiere logging the best numbers for a sitcom episode in three years and even beating the 1997 finale of the show’s previous incarnation. The series was the toast of television for exactly two months and two days, when Barr—whose Trump-leaning politics had become a key component of her onscreen character—tweeted out an offensive comment regarding former Barack Obama aide Valerie Jarrett. The response from ABC was swift and unsparing, as ABC Entertainment President Channing Dungey determined she had no choice but to cancel the series that had looked like her network’s crown jewel only days before.

Gilbert doesn’t linger on the exhausting rollercoaster of those days and weeks. “It was an emotional time, for sure,” she admits. “I just sort of took each thing one step at a time and ultimately feel really grateful that we got to continue to tell stories of this family.” It surely helped that she didn’t have to wait long before the next chapter of the story began. “The network came to us pretty shortly after the dust had settled,” she recalls, “and asked if there was some way to reconceive it.” Gilbert holed up once again with Werner and Helford, this time bringing producers Dave Caplan and Bruce Rasmussen into the inner circle. “We all started to talk about, you know, was there a show here? What could we do? There was definitely some soul searching as to whether it would be beneficial to everybody—the crew, the viewers, everyone involved. Ultimately, we decided that, creatively, it seemed like a worthwhile prospect.”

What the team came to realize was that its star’s departure opened creative possibilities for the series, rather than foreclosed them. Now, in addition to charting the passage of two decades in the life of a family, The Conners was in a position to mine a rich vein of dramatic storytelling and character development. “Families lose their matriarchs,” observes Gilbert. “It’s something that every family deals with at some point, pretty much, and it felt like a very human story and one that isn’t told often enough—certainly not in a sitcom. We felt like we could address that story in a very honest way, and put all of the emotions we were feeling—these feelings of loss—into it and tell a story that people could relate to.”

A big part of that emotional nakedness lies in the producers’ readiness to address the family’s loss in irregular, piecemeal fashion, rather than a few quickly processed grieving episodes. “All of these characters are filling in the gaps of the role of the missing matriarch,” Gilbert explains. “It affects the entire season, across different episodes to a greater or lesser extent, because we wanted to be honest about the size of that kind of loss in a family. So there are episodes where we don’t go deeply into it at all and episodes where we do, and it’s not necessarily neatly in a row because that’s not how people’s emotions work.”

That’s some heavy territory for a half-hour, multi-camera show to work through, but there have been few series that have proven their ability to carry that weight as deftly as Roseanne/The Conners has, in all of its incarnations. “We have to thank our writing staff for that,” Gilbert affirms. “They’re just incredible. They can take the deepest tragedy and find the laughs in it, without sacrificing any of the seriousness or emotions of the situation.”

Whatever comedy/tragedy alchemy the team is conjuring, it appears to be working. While The Conners hasn’t replicated the breakout ratings success of Roseanne, it’s been a solid performer in its time slot, while the critical appraisal of the retooled series has been almost uniformly positive. In fact your perception of The Conners’ performance has a lot to do with where you get your news from. While politically right-leaning sources like Breitbart and The Daily Caller have tended to emphasize the gap between The Conners’ ratings and those of its predecessor, industry trades have by and large focused on its consistent performance and its status as one of the network’s highest-rated series, if not quite the Nielsen bonanza that Roseanne was.

While the long-term fate of The Conners is still to be determined, Gilbert is clearly gratified at having beaten the odds and the headlines to get a third chance at playing out the lives of everyone’s favorite family from Lanford, IL. “I didn’t feel like we were done telling these working-class stories and following these characters,” declares Gilbert, “seeing them persevere through life’s adversities with love and humor and sadness and laughter. I’m just incredibly grateful that we’ve been able to do that again.”

And regardless of the ultimate fate of The Conners, the show has, to its credit, given a talented producer the opportunity to come into her own. “I’ve learned that it’s important to listen to your gut as a producer,” Gilbert reflects. “I guess that’s true of anything in life. But it’s a job that teaches you to stand your ground even if you may feel intimidated or if you find yourself asking, ‘What do I know about any of this? These other people must know way more than I do ...’ But over time you learn—oh wait, there’s a reason I’m here. There is a voice I’m supposed to have, and it’s valuable.”

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-banner photograph by Robert Trachtenberg
-1st image break photographed by Eric McCandless
-2nd image break courtesy of CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

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