“The Conners” has never shied away from tough topics that have burrowed themselves deep into the lower-middle class experience, and they don’t plan on starting to anytime soon. On this week’s episode of the ABC comedy, the family finds themselves at the crossroads of an economic issue that could wipe out any progress they’ve made to catch up.
The episode revolves around Jackie’s mother, Bev, whose memory is worsening and her need for round-the-clock care has become dire. But, as seen in the exclusive clip at the top, the outrageous cost of healthcare for an aging parent leaves them with few options. And Jackie’s ever-present bitterness for her mother comes in clear focus.
We sat down with “The Conners” creators Bruce Helford and Dave Caplan to talk about seizing the opportunity to speak to a whole new generation that hasn’t really been through hard times until now, riding that fine line between comedy and the struggles of the real world… and that surprising twist at the end of tonight’s episode aptly titled “New Pipes and Old Secrets” that answers questions in a truly heartbreaking way that will stay with you.
(The transcript of the interview below was condensed for space.)
The OG “Roseanne Show” was rooted in the lower-middle class experience of the ‘90s recession, and that was one of the reasons the Conner family resonated so widely. We were all feeling the pinch of it. And while the family suffered they also found laughter in it. Here we are again with the opportunity for “The Conners” to do a similar thing. Is that how you are approaching it?
Dave Caplan: When Bruce called me and said, “would you be interested in joining me to revive ‘the Roseanne Show?’ I wasn’t a fan of the idea of reviving old shows, but when he mentioned this show, the thing that hit me is the stories about the struggles of the lower-middle class are more relevant now even than they were in the ‘90s, truly. And that made me jump at the opportunity to join Bruce to do this, because I knew there were important stories to tell that weren’t on TV at the time and stories about the way that being lower-middle class affects everything that you do. It affects your healthcare and your education and affects your hope for the future and everything else. So I knew that, as revivals go, this was the one to do.
Bruce Helford: When we approach the stories, we always approach the economics and are extremely aware. Like Dave was saying, there was nothing on [TV] addressing this. We were back in Fantasyland that everybody was doing fine. And even if a portion of the country is doing fine, the people struggling really didn’t have much of a voice that was real. I mean, how often do you see people doing bills on tv? So it was something that we felt was really important.
It’s gotta be a tricky tightrope to walk, though — a serious subject matter approached with care and honesty, but also with humor.
Helford: We always try to keep a balance. We’re very aware of that, when you’re having jokes that are about things that are really going on in people’s lives and very often very painful. I mean, in particular, like we’re talking about the episode with Bev and what she’s going through. There is tension created by those problems that the audience is waiting to have broken. And with the appropriate joke or humor, it’s all comfortable and fine. But this is one of the hardest shows to write because almost no shows take on things with this kind of depth and with this much weight behind them. So you have to be really careful about how you deal with it. It’s a very difficult show to write, but it’s really rewarding when it works.
Caplan: Most comedies, they think of a funny situation and then they build a story around it. And we take this sort of scary leap of faith every week — most weeks, anyway where we start with something that’s real and we hope to hell we’re gonna be able to make it funny. And we succeed most of the time, but that is the tightrope walk, which is, start with something that’s real and can be kind of heavy and know that you’re gonna figure out where the cathartic laughs are.
How is the show addressing how the Conner family is trying to survive the high cost of living? Is it just a one-day-at-a-time thing for them? Do they ever feel like they’ve reached bottom or is there always that little gleam of hope of, “well, this is what we got, we’re gonna deal with it”?
Helford: What we do on the show is we maintain that they are able to keep body and soul together. They’re able to put food on the table, but breaking the chain and moving up is where the struggles happen. We deal a lot with some Mark wanting to go to college and that’s a big theme for this year, that he has no way to really get into a better college or a good college, you know, based on finances. They just don’t have it. Also, we have Dan working at a hardware store with Ben.. And we deal with the fact that with inflation and everything else. They’re always struggling because they’re up against the big supermarket hardware places. But they’re trying to move up. They’re trying to find that what used-to-be upward mobility that was very common in this country. There’s no middle class anymore.
Caplan: We all want to believe in the upward mobility myth. And the Conners want to believe it too. Jackie and Ben and Dan, they have their own businesses, and they’re looking for a way to continue to get that American dream that they grew up with. But if you look at the arc of the show, what we’re saying is that it’s getting harder.
Helford: We always want to keep it real because we don’t want to say to America, “Here’s an easy fix. All you gotta do is X and then all of a sudden everything is fine.” Unfortunately, people love a happy ending. If the ending is satisfying, it doesn’t have to be happy. And we don’t sugarcoat things.
Caplan: The best thing you can say about the Conners is they never give up the fight.
Helford: The tricky thing for the Conners is that where Dan and Roseanne and Jackie were, they all kind of settled for something. They didn’t worry about careers as much as they worried about having jobs. Now they’ve got kids who want more.
You’ve succeeded in tackling these core economic issues that have the country on edge. Is there, is there an issue in today’s world that you are kind of trying to avoid? Or, or are you ready to hit whatever comes at you in the world?
Helford: I think we’re always ready. We’re ready to go after any subject, but the point is balance. We did a show about guns and there were members of the original “Roseanne” family that were totally– Dan had a gun. That’s his point of view. Then there was Jackie and Darlene’s point of view, which was, “we don’t want these things anywhere.” So the thing is balance. It has to be honest. There’s no one point of view that everyone agrees on. We don’t expect that.
Caplan: Our approach is never to chase an issue and do an issue show. We never sit down and go, “we should do an issue show.” Our approach is to say, “in the lives of our characters, at this point, this might come up.” And then we deal with it from the point of view of the characters. But it’s never about chasing a show that we think will get ratings because we have something we want to say. We just don’t think of it that way.
Let’s talk about the issue that airs tonight. It touches on more than one issue – the cost of healthcare, taking care of elderly parents and Dan’s health. I don’t think there’s a person in the country who hasn’t had that healthcare issue of it just being ridiculously expensive.
Caplan: It’s crazy, isn’t it? I mean, we’re dealing with it in my family too. And the amazing thing is the surprise element to it, that you get to a point in your life where you feel like, “well, you know something, I’ve worked hard, but now I’m kind of cruising. Things are OK.” And then boom, you’re taking care of a parent and dealing with the financial and emotional impact of that. And you don’t really expect it. And sometimes even though it’s there, you don’t see it coming. And it can be absolutely devastating financially.
Without me giving away the end, I have to say, it surprised me — and it stayed with me. It was emotional and done really beautifully.
Caplan: We have Laurie Metcalf (Jackie) and Estelle Parsons (Bev). I would say we’re very, very fortunate. Estelle, you know, is 96 now. Her faculties are amazing and her resilience is amazing. And we were scared to bring her in, to be very honest, because we were worried about COVID. We worried about her traveling and all that. So we were only able to use her very sparingly…and with private planes and things like that, which we’re all blessed to be able to afford in this business. We were able to get her out here without putting her on a commercial airline because she is 96 and she’s vulnerable. But when you watch her performances, my god, you know, it was just heartbreaking. And of course, Laurie and she have over 30 years of working together. The other advantage we have is, this is a show where the relationship’s been built over such a long time that we can explore things with subtlety. That’s hard to do in shows that have only been around for a couple of years.