‘The Conners’ EPs on the ‘Civil War’ in the Writers Room Over Darlene and Ben’s Future

“There’s a lot more to come, but it felt like it was definitely something that needed to burst,” Bruce Helford tells TheWrap

The Conners
ABC/Eric McCandless

(Warning: This post contains spoilers for Wednesday’s Season 3 finale of “The Conners”).

Season 3 of “The Conners” came to a close on Wednesday with two proposals but only one happy ending. Dan and Louise, fresh off her harrowing experience with COVID, finally decided to make it official, but Ben and Darlene’s rocky relationship reached a much more somber conclusion.

As executive producer Bruce Helford puts it: “Every ‘yay’ on ‘The Conners,’ as in real life, is tempered with an ‘Oh.’” But not everyone in the “Conners” writers room was ready to throw in the towel on Ben and Darlene.

“I’m telling you, it literally was a civil war in the room,” Helford said in an interview with TheWrap. “Everyone had a very different opinion about it – and not drawn along any specific lines. Some people would say, ‘She definitely pushed him way too far. There’s no way this guy can trust what’s going on with her, she’s so up and down.’ And the other group is saying, ‘Hey, you know, she needs him right now, and he hasn’t been there for her. He’s not being great.’ So it really was a tough decision.”

But either way, “It felt like it was definitely something that needed to burst,” he said.

Read TheWrap’s full interview with Helford and executive producer Dave Caplan below.

The Conners
ABC/Eric McCandless

TheWrap: Where did the idea for the “Two Proposals” premise come from and what made it feel like the right way to wrap up the season?

Caplan: Both relationships had reached a point, for Dan and Darlene, where it felt like the exact right time. And we kind of thought it was interesting that the stories that we’d written to this point were running on these parallel tracks with these relationships. And if they both reached the junction at the same time and there were two proposals, that would be pretty interesting because people would have to guess which one was going to work and maybe which one wasn’t? That seemed really appealing to us.

Helford: There’s been so much going on, especially between Darlene and Ben in their relationship – there was lots of rocky road there for them. And Dan and Louise have been separated with her having COVID. So when we were exploring what her perspective would be coming out of having had COVID, and a challenging case of it, we felt the audience would be anxious and ready to see us move this to the next level in one direction or the other.

On the one hand, it seems like this end for Darlene and Ben was a long time coming. But was there ever a conversation about it ending differently?

Helford: I’m telling you, it literally was a civil war in the room. Everyone had a very different opinion about it – and not drawn along any specific lines. Some people would say, “She definitely this pushed him way too far. There’s no way this guy can trust what’s going on with her, she’s so up and down.” And the other group is saying, “Hey, you know, she needs him right now, and he hasn’t isn’t being there for her. He’s not being great.” So it really was a tough decision. But ultimately, because we’re writers and we’re cynical, we felt that that all the little resentments that would have built up. In my mind, had she not proposed to him, he probably would have let them go on longer just to see what was happening. But once she puts the proposal out there, he had to make a decision. He had to be honest with himself about what he was really feeling. And that’s what he did. Obviously, Ben’s going to be back next season; he’s a regular on the show. He works with her father, so they’re going to be in each other’s faces indefinitely. There’s a lot more to come, but it felt like it was definitely something that needed to burst.

Caplan: As we were writing the stories that led to the proposal, we kept tweaking them to say, “Well, does somebody have a stronger case than somebody else? All right, then let’s adjust this. Let’s make sure that it could go either way so you would really understand why it happened.” If Ben said yes, we would get it, and if he said no, we get that too. And we think we got pretty close to that, because everybody we talked to has a different opinion about whether it was right or wrong. So I think we got pretty close.

When Ben tells her that he doesn’t believe he can trust her anymore, do you feel like he’s right to hold that opinion? Do think there really was potential that Darlene would have let him down again?

Helford: The argument in the room was is she actually being a dedicated daughter and mother in saying that she couldn’t get married, she couldn’t commit to things, she couldn’t move into an apartment because she had to help her dad, and all that? And then when it came to the Hawaii thing, was it a selfish motive that she needed something? Was she ignoring the bigger picture, which is, for example, not putting the money from the tickets toward an apartment together. It depends what side you take, and we went to the side of, I don’t know that he could trust her. My vote personally, probably would be that he wouldn’t know what if she was going to have some other whim or some other reason to push him away. She may seriously have commitment issues after all the damage of the marriage to David and what that brought because she went into it at a very early age. She threw everything into that relationship and ended up alone and taking care of her kids and and struggling. She may just have a commitment phobia at this point.

Caplan: There’s also the element of something that’s happened during COVID, which is that a lot of families had to band together to get through it financially as well as emotionally and physically. The Connors have always survived all of their travails by banding together. So when Darlene had to move back in – and Ben agreed initially – to help Dan keep the house, she was showing that her allegiance was maybe more to her family than it was to Ben. And he started to feel resentment, even though he wanted to do the right thing. He felt resentment, like a lot of us do, and that resentment festers. And then it leaks, like we saw.

The Conners
ABC/Eric McCandless

That fake bad news gag there towards the end is just brutal. Was there a moment when you were writing that or watching it on set where you thought, “Oh, poor Darlene. Maybe this is too mean”?

Helford: Well…

Caplan: Nah.

Helford: Not really. [Laughs.] Look, obviously on “The Conners,” we love a dramatic moment. And in some ways, the fact that Dan does get the “yes” from Louise makes you go, “Yay.” But every “yay” on “The Conners,” as in real life, is tempered with an “Oh.” So I think we relish the emotion of that moment. And just dramatically, it felt very right.

Caplan: You may have noticed by now, we’re not real big on Hollywood happy endings.

It seems like the flip side of that coin then would be the scene at the top of the episode where they all run through all the terrible things that have happened to their family, but it’s played more for laughs.

Caplan: You know, we do things a little bit differently than a lot of other comedies on TV. We just start with what the real struggles are of American families that look like the Conners. And then we take the leap of faith that we’re going to find the funny in it, that the characters will use comedy as a coping mechanism to get through these hard times. So we never start with, “Oh this will be a funny idea.” And then we’d have to justify why it’s in the show and why it’s important. We just start with what everybody struggles with, and then we find the comedy in it. Over the years, we’ve definitely put a good scare to the network, and we always say to them, “This will be as funny as it is terrifying.”

Helford: And very often the biggest laughs have been immediately following the biggest moments of tragedy. I always think of when Roseanne passed and they found pills in the closet, and then Becky says “That was the only thing I really wanted.” We try to find that delicate, very delicate line. And we have a wonderful group of writers who are incredibly gifted in finding that appropriate moment where we don’t offend. We try to find that appropriate moment to laugh to break the tension for the audience. And to get past that moment. But it is a tricky balance for sure.

Were there any storylines this season that were especially tough to find the comedy in?

Caplan: Oh, gosh, I think Becky’s struggle with addiction was a difficult thing, because it felt so real to us. And it was such a tough time for that character to be going through a difficult time – finding the comedy in that was hard. But I think we were able to temper that with enough of that nervous-energy laughter that the Conners sometime use to pull themselves through things.

Helford: The other area was COVID. Because, you know, you make a lot of jokes offhandedly in the room about something related to COVID and then you remember, somebody is watching whose family member may have passed or is struggling with it. So we were very careful in the kind of jokes that we made. We definitely did use humor to get through COVID, there’s no doubt about that. But when you look at it on balance, you’ll see that we were very careful not to cross the line. We certainly don’t make jokes about the deaths of people or that kind of thing. We didn’t want to distance ourselves from what the audience was going through, because we know a lot of our audience for a lot of the season was literally trapped in their houses watching, so we wanted to stay very real. We made that decision early on to be honest about COVID, but we were also always trying to be mindful of the weight of what it really was.

Caplan: And we knew we could find funny in the day-to-day difficulties of being in lockdown, or being stuck with your kids in lockdown, homeschooling in lockdown. Just the difficulty of the things we took for granted day-to-day. We knew there was fun in that.

The Conners
ABC/Eric McCandless

Can you talk a little bit about bringing Geena back and what we should expect going forward now that they’re out of the house?

Helford: One of my favorite jokes from the finale is when D.J. says, “We’re gonna go be happy, you guys sort yourselves out.” [Laughs.] Originally, we had a joke that ended up getting cut where Mark goes, “Well, thanks for leaving me here.” We always had more planned for Geena and D.J. and their family, but then she got “The Unicorn,” which was wonderful, but it made it very, very difficult for her to come and be with us. So we kind of had to put her back in Afghanistan for a while. But I love the idea of what it’s like to be an in-law with the Conners.That’s a tough family to break into, and it’s something only a few can hang with. So I’m looking forward to having more time to explore what it’s like to be an in-law in this family. And obviously we’ve made a big deal about how Mary was suffering from not having our mom around, so there’s a lot to be explored there.

Jackie and Neville were also teased in the promos as potentially being one of the proposals, and they did get that nice moment in the diner, but can you talk about what’s to come with that relationship?

Caplan: When we wanted to put Jackie in a relationship, we didn’t want to give her a bad guy, because we’d done our share of that. So we thought maybe it would be funnier if we put her with a really good guy and then watch her try to battle her own demons and not sabotage it. Because for her, it was a little like, “Any club that would have me as a member, I don’t want to belong to.” So she’s not really quite trusting of it. Then when he finds the good in her and sees her internal strength – there’s that line, “You got your ass handed to you and came back strong” – nobody’s ever really admired her like that. We thought it was just really touching, the fact that he believes in her. And the fact that he shares her antipathy for her mother, nobody’s ever shared that with her before either. We thought that was fun. And we love Nat [Faxon]. He’s great with Laurie [Metcalf], and she loves playing with him, so it’s really fun to have them as a couple, to have her in a relationship that enhances the fun of who Jackie is. He’ll definitely be back next season.


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