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Because no TV show is ever really canceled in 2018, ABC is said to be bringing back some version of its highly rated (but ill-fated) Roseanne reboot just a few weeks after its eponymous star derailed the show with a series of incoherent and racist tweets.
The reboot of the reboot will reportedly feature the family at the center of the show, the Conners, and is likely to focus mostly on Sara Gilbert’s character, Darlene. Beyond that, details are sparse, except that Roseanne Barr will have no creative or financial interest, according to ABC.
One obvious scenario is that the creators will simply kill off Barr’s character. (The synopsis for the reboot hints at a “sudden turn of events” in the Conners’ lives.) In a lot of ways, this makes perfect sense, notably because the character Roseanne was in ill health and the infamy of her real-life counterpart would make a kill-off storyline feel like a satisfyingly clean break. Based on a lot of the Twitter chatter around the news, that’s a storyline many viewers would like to see.
But if history is any guide, that may not be the most prudent option—at least, not if ABC wants to create a sustainable franchise. Here’s why:
Killing off a main sitcom character usually doesn’t work: There are plenty of examples of TV shows that went the kill-off route, but it very often feels desperate. Remember when Charlie Sheen’s character was killed off of Two and a Half Men after the actor’s off-screen rants got him in trouble? It didn’t exactly help that flailing show. Ditto for CBS’s Kevin Can Wait, which unceremoniously killed off Kevin James’s on-screen wife only to get canceled after two seasons. At the very least. ABC writers would be wise to consider the plot pitfalls of character deaths.
How much disbelief are we expected to suspend? Let’s not forget, Roseanne killed off John Goodman’s character at the end of its original run—a major plot point that viewers were just expected to forget about when the show picked up almost 20 years later. Based on the phenomenal ratings for Roseanne this year, fans were willing to overlook this lapse in logic, but I wonder if there’s not a bit of “fool me once” thinking at play here. If ABC kills off Roseanne, can we believe she’s really dead?
Dead characters get a pass: Everyone agrees that Barr’s behavior leading up to the show’s cancelation was reprehensible. Do we really want to see the Conner family speak fondly of their dead matriarch so soon after this controversy? This is a tricky area for the writers. Paying too much homage to “Roseanne” is likely to turn off viewers who have soured on Barr, but glossing over a character death with a few one-liners and a contrived plot device is not going to satisfy anyone. Maybe the lesson here is that some shows—even ratings powerhouses—are better off dead.