After a nearly 21-year absence, the Conners are back on the air.
The first family of fictional Lanford, Illinois, will become on Tuesday the latest set of iconic TV characters to return to the small screen. Of course, like every other TV reboot, there are some hurdles to clear: managing fan expectations, living up to the legacy of the original series and making an old show feel current but not corny. (We’ll call that last one the “Seinfeld 2000 Problem.”)
But the eight-episode Roseanne reboot faces some especially daunting challenges. First, there’s the Gordian knot of squaring away the show’s controversial ninth season, which upended a lot of what drew fans to Roseanne in the first place. Then there’s the issue of star and co-producer Roseanne Barr’s politics — and how she and the show’s writers plan to address the partisan divide that’s currently defining America.
But there’s another obstacle involved in bringing the Conners into 2018, one that requires much more nuance than just having characters yell cable-news talking points at each other — and that’s imagining how the home of a quintessentially blue-collar family has changed over the past two decades.
To hear some of the reboot’s set and costume designers tell it, the secret seems to be keeping the overall look and feel of things largely the same.
“The Conners don’t have the money to go out and buy a new sofa,” set decorator Anne Ahrens said in a phone interview. “Whatever was working for them 20 years ago is still working for them now.”
For Ahrens, who was not a part of the show’s original run, the biggest conceptual challenge was making a new set feel old again. The design team talked at length about what kinds of modifications the working-class Conner clan would have realistically made to their home over the course of 20 years — and, in particular, what kinds of updates John Goodman’s Dan, who worked in construction, might have done.
“Roseanne herself, who’s one of our producers, felt that Dan would have put in new countertops for the kitchen that he had gotten from clients’ houses, and that he would put in this new thing and that new thing,” Ahrens said. “But it came down to other producers saying, ‘No, the audience really wants the old-fashioned, emotional connection that they had in the original nine seasons.’”
To that end, aside from a few modern technological updates — the Conners have iPhones, Ahrens confirmed, and an upgraded TV — producers decided not to change most of the major set pieces in the Conner home, including the aforementioned plaid couch.
Ahrens came into the reboot with the goal of recreating a show that had already been designed 30 years ago. But Erin Quigley, a costume designer for the series, has been a part of Roseanne since its first season. After hearing from her sister and assistant — who is friends with series star Sarah Gilbert — that the reboot was a go (“News travels fast on the Roseanne grapevine,” Quigley said), she quickly “dropped everything” for the chance to help design the Conners’ costumes for a new era.
But much like the family’s home, their wardrobes likely wouldn’t have gotten much of an overhaul.
“Roseanne and John, they just don’t have money to spend on clothes,” Quigley said. “The Dan character would probably wear the same two shirts intermittently for the next 20 years too, so that was kind of a no-brainer.”
A big problem for wardrobe, Quigley added, was trying to build out the characters’ closets from scratch while making everything appear as if it had been around for decades. To do that, costumers combed through thrift stores and rummaged around in bargain bins for the right sizes, patterns and styles. In some lucky instances, members of the crew were able to supply a few key pieces from the original show that they’d held onto for sentimental value.
“I had one of Roseanne’s coats that she wore on the show, and of course we had the famous chicken shirt, which was actually given out as a crew gift one year,” Quigley said.
Another primary consideration for the characters’ wardrobes was what might have happened to them over the course of 21 years that could have pushed them to change their looks.
In the reboot, the adult Conner kids all find themselves at home in Lanford and looking for a fresh start. For rebellious Darlene, who has just moved back into her childhood home after losing her job as a writer in Chicago, “We wanted to give her a more urban look, but we didn’t want to completely redo her, so we tried to keep what was at the root of her character in the look and then just update it a little,” Quigley said.
For the more flowery Becky, who has seemingly been wallowing in Lanford since the original show’s finale? “She’s in her 40s, trying to stay youthful, so we wanted some of that original Becky floral pinkness, but with a little harder edge and maybe a little desperate, trying too hard,” Quigley said.
A different challenge that excited the costumers was the addition of several fresh characters in the form of Roseanne and Dan’s grandchildren. The new additions include Darlene’s spunky teenage daughter and her gender-neutral son, whom Quigley said presented the wardrobe department with some complications.
“The writers did a really good job of helping us out with that,” she said. “They did a lot of thinking about who those characters really are and what they wanted to say about those characters. I think we came up with a really good pirate-y, rock-and-roll middle ground that’s neither too feminine [nor] too masculine, kind of a Keith Richards-Jack Sparrow situation.”
Though Ahrens, a newcomer to the series, has yet to see how fans will react to the changes in the Conner family home, she said she was touched by the actors’ responses to some of the more nostalgic finishing touches.
“They had a lot of emotional connections to the color of the walls and the plaid sofa, and they all asked for certain things back,” Ahrens said. “I think Roseanne asked for the giant can of creamed corn, and somebody wanted the Godzilla that sits on the sofa table behind the sofa.
“These are things that don’t really matter, but they mattered a lot to the actors,” she added. “If it matters to them, then it matters to the audience. They remember all these special things.”