Sara Gilbert on Why the Conners Are Uniquely Qualified to Handle a Pandemic

Parting Shot_Sara Gilbert
Robert Trachtenberg/ABC

"I feel that we're all able to, as a country, really talk and really listen to each other."

If there's one family uniquely qualified to self-isolate from others, it's the Conner family of Lanford, Illinois. "They don't really have friends. Like we make jokes about it." The iconic TV family from Roseanne tackle the pandemic in the third season of the reboot The Conners on ABC, beginning October 21. Not only does Sara Gilbert reprise her double Emmy-nominated role of Darlene, she also serves as an executive producer on the series. "I'm just so extremely grateful to be shooting anything," Gilbert says about filming during a pandemic. "Without an audience, it's a bit of a challenge to get your energy up to performance level." Like most Americans, the impact of COVID-19 has also impacted the fictional family financially, with Darlene and Becky forced to work at the local factory where Roseanne and Jackie worked in the original series. Even though the pandemic is a tough story line to tackle, particularly for a comedy series, it's a reality many can relate to right now. "I feel like that's the truth for so many Americans who are smart and driven and do everything they can and can only get to a certain place in their dreams. No matter how successful someone might get, there are certain dreams we never achieve."

If any family is prepared to deal with the pandemic, it's the Conners. How are they holding up this season?

The Conners are well equipped for a pandemic because they are overall very isolated and self-contained. And they're constantly in crisis. So it's not like we're ever really thriving and have tons of money and tons of resources. I feel like from their perspective, they're like, okay, this is the next hurdle we have to get through and this life, and they just take it more in stride.

Was it difficult shooting this season due to the pandemic? What was it like to not have an audience?

I'm just extremely grateful to be able to go someplace and be creative. It's difficult sometimes because of the lengths we go to to stay safe. We don't take our masks off until right when we shoot. And doing it without an audience, it's a bit of a challenge to get your energy up to performance level. But the writers, they were like, it's good, everything's very natural. There's no pushing. And I'm like, "Oh, was I pushing last season?" You know, the insecure actor. [laughs]

What is it about the Conners that makes them particularly relatable amid the polarization in the country?

I think in one way, the Conners are relatable because we're pretty imperfect. We all have our flaws and character traits that sometimes get in our own way. Then in terms of the country, it's also a family with varying belief systems. But they still love each other and come together in laughter and love. Especially like Dan and Darlene, they are at odds in terms of the generation gap. And Darlene is, you know, the next generation and now starting to have clashes with her kids in terms of how they see things. So it's a way for people to see a family stay close amid those differences.

Darlene is such an iconic character in TV history, and continues to be. Is there a moment or episode from the original run of the series that stands out to you?

Probably "Darlene Fades to Black." It's when that character gets depressed over a couple of episodes. She'll only wear black and she's laying on the couch. People weren't talking about that in sitcoms, teenage characters being so depressed they don't want to get off the couch. And I think that's something so many kids deal with. That, to me, always has stood out as an important part of the show.

There's a bit of a full-circle moment this season, with Becky and Darlene returning to the factory Roseanne and Jackie worked at in the first few seasons of the original series. Was it important to you to connect certain nostalgic things from the original series in The Conners?

I love having things from the original show pop back in. I think viewers probably love it, and maybe I'm just kind of nostalgic, but I also love it. Darlene is a character that everybody thought was gonna get ahead and break the poverty cycle, and she was smart and ambitious and driven. In spite of that, she's not, she hasn't been able to do it, and she's kind of back at square one this season. I feel like that's the truth for so many Americans who are smart and driven and do everything they can and can only get to a certain place in their dreams. So, that's relatable to everybody, no matter how successful someone might get, there are certain dreams we never achieve. I like what it's saying about this country socioeconomically.

How have you been holding up during the pandemic, outside filming?

I do these family yearbooks of pictures from every month, and I'm always several years behind. I've made it partway through 2018. I wouldn't do 2020 until December, so I'm not that far behind now, just a year and a half instead of three years. [laughs]

In what ways do you think the Conners can serve as a catalyst for conversations post-election?

It's like what we've talked about with the family having different ideas sometimes and coming from different generations and still being able to love each other and communicate with each other. That's where I hope we land. I feel that we're all able to, as a country, really talk and really listen to each other.