When “The Conners” returned to set in mid-August after a lengthy pandemic delay, John Goodman had no doubt that every safety precaution had been taken. But his heart still fluttered a bit when it came time to finally get to work.
“That moment before the first mask came off, I held my breath,” said the 68-year-old actor, who plays patriarch Dan Conner in the ABC sitcom.
Sara Gilbert, who stars as Dan’s daughter Darlene was also anxious, even though, as an executive producer, she was well aware of the measures the show takes to keep everyone safe. The Los Angeles set is patrolled by two Covid compliance supervisors and the actors are tested five times per week, with everyone else getting tests at least three times a week.
Even so, “when they say ‘Rolling,’ I wait until after the sound cue,” Gilbert said. “And then — at the very last second — my mask comes off.”
When the coronavirus pandemic intensified in March, it forced Hollywood to shut down production for months. Most shows interrupted by the pandemic were back on set, with coronavirus protocols, by September, though some didn’t survive the break — series including ABC’S “Stumptown,” Netflix’s “GLOW” and Showtime’s “On Becoming a God in Central Florida,” which all had new seasons planned or in the works, were canceled by their networks.
Those that did return to production had a choice to make: Should they pick up where they left off and resume pandemic-free storytelling? Or should they deal with the coronavirus and its disruptions within their narratives?
For “The Conners,” which from its earliest days as “Roseanne” has dealt with everyday difficulties like depression, divorce and job loss, it was never even a question.
“We’ve always tried to represent blue-collar, middle-class families,” Gilbert said. “To pretend this isn’t happening seems out of touch.”
“Life and death stories are familiar territory for us,” she added. (The show’s original matriarch, Roseanne Conner, was killed off via an opioid overdose after Roseanne Barr was fired for comparing a former Obama adviser to an ape on Twitter. The show title was subsequently changed from “Roseanne” to “The Conners.”)
When the series returns on Wednesday for its third season, viewers will watch the family grapple with the same issues as the rest of the country: Dan is on the verge of losing the family home. His sister-in-law, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), is trying to keep the family restaurant alive by making deliveries on her bike (complete with a blinding neon yellow helmet, gloves and face mask). Darlene and her boyfriend, Ben (Jay R. Ferguson), are wondering whether to shutter their start-up magazine. Dan’s oldest daughter, Becky (Lecy Goranson), is navigating the return of her undocumented husband, Emilio (Rene Rosado), who is caring for her baby while hiding from immigration authorities.
Of course, it’s hard to avoid incorporating the pandemic when it seeps into every aspect of life on set. Like every other returning series, “The Conners,” led by the showrunner, Bruce Helford, and executive producers Dave Caplan and Bruce Rasmussen, has had to radically reconfigure nearly every element of its production for pandemic safety.
Before the cast and crew set foot onstage, they have passed two temperature checks, filled out a symptoms questionnaire and passed a Covid test within, at minimum, the last two days. Hair and makeup are done with masks and visors — Gilbert said she finishes the area around her mouth herself. Props are sanitized between each take., and the show is filmed without an audience and with a limited crew.
And enforcement, Gilbert said, is rigorous. “You can’t eat or drink onstage,” she said. “Not even water. You have to go up to your dressing room.”
But processing the approximately 350 weekly tests and installing upgrades like sanitizer stations and HEPA filters does not come cheap, Helford said.
“It’s well into the six figures, additional, to do this,” he said. “We had to cut holes in the wall for better ventilation and refit all the AC systems, plus the constant cleaning.” More than two months into shooting, the show has yet to see a positive test.
Gilbert said the most difficult on-set restriction to remember is the six-foot rule. “The writers tend to just walk over and run an idea by one another,” she said. “But now we have to be reminded ‘SIX FEET!’”
Helford said they try to set a good example for viewers watching at home. “Characters can pull their masks down if it’s a scene with someone they live with,” he said. “But if they’re out in the workplace and around people, they keep their face shields on.”
Goodman said not having spectators on set, while dispiriting, can actually be a benefit. “We have to maintain the amount of energy the audience naturally provides,” he said. “But it’s quite frankly easier to time things when you don’t have people to laugh at them.”
Gilbert said the series will not dwell on the darkest parts of the pandemic — “People get that on the news every day,” she said — but that the show, which is set in the current moment, will reflect real-world events. The second episode of the season airs Oct. 28, six nights before Election Day and three nights before Halloween. She said the Conners will celebrate their favorite holiday with some in-home trick-or-treating — and that politics may come up.
“But it’s not through the lens of ‘I’m for this guy!,’” she said. “It’s ‘How does what’s going on affect my family economically?’”
The writers also drew on their personal experiences in penning the new season, Caplan said. He, Helford and Rasmussen all “come from low to middle income working class families,” Caplan said. “So even if the stories aren’t exactly ours all the time, they’re emotional and honest.”
Helford said they wanted to spotlight the struggles of small business owners through Jackie’s battle to save her restaurant, the Lanford Lunch Box, as well as address the increased anxiety the pandemic has created among kids. “Mark, the youngest boy, is definitely bothered by this the worst,” he said, referring to Darlene’s son (Ames McNamara). “He’s the one standing outside the door checking everyone’s temperatures, making everyone crazy.”
“The most notable thing about most of them is that they were done at all,” James Poniewozik, the chief TV critic for The New York Times, wrote in a recent appraisal of pandemic shows. “But none of them had to sustain the approach for a full season.”
But Gilbert thinks “The Conners” can serve as counterprogramming to a news cycle that highlights rising case counts and political posturing. “There’s so much fear and anxiety,” she said. “But we’re looking at how the pandemic is affecting this family, and humor is definitely a part of that.”
Some of the moments that resonated with the actors were unexpected. Goranson, who has been living alone in Los Angeles since March, said a scene in the third episode proved surprisingly emotional.
“Becky is quarantining with her family, and I was not able to,” she said. “But in the scene, she says something about being alone, and it was almost confessional because it was so true to what I had experienced.”
Goranson’s mother died in January, and she said her family has not been able to hold a gathering for her. “One thing my mom told me before she died was ‘So little matters other than people,’” she said. “And that seems like cruel irony right now, because I haven’t been around anyone I love since she said that.”
It is unclear how long the pandemic will infect the Conners’ fictional town of Lanford, Ill., just as it is uncertain how long masks and social distancing will remain the norm in America. But Goodman said that, despite everything, he tries to remain upbeat.
“It’s just another damn thing we have to deal with,” he said. “I’m thrilled we’re able to make a show at all.”