The Conners. ABC. Tuesday, October 23, 8 p.m.
Legacies. The CW. Thursday, October 25, 9 p.m
The ponderous opening lines of The CW's Legacies made me think we had crossed a new frontier in programming for teenagers. "When we're young, we're taught the distinction between a hero and a villain, good and evil, a savior and a lost cause," intones the young female narrator. "But what if the only real difference is just who's telling the story?"
To my at least moderate surprise, though, Legacies is not a teen drama about Rudolf Hess, but yet another chapter of Vampire Diaries, now in its third iteration with 14 seasons and counting, the CW version of Gunsmoke.
If you're thinking that's a lot of seasons to catch up on, don't worry. One of the Legacies characters give a helpful synopsis early in the first episode that explains everything you need to know: "It's a long story involving an ancient, vengeful witch and a bloodline curse." (I know; it feels like they stole it out of my family photo album, too.)
Story lines have varied a bit over the years, all the way from hot vampire guy falls for hot human chick to hot werewolf chick falls for vampire guy. In Legacies, there's a vaguely Harry Potter feel to things; all the teenage descendants of the original characters have gathered at a Hogwarts for Horror, where they party, learn spells and engage in random acts of literary criticism. ("Twilight ruined all vampire mythos!")
One reassuring thing about Legacies is how much witches and werewolves are just like us, or at least The CW version of us. Much like the network's other supernatural rehash, Charmed, the kids walk around spouting stuff like "Your binary assumptions about human sexuality are out of date!"
And in an attempt to paint the show with a baby-I-was-born-this-way ethos, Legacies makes much of how the school is a safe space for "different" kids, as if sleeping in a coffin and sucking blood from the throat of terrified strangers are the same things as being gay or transgender, or that werewolf kids get bullied a lot by brutish human children. (Call me un-woke, but I doubt the latter is a big problem. Picture the scene: "Yeah, I called you four-eyes! What are you gonna do about, you little pussy?!!…Hey, look, the moon is coming out…")
Yet Legacies must be given credit for boldly confronting the bigoted myths about lycanthrope/Wiccan miscegenation. And its continuing salute to Our Friend The Mouse (perhaps an allegorical reference to Disney?) is welcome and educational. Who knew rodent entrails could be used in so many spells?
Legacies is the last, if not quite the least (two words: Murphy Brown), of the fall season's new shows. Not the last one to be reviewed, though. ABC, anxious to capitalize on viewer curiosity about how it disposed of Roseanne Barr's character, after ousting her from the show over a racist tweet, didn't make screeners of the revamped The Conners available before its October 16 debut.
Whether that was a successful ploy is open to interpretation. The debut brought in 10.5 million viewers, which was more than its time-slot competition, NBC's ratings powerhouse This Is Us, but way below the 18.2 million who tuned into Roseanne's return last spring from a 21-year absence.
In the end, it didn't matter too much to critics. There's no way to write a meaningful review from the debut episode, which was almost exclusively concerned with family anguish at the tawdry death of Roseanne's character, killed by an overdose after becoming an opiod addict following hip replacement surgery.
Not that the episode wasn't magnificent, a graceful blend of Roseanne's signature hardball humor and deep grief at the loss of a woman who was a wife, mother or sister to almost every character on the show. John Goodman's turn as Roseanne's widow Dan, a seamless mixture of jagged rage and brutal heartache as he learns she was a lying junkie at the end, is the performance of a lifetime. And there was nothing forced or unnatural at the wistful punchline he delivered to a coming-out grandson asking advice about picking a gay boyfriend: "Would you like to talk about death some more?"
As good as the first episode was, it tells us nothing about what The Conners will be even a few weeks down the road. You can build a 90-minute film around grief, but not an 18-episode television series. And a tentpole character will have to emerge. Goodman, Sara Gilbert (who plays his daughter Darlene) and Lauri Metcalfe (his sister-in-law Jackie) are all talented comedians. But none of them has ever carried a series before, and as good as they were in The Conners debut, the glue that held the show together was the unseen ghost of Roseanne, as aggravating and amusing as ever, invisible but never absent. I'll believe she's replaceable when I see it.