The Conners made its official television debut on Tuesday without the franchise’s former star Roseanne Barr, but executive producer Tom Werner had no regrets about the decision to have her character die from an opiate overdose.
During a panel, also on Tuesday night, at The Paley Center for Media in New York City moderated by PEOPLE’s Julie Jordan, Werner explained that the storyline felt natural and “authentic” to the show’s audience.
“I think it was important that we all be respectful of Roseanne Conner and Roseanne Barr, but as we talked about it… what made the show work for us is I think we were touching on themes that were very relevant to our audience,” he told the crowd.
“There are a lot of choices in television, but this is a show about a working-class family that is very identifiable to the audience,” he continued. “When we talked about what to do moving forward… if you’d seen the show in the last year, Roseanne Conner was struggling with a drug [addiction].”
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Speaking of a scene in the show that Dan (John Goodman) had with the neighborhood’s drug dealer, Marcy Bellinger (Mary Steenburgen), Werner explained that it was “so moving” because of how problematic the country’s opioid crisis is.
“This is a problem — and again, we’re doing a comedy — this is a problem that has affects tens of thousands of people, opioid addiction — 80,000 people died last year dealing with opioid addiction and overdose,” he said. “We felt that this is something that could shine a light on.”
“I think there will be people talking about this and how it affects the family,” he continued. “It obviously touches on healthcare issues and the fact that Marcy Bellinger was sharing drugs with other people in the community. In part, it’s because we know prescription drugs are expensive… I think this was an honest and authentic way of dealing with Roseanne Conner.”
In Tuesday’s premiere, the Conner family addressed Barr’s absence in the opening scene. As the family gathered in the kitchen mourning the loss of “Granny Rose” three weeks after her death, a concerned Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) asked to speak to Dan alone outside.
The family initially believes she suffered a heart attack in her sleep, but later find out Roseanne died of an opiate overdose.
RELATED: Roseanne Barr Tweets About The Conners Premiere: ‘I Ain’t Dead, Bitches!!!!’
While the show’s creators and producers felt it was a good idea to kill off her character in such a way, Barr, however, was not as pleased with their decision and expressed her thoughts in a long joint statement with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.
Boteach, who bills himself as “America’s Rabbi,” is best known for his high-profile connection to Michael Jackson, to whom he served as a spiritual adviser. He has also been connected to former reality star Jon Gosselin.
“While we wish the very best for the cast and production crew of The Conners, all of whom are deeply dedicated to their craft and were Roseanne’s cherished colleagues, we regret that ABC chose to cancel Roseanne by killing off the Roseanne Conner character,” the statement began.
“That it was done through an opioid overdose lent an unnecessary grim and morbid dimension to an otherwise happy family show. This was a choice the network did not have to make. Roseanne was the only show on television that directly addressed the deep divisions threatening the very fabric of our society,” they continued.
RELATED: John Goodman Says Roseanne Barr Is ‘Missed’ on New Spin-off The Conners: ‘She’s My Buddy’
“Specifically, the show promoted the message that love and respect for one another’s personhood should transcend differences in background and ideological discord. The show brought together characters of different political persuasions and ethnic backgrounds in one, unified family, a rarity in modern American entertainment. Above all else, the show celebrated a strong, matriarchal woman in a leading role, something we need more of in our country.”
“Through humor and a universally relatable main character, the show represented a weekly teaching moment for our nation. Yet it is often following an inexcusable – but not unforgivable – mistake that we can discover the most important lesson of all: Forgiveness,” they wrote.
“After repeated and heartfelt apologies, the network was unwilling to look past a regrettable mistake, thereby denying the twin American values of both repentance and forgiveness. In a hyper-partisan climate, people will sometimes make the mistake of speaking with words that do not truly reflect who they are. However, it is the power of forgiveness that defines our humanity.”
“Our society needs to heal on many levels. What better way for healing than a shared moment, once a week, where we could have all enjoyed a compelling storyline featuring a witty character – a woman – who America connected with, not in spite of her flaws, but because of them. The cancellation of Roseanne is an opportunity squandered due in equal parts to fear, hubris, and a refusal to forgive.”
Earlier in the evening, during the episode’s airing, Barr addressed her character’s death in a simple, yet snarky tweet.
“I AIN’T DEAD, BITCHES!!!!” she wrote.
RELATED VIDEO: John Goodman Breaks Silence on ‘Roseanne’ Cancellation: ‘I Wasn’t Gonna Get an Emmy Anyway’
In September, Barr said on the Rabbi Shmuley Boteach Podcast of the spinoff, “I’m not going to curse it or bless it.”
She continued, “I’m staying neutral. That’s what I do. I’m staying neutral. I’m staying away from it. Not wishing bad on anyone, and I don’t wish good for my enemies. I don’t. I can’t. I just stay neutral. That’s what I gotta do.”
Barr also said that she would be in Israel during the premiere.
“I have an opportunity to go to Israel for a few months and study with my favorite teachers over there, and that’s where I’m going to go and probably move somewhere there and study with my favorite teachers,” she said. “I have saved a few pennies and I’m so lucky I can go.”
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