Go Behind the Scenes of 'The Conners' Season Finale With the Cast

Jim Halterman
Exclusive ABC/Eric McCandless

It's a quiet Friday evening on the Warner Bros. Studios lot in Burbank, California. But the minute we enter the door for Stage 5, a vibrant energy fills the air. The studio audience of 175 can't wait for the taping of The Conners' first-season finale, and they erupt into joyous applause as the cast—including stars John Goodman (Dan), Sara Gilbert (Darlene) and Laurie Metcalf (Jackie)—take their preshow bows. TV Guide Magazine is front and center in the third row to see everything firsthand.

It takes almost three and a half hours to shoot this 22-minute episode. In a nutshell: The Conner family continues to deal with life's challenges after the passing of their matriarch while still making one another laugh. (The character of Roseanne died after last season's Roseanne revival was canceled.) "I'm just thrilled we were able to keep telling great stories about this working-class family that faces constant pressure and adversity," says Gilbert, who is also an executive producer. "That was our goal from the start."

And fans have responded. At press time, all but one airing of The Conners had landed in the Top 25 with total viewers, making a second-season renewal likely. "We are cautiously optimistic," says a hopeful Gilbert.

On this December day, the actors chat and laugh on the sidelines as they prepare to perform the episode for the first time in front of a crowd. "The audience is the final crucible," explains executive producer Bruce Helford. "If something we thought was clear [in the script] isn't clear and it's obvious from their reactions, we'll make adjustments." Here's an on-the-scene account of how the finale taping played out.

Gilbert and Metcalf

5:55pm A sizzle reel of scenes recapping continuing storylines plays on hanging monitors to remind the audience of what's happened previously.

6:00pm The cast joins the crew to get ready for the first scene, which takes place in the iconic Conner kitchen.

6:07pm Darlene talks to sister Becky (Lecy Goranson) about possibly moving with her kids, Harris (Emma Kenney) and Mark (Ames McNamara), from Lanford to Chicago with new boyfriend/boss Ben (Jay R. Ferguson). After one run-through, the writers gather to quietly talk over possible line changes.

'The Conners' Cast Opens Up About Moving on From 'Roseanne' at PaleyFest NY

'The Conners' Cast Opens Up About Moving on From 'Roseanne' at PaleyFest NY

The stars of the ABC spinoff also share what makes this series different.

6:24pm Post-huddle, the writers give Goranson a new piece of dialogue, and the actors run the kitchen scene again. Gilbert later explains that on-the-fly changes can elicit different audience reactions. "You can get an even bigger laugh than you would have if the audience had only seen it once."

6:45pm Scene 2. Guest star Matthew Broderick — who plays Jackie's mooching boyfriend Peter — enters her apartment…and immediately flubs his first line, which gets big laughs. Broderick nails it on the second try, and the dialogue sheds new light on Peter and Jackie's not-perfect union. "Jackie's had many relationships she thought would work out," Metcalf tells us afterward. "But she's always had the sounding board of her sister, and she's without that now."

7:24pm Goodman and Gilbert gather in the garage, where Darlene seeks Dan's blessing for her move. The audience lets out an "Awwwww" at Dan's sad face when he's left to digest the news that his daughter and grandkids might leave.

Rosado and Goranson

7:39pm Free pizza! As slices are passed out to the studio audience, Goranson talks intently with director Bob Koherr about an upcoming scene between pregnant Becky and the Mexican Emilio (Rene Rosado), her one-night stand and the father of her unborn child. "We wanted their relationship to get a little closer and deal with the reality of being involved with somebody who's not in the country legally," says Helford afterward. A romantic moment in the scene elicits a "Woooooo!" from the crowd.

8:24pm In Scene 7, Darlene, still thinking about that possible relocation to the Windy City, answers the front door to find her ex-husband, David (guest star Johnny Galecki) — a man she still has feelings for. "Darlene is torn between a lot of possibilities," Gilbert explains in our postshow interview. "She can help or hurt people depending on what she chooses [to do]."

ABC Sets 'Conners' Replacement, Premiere of 'Goldbergs' Spinoff 'Schooled'

ABC Sets 'Conners' Replacement, Premiere of 'Goldbergs' Spinoff 'Schooled'

Plus, 'American Housewife' finds a new time slot.

8:37pm The set now in use is identifiable as the former Lanford Lunch Box restaurant, which Jackie and Roseanne owned on the original series. The fact that it's now a Chinese restaurant doesn't faze a drunken Jackie. Metcalf later explains the source of Jackie's pain. "Her personal journey with the grief [over Roseanne's death] bubbles up again. Without that anchor of her sister, she's really pretty lost."

8:52pm During prep for the next setup, the studio warm-up guy quizzes the spectators on classic TV theme songs, passing out The Conners ball caps and T-shirts for correct answers. A curious Goodman walks over to hear a participant incorrectly guess Knight Rider for one tune. (We, of course, knew it was CHiPs.)

The cast of The Conners

8:58pm Gilbert and Metcalf sit solemnly at the Conners' kitchen table, waiting to start a heartfelt scene that addresses Jackie's unraveling from the night before. "Jackie's been trying to be there for Darlene," Gilbert says afterward. "But it just turns, and it's really Darlene who has to be there for her."

9:16pm The taping ends, and the satisfied cast takes another round of bows to uproarious applause. The stage then empties and the audience files out of the studio. That's a wrap!

The Conners, Season Finale, Tuesday, January 22, 8/7c, ABC