The Lunch Box Reopens! 'The Conners' Cast on Returning to the Family Business

The Connors Season 2 Lunch Box
Preview
ABC/Andrew Eccles

Hope you're hungry for a hearty helping of comfort food!

Nearly three decades after diners first sat down at the Lanford Lunch Box on Roseanne, the since-shuttered family-run eatery flips back the open sign on The Conners on Tuesday, February 18. "It's a nod to all the fans of Roseanne," says executive producer Bruce Helford, who also worked on that 1988–97 sitcom for 25 episodes as well as its revival. "More importantly, it's an integral part of our storytelling about healing and finding purpose in turbulent times."

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And more fun with the the casts of 'Shark Tank,' 'A Million Little Things,' 'For Life,' 'Station 19,' 'The Conners,' and more.

That mix of nostalgia and inspiration (not to mention a heap of humor) has driven The Conners — about the everyday struggles of an extended Illinois family — to its place as ABC's highest-rated comedy. (The show averages 5.6 million viewers a week.) "I thought we were going to be lucky to pull off the first season," says executive producer Sara Gilbert, who also plays sarcastic single mom Darlene. The Conners is now in its second, and a renewal for a third seems assured, but there was a time the future for those involved seemed messier than one of the Lunch Box's loose meat sandwiches.

To recap: When the Roseanne revival debuted two years ago, 18.4 million viewers tuned in live, a number unheard of in the era of DVR, streaming and on-demand. Two months in, star and creator Roseanne Barr posted a racist tweet, leading the network to pull the plug on the series. But the cast, primarily Gilbert and Lecy Goranson (Darlene's older sister, Becky), hoped to salvage something. Thus The Conners was born, minus Roseanne's title character (and the axed actress), who was revealed to have died offscreen.

(Credit: ABC/Eric McCandless)

The Conners' concept remains nearly identical to its forerunner's: A financially shaky family, deeply loyal but prone to biting disagreements and long-held grudges, tries to secure a small slice of the American Dream. "The writers swing the pendulum from sweetness without mockery to a darkness," says costar Laurie Metcalf (tightly wound aunt Jackie). "It's a testament to our audience that they'll go there with us."

Roseanne's sister, who owned the Lunch Box in the '90s with her acerbic sibling, now partners with niece Becky. Helford had long planned on giving Jackie, rudderless since Roseanne's death, a new life goal. "When we laid out the arc for this season," Helford says, "we felt that Jackie would want to reopen the Lunch Box." Indeed, as she tearfully confessed in the Season 1 finale, it was the last place she recalled being content.

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Executive producer Dave Caplan previews the new characters coming to Lanford this fall.

Metcalf calls the career move "a major step in her life," adding, "It symbolizes a happier time for the family before the restaurant went under." (It's unclear when the Lunch Box, which Roseanne still owned when the series ended in 1997, shut its doors.) Not that getting the café back (after a Chinese joint in its place went under) has been a piece of cake.

It turned out that Jackie's critical mother, Bev (Estelle Parsons), retained ownership of the building (she lied and said she'd sold it). The forgetful senior had also given power of attorney to her levelheaded granddaughter Darlene, leaving her to decide whether to fork over the title to Jackie and Becky or keep the property as an investment for the family. That led to some ugly infighting before a heartfelt resolution.

For Becky's part, she wants to revive the eatery not for its sentimental value but more as a way to support her baby: The waitress welcomed daughter Beverly Rose this season after a tryst with undocumented worker Emilio (guest star Rene Rosado), who's since been deported. Becky is also newly sober after years of drinking to cope with the loss of her husband Mark (original series star Glenn Quinn, who passed away in 2002). Goranson calls her more mature character "responsible and tough" but concedes, "[She's] now realizing she needs her family to help with the baby and the Lunch Box, which is also a baby."

Roseanne, Season 6, "The Mommy's Curse"(ABC Photo Archives credit: ABC source: American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. cap writer: GETTY/JD)

Of course, managing the place with drama queen Jackie could make the hard stuff look tempting. "It won't be smooth sailing," Goranson admits, "but [their] dynamic will be entertaining, especially under stress." Adding to the amusement: Wacky Dwight (Stephen Monroe Taylor), a buddy of Conner patriarch Dan (John Goodman), is forced to fill in as the cook.

Challenges (competition from large companies, for one) do crop up. After all, when the Conners try to improve their lives, it's often one step forward and two back.

This is an abbreviated version of TV Guide Magazine's latest cover story. For more, pick up the issue, on newsstands Thursday, February 13.

The Conners, Tuesdays, 8/7c, ABC