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The Conners’ Lecy Goranson And EPs Explain The Inspiration For Sitcom’s Gun Tragedy Episode

Spoilers below for The Conners’ latest episode, so be warned if you haven’t yet watched!

If the now-recovered Katey Sagal’s big return after being hit by a car would have happened in just about any other episode of The Conners’ fourth season, it would likely be the most important topic of discussion. However, the Season 4 installment “Triggered” brought a bit more to the table. The family struggled through an area-wide lockdown after a mall shooting was caused by a neighborhood teen who was eventually shot and killed during a live TV news feed. While none of the main characters was physically injured, the experience itself definitely impacted some of their mental states after everything was said and done. And it’s the “after the tragedy” idea that served as a catalyst for the episode’s conception. 

CinemaBlend spoke with The Conners star Lecy Goranson, showrunner Bruce Helford and executive producer Dave Caplan about the troublesome and thought-provoking ep, and why they wanted to bring this particular story to light for TV audiences. In particular Goranson is the one that put the wheels in motion, even though it took a while for them to reach their final destination. When I asked her about why the show was holding a mirror up to the world in such a way, here’s what she told me:

Well, I think that’s what we usually do as a show. The origin of why I wanted to do it was, I was at a play at Northwestern. I’m from Evanston, Illinois, right north of Chicago. And this woman sits next to me with her daughter, and she knows who I am, she watches the show, and she’s a teacher at Elgin High School, which is where Lanford takes place. Right? So, Lanford is the fictional version of Elgin. And she said, ‘If you really want to write something topical about the show, you should write about the gun violence in Chicago and in the area.’ And that really stayed with me. Unfortunately, that was two years ago, and there’s been no sign of anything letting up every day. I think people are very free using guns, but they’re not very free speaking about the consequences on our society, on human beings, on families, on children.

As sad and unfortunate as it is, Chicago could very easily have inspired a story like this one not just in the past two years, but for quite a large chunk of the recent past. But while there are many TV projects that would have put more of a focus on the lead-up and the violent acts themselves, The Conners wasn’t looking to glorify such things. To that end, the entire ordeal from the first words about the mall shooting to the point where the gunman was dead played out only through dialogue and sound effects, without viewers witnessing any of it in visual form. 

Instead, the ABC comedy was more interested in putting a spotlight on the elements that don’t come up as often when movies and TV shows tell narratives about mass shooters and other smaller community tragedies: talking about the aftermath. Since, as showrunner Bruce Helford half-implies below, violent incidents such as public shootings affect far more people than just those who suffer the wounds. Speaking to the headspace that Becky was in once Beverly Rose and Emilio returned home from their harrowing mall visit, here’s how he explained things:

The thing that we all sat and talked about at length was ‘What aspects of this do we want to approach?’ And where we came to is the trauma, the residual trauma, on all people. It doesn’t have to happen to you directly. You’re affected if it happens in your area, if it happens on your block, if it happens in your neighborhood. And there isn’t a family I don’t think, hardly a family in America, that hasn’t had a second thought about ‘Is my kid safe at school? Can my kid go to the movies? Can my kid go to the mall? Can I go to a concert?’ Everybody has that thought now, and I think that’s become increasing. It started out as sporadic and isolated incidents, and then now, well… So we decided that The Conners would discuss the consequences, and then what do you do once that happens. We discussed how important the aspect of healing people is, and whether the communities are set up to do that.

Granted, there’s only so much The Conners could do with its 22-minute runtime, even with its memorable opening sequence eschewed for tonal purposes. But by and large, the creative team did an admirable job working as many elements into the story as they did, all while still keeping the pace up with often pitch-black jokes. (I think it’s an all-time great Conners joke that Ben’s shoddy roofing work on the house was discovered to his dismay via news helicopter footage.)

(Image credit: ABC)

One of those elements was definitely a critical look at the current lack of readily available mental health resources for those who have experienced traumatic experiences like gun violence. Or even for those on the outskirts and still have a hard time dealing, such as what was happening with Laurie Metcalf’s Jackie as she sent herself into a manic state through sleepless social media doom-scrolling. EP Dave Caplan spoke to that idea, saying:

On The Conners, we always tried to express the viewpoint of the working class, which we think is underrepresented on television. And when the trauma that Lecy and Bruce are talking about occurs in the wake of gun violence, there are mental health resources that are necessary to help people cope with that sort of thing. And in working class neighborhoods a lot of time, these resources just don’t exist, or they’re paltry by comparison to other places. We watch the Connors try to get help in this episode, and there just isn’t enough of it to be had. That’s one of the things we’re trying to shine a light on.

For a lot of adults out there in the working class world, even if the resources would be available, the gumption to take action might not be. And so John Goodman’s Dan serves as a fairly relatable surrogate at several points during the episode. Particularly when he defends his reasoning for smiling in the face of such darkness. And Bruce Helford said that balance was a big part of the conversations when putting the episode’s pieces together.

Then of course, there was a discussion of, ‘How do you do this in a show that’s basically known as a comedy?’ But The Conners and Roseanne before it have a history of finding ways. It’s delicate, and it takes a lot of trial and error to find what tone you can strike, and what things sound tone deaf. And also, how people use humor just to survive the moment. There’s that moment with where Dan says, ‘Working class people don’t have an opportunity to stay home and take the day off and take a mental health day. I gotta go back to work and help people., and if I got to make a joke or two to get myself through the day, you gotta give me that.’ Which I think is a very real thing. It’s not the kind of thing you hear discussed very much.

While everyone’s mileage will vary when it comes to how tone deaf jokes will come off in the wake of something devastating, I’d say none the humor on display in “Triggered” was overtly crass or incendiary. Not that The Conners gets regularly insulting with its comedy, but the feather-ruffling was seemingly kept to a minimum given the sensitive nature of the story. (I mean, ruffling probably happened, but less so because of the jokes.)

(Image credit: ABC)

While adults suffering from mental health issues obviously have it hard, The Conners also draws a circle around the dearth of such healthcare within many school systems across the country, with Mary really bearing the brunt of the entire stressful experience. Dave Caplan explained that the statistic mentioned during the episode was one that they found during the research process.

Now we were also really shocked, Nick, when we were researching the show to be as accurate as possible. One of the things that’s in the show that we came to realize was how few school psychologists there are to help kids in the aftermath of a shooting. And we came across this statistic that made us look at it twice to make sure it was right, which was there’s one psychologist for 1,500 kids in a lot of school districts. So they have to wait and wait and wait to get any help. And Mary in our show really needs to talk to somebody, but it’s weeks before she can talk to a school psychologist. And we just think that’s a disaster.

The fact that D.J. was out of town only made things worse for Mary, without either of her parents around to give her the feeling of security that Darlene and Becky can’t really deliver themselves. So it’s understandable why it would be that much harder to separate from everyone to go back to school while still in a sense of shock. 

Lecy Goranson spoke to the fact that the amount of effort and support that goes into drills and prevention tends to outweigh the resources devoted to how things are handled when such events do occur. 

I also think it’s ironic that most kids in the United States do these gun drills very often in schools. It’s just part and parcel. That’s something that everyone makes the space for, and it’s an important thing. It’s a shame, but it’s important thing. But what we don’t make space for is the aftermath of people who actually come in contact with gun violence. And I think that’s a really interesting part of Mary’s story is that at first, she feels very prepared for this, but when in fact it hits her emotionally, it becomes a trauma for her, and that’s something that is not prepared in the drill. That’s what kids are not prepared for.

Some of those feelings of lost innocence are captured best in Stephen King’s novella The Body, adapted into Rob Reiner’s stellar Stand by Me. Not that Mary went out looking for a dead body or anything — this isn’t meant to be an apples-to-apples analogy — but the idea of intentions and assumptions being upended by the atrocities of reality are shared. 

Bruce Helford talked about his personal trauma-via-television experience, which is one of the most famous/infamous instances. 

When I when I was a kid, I was home sick from school when Kennedy was assassinated. And I actually watched the Lee Harvey Oswald get killed live on TV. And it really shook me, because I couldn’t at that age define between what was on TV and what was real. And I knew it was real, but I still saw it on TV as if it was almost a show. It was very, very disconcerting, and very disturbing. I remember sleeping with my parents for a few nights after that one. And so having them witness this on TV, you know, I think it was impactful.

As a follow-up to that rather sobering anecdote, Dave Caplan quickly connected the dots between conspiracy theorists’ idea of a second shooter and Helford not being seen in school that day. Which, for the most part, was a darker joke than arguably any in “Triggered.”

The Conners certainly hasn’t shied away from dark story points in Season 4, from Mark’s sub-addiction to ADHD pills to Becky accidentally derailing her sobriety to the Conner family getting rid of old furniture and other things from when Roseanne was still around. To say nothing of Becky and The Professor’s unethical relationship. But through all that and more, this clan has survived and thrived. Well not thrived. More like…stumbled forward without being completely engulfed in flames. 

How much will this neighborhood-set tragedy affect the family going forward? Fans will just have to find out when The Conners airs Wednesday nights on ABC at 9:00 p.m. ET. To see what new and returning shows are popping up elsewhere on the small screen, head to our 2022 TV premiere schedule

Nick is a Cajun Country native, and is often asked why he doesn’t sound like that’s the case. His love for his wife and daughters is almost equaled by his love of gasp-for-breath laughter and gasp-for-breath horror. A lifetime spent in the vicinity of a television screen led to his current dream job, as well as his knowledge of too many TV themes and ad jingles.

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