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:
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:
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.)
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:
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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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