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Review: 'The Conners,' 'black-ish' return with pandemic-themed episodes

"The Conners" are back and dealing with the

"The Conners" are back and dealing with the pandemic. From left, John Goodman, Sara Gilbert, Lacey Goranson. Credit: ABC/Eric McCandless

SERIES "The Conners" and "black-ish"

WHEN|WHERE Season premieres Wednesday at 9 and 9:30 p.m., respectively, on ABC/7

WHAT IT'S ABOUT "black-ish" and "The Conners" launch their 7th and 3rd seasons respectively Wednesday, with COVID-specific storylines. In "black-ish," Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross) has been a first-responder since the outbreak, while Dre (Anthony Anderson) is trying to convince anyone who will believe him that he's an essential worker, too. In "The Conners" ("Keep on Truckin' Six Feet Apart"), Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) is worried about Dan's (John Goodman) health, while Dan is just worried about his livelihood. Meanwhile, Darlene (Sara Gilbert) and Becky (Lecy Goranson) need to find work — fast.

MY SAY Back on Sept. 29, 2001 at the start of the 27th season, "Saturday Night Live" chief Lorne Michaels memorably asked then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani if "we can be funny?" (to which Giuliani just as memorably replied: "Why start now?") That's the challenge for sitcoms, too, especially those as firmly rooted in real life/real problems as "black-ish" and "The Conners" are. They've had nearly eight months to figure out what's "funny," if anything, in a world shaded by nearly a quarter-million deaths. "SNL" had the benefit of a genuinely moving open, and stirring performance of "The Boxer" by Paul Simon. But no Simon to the rescue here, or lyrics that have only sharpened with age ("I have squandered my resistance/for a pocketful of mumbles"). Just the hard work of finding something funny where nothing funny exists.

As expected, both sitcoms approach the national tragedy in their own unique ways. "Black-ish" is the brighter of the two, the optimist that finds light at the end of the tunnel in the trustiest of sitcom conventions: The punchline. Referring to another pizza in an endless line of them, Bow — who doesn't quite buy the "hero" label everyone wants to pin on her — says, "I'll bet you that when Batman saved Gotham he got more than 'hot and ready' …"

By contrast, "The Conners" is about as upbeat as late Eugene O'Neill. The bank is about to foreclose on Dan's house, Darlene's magazine is staring into the abyss, and the sisters need to find jobs. Basic necessities are hard to come by. Dan's hair is just about shoulder-length. Beer — the taller the can the better — is his escape. The Conners' long day's journey into night gets darker and darker, and then, by the final act …

Well, why spoil it? TV comedies, especially good ones like "black-ish" and "The Conners," know when they have to "pivot" — that term so favored during quarantine — but especially know

when to arrive back at the same place where all sitcoms eventually end up: In the warm, swaddling embrace of family.

The world is cold and COVID-19 is at the door but the family is forever. It's the stuff that cliches are made of — worse, mawkish cliches — but in capable hands, it feels just about right. These hands are capable indeed.

BOTTOM LINE The world may have gone to hell, but "black-ish" and "The Conners" do at least succeed in looking on the bright side.

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