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"The Conners" showrunner Bruce Helford explains why he killed off Roseanne with opioid addiction

In the premiere episode of "The Conners," "Keep on Trucking," a sudden turn of events forces the Conners to face the daily struggles of life in Lanford in a way they never have before. 

ABC/Eric McCandless

As former "Roseanne" star Roseanne Barr let slide last month, "The Conners" series premiere Tuesday revealed that Barr's character died from an opioid addiction. The show made its debut after a series of dramatic reversals last spring: first Barr was fired after she wrote a racist tweet, then the "Roseanne" reboot was canceled, but finally, after Barr agreed to relinquish any creative or financial ties, ABC brought back the cast, sans Barr, for a new show called "The Conners." 

Now showrunner Bruce Helford is opening up about why he and his team chose to kill off Barr's character the way they did. 

Helford, who has been working with Barr since the original "Roseanne" series in the 1990s, said, "I wanted a respectful sendoff." He told The Hollywood Reporter that killing the character with a heart attack would have been "cowardly." He said when the show was canceled, he felt that he and his crew and cast still wanted to continue the family's story for their audience. 

He said, "We had a feeling there would be a second half. We had the infrastructure, a cast with no prior commitments, a production team and crew that worked together with precision, 10 previous seasons of backstories, and the hardest thing of all to find in the land of 5,000 channels and 'Fortnite': a dedicated, loyal, passionate audience." Helford said that just a few weeks after the cancellation, ABC gave him the green light to move forward with a reboot without Barr. 

Helford explained that he and his staff did not want any storyline that was "far-fetched, anything that would make the fierce matriarch of the Conners seem pathetic or debased," and instead wanted closure that would "leave no shadow" over the rest of the Conners. He continued, "I wanted a respectful sendoff for her, too: one that was relevant and could inspire discussion for the greater good about the American working class, whose authentic problems are often ignored by broadcast television." 

He also said he wanted to be respectful not just to Barr's character, but the actress herself. He said, "Roseanne helped launch my career." 

The showrunner said that when "The Conners" shot the first scene, he was worried, but soon, "Laurie Metcalf landed a big laugh about casseroles, and you could feel the audience relax. The response was incredible for the rest of the evening, swooping from hold-your-breath dramatic moments to large, explosive, cathartic laughs. As a writer, you can't ask for more ... So in episode one, we mourn the loss of our matriarch. She deserved that."

The premiere episode of "The Conners" took place three weeks after Roseanne's funeral. Her family learns that she became secretly addicted to painkillers while recovering from an operation, and died from an accidental opioid overdose. Roseanne's addiction to painkillers actually came to light in the penultimate episode of the "Roseanne" reboot.

Barr did not take the premiere episode well, releasing a joint statement with her friend and mentor Rabbi Shmuley Boteach that said, "While we wish the very best for the cast and production crew of 'The Conners,' all of whom are deeply dedicated to their craft and were Roseanne's cherished colleagues, we regret that ABC chose to cancel 'Roseanne' by killing off the Roseanne Conner character." She also tweeted on Tuesday night, "I AIN'T DEAD, B***HES!!!!"

Barr said in September that her character would be killed off with an opioid addiction. "It wasn't enough to [fire me], they had to so cruelly insult the people who loved that family and that show," she complained. "There's nothing I can do about it. It's done. It's over. There's no fight left."

In August, "Conners" star John Goodman said he believed Roseanne's character would be dead in the spinoff. He guessed that his character, Dan Conner, Roseanne's husband, would be "mopey and sad" over his wife's death. 

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    Andrea is an entertainment producer at CBSNews.com