Darlene Conner, I’m calling you my Valentine because it’s nearly February 14 and you’re hella important to me. But I never had a crush on you; I just identified with you deeply (as, I’m sure, did scores of mold-breaking, sarcastic-but-vulnerable, masculine-energied young girls in the 1990s).
You put your folks through hell by being too self-assertive too soon. Your tepid brown frazzle flourished into a cascade of inky curls framing a Mona Lisa smirk. Your withering wit spit like hot oil to keep your terrifyingly tender, quivering fellow humans at arm’s length. Your demented art upset your fiercely protective father (the character that, oddly enough, reminded me most of my mother). TV Guide dubbed your sexily submissive boyfriend a “milquetoast swain”, and I have to believe it’s partly because of you that I settled down with one of those myself. You were somehow underachieving and overachieving at the same time (story of my life). Goth-adjacent before I even knew the term. A grunge fashion icon.
Not only that, but – I’m just gonna say it – kerfluffles of recent years notwithstanding, I’m pretty ride-or-die for the Conner family canon, then and now.
Of course with the whacked out lotto fever dream that closed the original series, it is debatable what the real canon even is. But while at the time I (rightfully) recognized that flight of fancy as inferior to earlier seasons, my memories of it have grown oddly charitable. That final season presented us with alternate realities, which allowed for unique perspective. It embraced surrealism as a tool of cultural critique (a practice that’s essentially the blood in my veins). The show as a whole, rooted in the thwarted potential of a midwestern mom who once wanted to be an author, was also grounded firmly in literature (“Brain-Dead Poets Society”, “Communicable Theater”), plus it featured some bang-up blues rock performances. It talked down to no one, a rare (in popular media) combination of blue collar and intellectual.
Combatants have always come for the series, across decades and from wildly different directions. Through it all, my love for the institution remains pure. I don’t claim to be objective. Every ounce of crazy surrounding this show feels understandable, organic to me. Of course the family was divided by politics. Of course people made dumb mistakes and reaped the consequences. Fantasy and reality were disturbingly blurred. Death struck, people changed shape. Age encroached in a relatable way, faces becoming rougher for wear but retaining a beautiful familiarity. The issues being tackled evolved with the times (though the show is, and has always been, a little bit queer). It remains one of the most verbally virtuosic sitcoms I’ve seen.
I kind of fell out with Darlene as she crossed the threshold of motherhood and confronted challenges I not only couldn’t relate to as a young adult but also knew I would never relate to, having already fully realized my total disinterest in child-rearing. But I had to admit that if someone like me were to have an oopsie, it would be just like that: born of hubris, thinking I was above it all and thus getting too comfortable (not to mention in some comically counterintuitive context like a Disney World episode).
Nostalgia hounds complain about the Darlene of the reboot, acting like she’s implausibly different from the Darlene of old, but I disagree. I think the character we see now is a perfectly logical evolution: less punk and more pragmatic (a common trajectory in real life), still lavishly sardonic, with eerie flashes of her mother’s ferocity, and less withholding of the compassion that always throbbed beneath the surface.
The aforementioned “Brain-Dead Poets Society” episode (apparently written by the now-infamous Joss Whedon, who I’m convinced at least understood alienation on a gut level) was the source of a scene to which countless gifted outcast kids have no doubt cleaved for years: Darlene’s reticent reading of her “To Whom It Concerns” poem.
Speaking of. I think my doing something with this is about twenty years overdue: