Plagiarism in Pop Culture: The Conners

The Conners is a follow-up/spin-off series of the 1980s comedy Roseanne. The show focuses on the family decades after the original series and after the death of the family’s matriarch, Roseanne Conner. 

As such, the show has a great deal of returning characters from the original series including Dan Conner, Jackie Harris, Darlene Conner and Becky Conner-Healy. However, several new characters are introduced as well, including Mark Healy II, who is the son of Darlene and her late husband Mark Healy.

Mark has drawn a great deal of attention as a character in the show. Between him coming out as gay, being identified as a gifted student, bringing a knife to school and, in a recent episode, becoming dependent upon drugs to do well in school, the 14-year-old character has received a great deal of focus and attention through the show’s four seasons.

However, it was in a recent episode that Mark found himself at the center of a plagiarism story. In episode 12 of season 4, entitled Hot for Teacher and Writing a Wrong, Mark becomes known not for his intellect, but his willingness to plagiarize. 

Content Warning: Spoilers for Episode 12 Season 4 of The Conners Below

The Plot

Like most of The Conners episodes, the episode itself tells two separate stories. The first story deals with Becky, who forms a crush on one of her college professors. Since the two stories don’t overlap, we’ll skip that one here.

The episode begins with Mark expressing frustration about attending public school. Previously, he had been sent to a magnet school and was optimistic about his scholarship opportunities but Darlene, his mom, pulled him out after they discovered he had been taking prescription medication to study better.

Darlene finds the money

Darlene, while putting up laundry in his room, discovers a wad of money and estimates it to be about $500. Her assumption, as well as that of the family, is that Mark has gone from using prescription drugs to selling them. This is immediately supported by the fact many of Mark’s classmates have been visiting him in the evening. 

However, we quickly learn that isn’t the case. We see mark with a fellow student in his room discussing the buying of an admissions essay for college. Mark attempts to learn about any interesting information about the student to add to the essay but strikes out. 

Mark with a customer

Darlene, still believing Mark is selling drugs, confronts the student in the hall and demands that he turn over the pills. However, the only pills he has are dairy digestive aids. When Darlene confronts her son, the truth comes out about what he has been doing. 

This sparks a debate between the two. Though somewhat relieved his isn’t selling drugs, Darlene says, “That’s wrong too, it’s unethical”. 

To that, Mark responds, “Yeah, but it’s not illegal. Tutors help kids with their essays all the time.”

Darlene follows up, noting that, because of his work, undeserving rich kids are getting into schools while more deserving ones are not. Mark notes that he IS one of those more deserving kids. 

After that, Mark storms off, saying he’s going to open a savings account. 

An angry parent at the door

Things come to a head that evening when there is a knock at the family’s door. A man, the father of one of the students that Mark sold an essay to.

The father is upset because the essay Mark wrote for his daughter was identical to another essay he sold to a different student, both with aspirations of applying to Northwestern. Darlene says that Mark will pay his daughter the money back, but he steps in and says that it wasn’t her that paid for it, it was him.

When the man says he wants another essay, Darlene puts her foot down and says Mark is not writing any more essays and this begins a series of back and forth threats that ends with Darlene slamming the door in his face.

Afterward, Darlene explains to Mark just how lucky he is. Namely that, if those essays had been submitted, he would have been turned in and likely blacklisted. 

Darlene lays down the law…

Mark, is still despondent about paying for college, but Darlene comes up with a new solution, learning the contrabassoon to earn a scholarship.

Understanding the Plagiarism 

The story is clearly based on the 2019 college admissions scandal. There, the Department of Justice executed a sting operation and charged some 50 people with fraud for attempting to game admissions processes at high-profile universities.

This scandal involved wealthy parents of students working to cheat college admissions processes to get undeserving students accepted to high-profile schools. Part of that involved parents purchasing essays for students to submit.

But while the show wears its inspiration on its sleeve, it actually does a decent job discussing a much larger issue: Contract cheating.

When discussing the issue of contract cheating, online essay mills tend to dominate the coverage. That is understandable, as they are the very public face of a very shadowy industry. However, the reality is much different.

Most contract cheating is done in person, often with students in the same class. That, in turn, is very similar to what The Conners portrayed. However, Mark would still be somewhat an outlier as he did it for money, something that is less often the case

Still, the episode is an excellent look at why students sometimes turn to contract cheating, both on the supply and demand side. On one side you have a student who is bright and capable but beset with financial problems. On the other side, you have wealthy students (or even less than wealthy students) that lack either the ability or the confidence to do the work themselves.

The episode also looks at how these efforts often fall apart. Namely, that paid essay writers, overwhelmed by the demands put upon them, take shortcuts and reuse their own or other people’s material. This means that students, who often turn to contract cheating out of fear of plagiarizing in an easily detectable way, commit exactly that kind of plagiarism.

Another way the episode shines is by discussing the role of the parent. Here, the parent is not just enabling the plagiarism, but actively engaged in it. That is an unfortunate reality that many schools are dealing with, finding out that parents are undermining their efforts at integrity.

If there is any gripe that I have with this episode, it’s the ending. While it is clear that Mark understands the gravity of the situation, there seems to be no real repentance on his part, just a fear of getting caught.

To that end, the episode doesn’t resolve the moral issues it brought to light in the middle of the episode. Mark doesn’t stop because he realizes what he is doing is wrong, but because he realizes he could ruin his future if he continues.

That aside, the episode is a good look at plagiarism and carefully explores a lot of the nuance of the topic. Even if it is almost certainly based on a very public scandal, it’s a good look into the private decisions that get people in that position.

Bottom Line

In the end, this is a very solid discussion of plagiarism for pop culture. It shows how a sitcom can explore these issues with the appropriate gravity while still keeping things somewhat light and funny.

Compare this, for example, to Boy Meets World and its handling of nearly the same topic. It’s clear that the sitcom treated the topic with weight and not just as another plot device for wacky shenanigans. 

However, it also avoided coming across as preachy or like an after school special, something that The Facts of Life did 1980

This is a difficult balance to strike and, overall, The Conners handles it well. Though some resolution on the ethical discussion would have been nice, it was still treated with the correct amount of seriousness for the topic and the show.

All in all, it’s a good example of handling the topic of plagiarism well, while still making the show entertaining and light. 

Image Credit: All Images Courtesy of Disney’s Press Page.

More Plagiarism in Pop Culture (In Reverse Order)

Want more Plagiarism in Pop Culture? There Are 40 others to check out!

Want to Reuse or Republish this Content?

If you want to feature this article in your site, classroom or elsewhere, just let us know! We usually grant permission within 24 hours.

Click Here to Get Permission for Free