Mark (Ames McNamara) and his sister, Harris (Emma Kenney), watch news coverage of the New Hampshire presidential primary during Tuesday’s live performance of ABC’s ‘The Conners.’ (Photo: Eric McCandless, ABC)
“The Conners” was so excited about presenting a live episode that they did it twice.
The ABC family comedy offered a live version of Tuesday’s episode, “Live From Lanford,” at 8 EST for audiences in the Eastern and Central time zones and then another at 8 PST for the West Coast feed.
And, with the episode incorporating live ABC News feeds from the New Hampshire presidential primary, real life interrupted art, as the West Coast broadcast was delayed for two minutes by a breaking-news update with anchor George Stephanopoulos projecting Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders as the Democratic primary winner.
It shouldn’t have been surprising that a single live performance wouldn’t be enough for executive producer Bruce Helford, who presided over a 1999 episode of “The Drew Carey Show” that broadcast live in all four U.S. time zones. And the primary coverage simply added to the degree of difficulty.
“Just doing a live show is not enough. It’s fun, but I wanted to add another element to this,” Helford said.
In the episode, Darlene’s son, Mark (Ames McNamara), watches news coverage for a school report on the primary, as other characters go in and out of the room. (The three-hour difference meant changing news reports, with actors and writers adjusting dialogue as events and coverage changed between the two broadcasts.)
Overall, the West Coast feed went off with nary a glitch, save for one slightly garbled line of dialogue and an overhead microphone briefly dropping into the frame in a kitchen scene. The actors performed solidly, with John Goodman especially strong as Dan Conner, veering from angry to sad as he explained to his daughters how much he missed his wife, the late Roseanne Conner.
The primary coverage adequately but awkwardly performed its service, proving the episode was live with occasional cut-ins of Sanders’ victory speech and anchor and pundit analysis on a flat-screen TV oddly situated on a chair in the Conners’ living room. However, the news cutaways were abrupt and didn’t add much, serving primarily as the television equivalent of a kidnapping victim being photographed with the front page of that day’s newspaper.
Near the end of the East Coast broadcast, about 30 minutes after New Hampshire polls closed, Mark announced early results: “Bernie’s leading with 28%, (Sen. Amy) Klobuchar is catching up with 22% and (Andrew) Yang just dropped out of the race!”
During the West Coast performance, Mark reiterated the Sanders’ victory projection to inquiring aunt Becky (Lecy Goranson) a few minutes after the Stephanopoulos update, but with a Russian-interference joke added to the end: “They’re saying Bernie won it, but there could be some Russian hacking. Putin’s in second.”
Mark, enthusiastic and hopeful about elections but too young to vote, contrasted with his sister, Harris (Emma Kenney), eligible to cast a ballot for the first time but apathetic about the process.
Sara Gilbert, who plays Darlene, said the prospect of a live taping – in this case, times two – was scary, but worth it for the episode’s underlying encouragement of civic participation.
“I think the biggest benefit is that we can bring awareness of voting,” said Gilbert, who joined fellow cast members in a separate PSA encouraging viewers to go to the polls. “The risk obviously is making mistakes or feeling like you’re going to make a fool of yourself. But the truth is audiences always love when live things don’t go perfectly, so there’s no real dire risk.”
With a working-class family known for dealing with current political, cultural and social issues, the presidential primary was a good fit – although likely a much different episode than would have aired if Trump supporter Roseanne Barr were still around and “Conners” predecessor “Roseanne” hadn’t been canceled.
“’The Conners’ is going to be immersed in politics, not matter what we do,” Helford said before the episode. “Truthfully, with what’s going on in the country with the working-class man, they are being hit from all sides. So, (the characters) have a lot to say about the process right now.”
Unsurprisingly, other family members offered skeptical takes on politicians, with Darlene and Becky countering Mark’s praise of noble presidents by observing Washington was rich and Lincoln got shot.
When Mark mentioned Alexander Hamilton, Darlene said: “He was good, but he wasn’t president, just a really cool character in a musical we can never afford to see. And shot.”
The episode also weaved in continuing story lines, with Mark and Harris ending a simmering sibling battle and Dan’s children learning that he and Louise (Katey Sagal) had broken up.
As the episode closed and various Conner family members walked into the kitchen, evoking the opening dinner-table credits, the camera pulled back, revealing other cameras and crew members on the studio set. It showed how a sitcom shot in front of a studio audience is the closest thing to theater in TV or film.
But it’s not quite theater, as stage veteran Laurie Metcalf, who plays Darlene’s aunt, Jackie, said in an interview in advance of Tuesday’s episode.
“Theater is live, but you usually have rehearsed it (many times),” she said. “You’re comfortable. You know where the laughs are. You know everything about it. You’ve tried it out in front of an audience during previews.”
Goodman acknowledged the excitement of live TV, but said he would have been fine with one live performance, not two, which meant some dialogue changes.
“I never trust myself with lines, anyway. So, this (is) a double curse for me,” he said in an earlier interview.
In the end, he and his acting colleagues had nothing to fear on that front.
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