SPOILER ALERT: This story includes details about tonight’s live, politically themed episode of The Conners on ABC — the 8 PM East Coast version & the more recent West Coast version that both incorporate the New Hampshire Primary.
UPDATE, 8:50 PM PT: The second verse was not quite the same as the first for ABC’s The Conners tonight with the live West Coast version of the sitcom’s New Hampshire primary themed show.
Directly following George Stephanopoulos telling viewers of the Disney-owned network that Bernie Sanders was the winning Democrat of the first official primary in the 2020 Presidential campaign, the Pacific Standard Time broadcast of the Roseanne spinoff showed the Ames McNamara portrayed Mark watching the Vermont Senator give his victory speech live. “They’re saying Bernie won it, but there could be some Russian hacking, Putin is in second,” McNamara deadpanned to his aunt Becky, played by Lecy Goranson.
The live East Coast version of the John Goodman-led series aired when results were just starting to come in for the hotly contested Democratic race. Otherwise, with Bachelor in-show promos on both coasts, the two broadcasts were pretty much the same, narratively and thematically.
With timely references to the performance of former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the irony of The Conners tonight was that the show was watching coverage on ABC that wasn’t actually airing on ABC tonight.
But, with ABC more deeply committed to live TV events than Sen. Warren is to Medicare for all, that’s the thing about a gimmick isn’t it … it only works if you don’t pay too much attention.
PREVIOUSLY, 6:30 PM PT: A politically charged sitcom, The Conners, met ABC’s commitment to live television as the iconic working-class family reacted in real time to the unfolding New Hampshire Primary on Tuesday night.
In the innovative half-hour episode titled “Live from Lanford,” an earnest Mark (Ames McNamara) watched live ABC News coverage of the primary for a school report as he warded off his family’s working-class cynicism. Zingers on politicians included: “Some of them are really, really terrible. If you vote, you can be proud you’ll help elect someone who is just terrible.”
There were jabs at child care and the unattainable price of Broadway musicals. The house had a boiler problem and was cold. There wasn’t much to eat but macaroni and cheese without the cheese packet.
“Hi, @realdonaldtrump. Since you work for us, could you send us some cheese packets for our macaroni? This is @realmaryconner from Lanford, Illinois, where Chicago is,” Mary tweeted to the President.
In one exchange, Mark mistakenly thought Alexander Hamilton had been a president. “Yes, he was good, but he wasn’t president — he was just the character in a musical that is so expensive we’ll never see it.”
Becky Conner (Lecy Goranson) jibed: “Elizabeth Warren offered free child care at the caucuses. I was this close to flying to Iowa so I could go to a movie.”
The glimpses of anchors on screen in real time incorporated into the show by creator Bruch Helford provided the backdrop.
But despite the zingers, the politics was played pretty safe overall. The family remained disgruntled, but their views on the current administration were not clear, nor was whether they felt change was needed or possible. The question dominating the upcoming elections of whether working-class voters — or at least these voters in Langford — will vote their own interest largely was unanswered.
The family did gather in the kitchen for a public service promo during a commercial break, urging people to vote — because, “You can’t make people feel stupid about who they voted for unless you voted.”
Helford has said he had to convince the actors who were terrified by the idea of going live that it would be OK, and he promised them it would be fun. It went pretty smoothly, ending with a shot of cameras and crew and a big burst of applause and cheers.
The episode was a twist on a tele-political saga that saw ABC resurrect Roseanne Barr’s iconic show in 2017 after 21 years to much fanfare and stellar ratings. Barr supported Trump onscreen and off and found herself fired by ABC the following summer for racist tweets. The show was canceled, but the spinoff, The Conners, sans the family’s longtime matriarch, premiered in fall 2018.
As the politics unfolded, a love story evolved when Louise (Katey Sagal) gets an opportunity that might send her away from Langford. The family throws her a going-away party that backfires.
ABC has been at the forefront of a revival in live scripted programming since the early 2000s with an annual live edition of The Drew Carey Show, co-created and executive produced by Helford. Other networks followed, rolling out live musicals and various other formats. ABC brass has said the network wants to air one live program event a month.
The cast did a funny — and meta — live promo for the live episode during ABC’s live Oscar telecast Sunday. Settled in around the TV in their living room, they dissed the characters in the show they were watching, until they realized it was them.
This civics lesson rolled into a sitcom might be interesting given the long slog to November and all the primaries to come. Watching them on someone else’s TV that’s on your TV with fictional characters sparking truth and controversy could be a welcome relief.
The show goes live again at 8 pm PT for the West Coast – maybe there will even be a Democrat front-runner by then for the family to riff on.