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‘The Conners’ live New Hampshire primary special wasn’t all that special

‘Live from Lanford’ was supposed to riff off of the New Hampshire primary in real time. The result: an entertaining episode, but also a bill of goods.

‘The Conners’ live New Hampshire primary special wasn’t all that special
[Photo: courtesy of ABC/Eric McCandless]

Last night, ABC aired a live episode of The Conners tied to the New Hampshire primaries happening at the same time. The result: an entertaining episode but a bill of goods, nonetheless.

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The conceit of “Live from Lanford” was to have the character Mark (Ames McNamara) watch ABC News coverage of the primaries for a school assignment while members of the family dip in and out of the living room giving their comments in real time. In numerous interviews leading up to the episode, executive producer Bruce Helford made it seem like “Live from Lanford” would be akin to the live events of The Drew Carey Show, which he co-created, where characters would be given a loose plot and improvise the rest.

“I don’t like just doing live shows for the sake of live, because then it’s like you’re just watching to hear somebody flub a line or something,” Helford told The Hollywood Reporter. “So I wanted to make sure it was something special. On Drew, we used to do the live improv, which was really without a net, and that was wonderful. When I saw the New Hampshire primary was going to be on our normal air night, I thought, okay, this could be interesting and something that hasn’t been done before—actually interacting with the news as it’s going on live. You don’t have many news events that are predictable like a primary. You know it’s going to happen, so it gave us the opportunity to take advantage of that and do something unique.”

The opportunity was indeed there, but no one actually took it.

Despite having writers “intensely huddled” around newsfeeds coming out of the primary, the bulk of what was incorporated into the final script seemed pre-packaged. There were jokes about Mark, who is gay, only wanting to vote for Pete Buttigieg because he’s also gay.

“Hey! Watching the primary?” asked Ben (Jay R. Ferguson), a love interest of Mark’s mom, as he walked into the living room. “How’s your boyfriend doing?”

“He’s an excellent politician and qualified to be president, but he’s not necessarily my candidate just because he’s gay,” Mark quipped. “Did all black people vote for Obama?”

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“Yeah, pretty much,” Ben replied. “About 96%.”

There’s plenty of conversation about the Democratic Party candidates, but none directly about what was happening in the primary. The camera cut to ABC News’ coverage only a handful of times, and the only part that felt “live” was when Mark gave the latest results of the night: “Bernie has 28%. Klobuchar is up to 21%. And Yang dropped out.”

Probably would’ve been an ideal time to throw in a line about how one of the few candidates of color bowed out. But the only other reference to Yang comes six minutes later when Aunt Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) is giving an impassioned speech to her disillusioned great-niece Harris (Emma Kenney) about why she should vote.

“Warren and Sanders want to pay your college tuition! Yang wants to give you 1,000 bucks a month! And Biden wants to decriminalize marijuana.”

Sure, you could argue that she may not have gotten the news about Yang. But it’s details like that that undermine the whole premise of framing this as a live episode. In essence, “Live from Lanford” could’ve done away with any mention of the New Hampshire primary and treated it like a regular episode because The Conners and its predecessor Roseanne have never shied away from discussing politics from the point of view of the working class.

And it’s actually disappointing, given that this concept is exactly what the live space needed.

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For the longest time, musicals reigned supreme. Peter Pan Live, Rent Live, Grease Live, The Sound of Music Live, The Wiz Live—it seemed like live network events were strictly an arms race of slapping any musical with a decent reputation onto a TV soundstage. While still offering events like The Little Mermaid Live and the upcoming Young Frankenstein, ABC also began incorporating “live in front of a studio audience” specials of classic sitcoms including All in the Family and The Jeffersons—a pivot toward something other than a musical, but just another reboot all the same.

“Live from Lanford” had the potential to up the ante even further by bringing in live coverage of a decisive and highly scrutinized election cycle happening in the moment. The excitement wouldn’t have hinged on waiting for an actor to flub a line; it would’ve been about chipping away at the fourth wall in an inventive way, like you’re watching TV with your favorite TV family. Best of all, it would’ve been an organic tie-in given how heavily The Conners leans into politics and societal issues. Remember, this is the show that killed off its problematic matriarch with a prescription pain pill overdose.

But, alas, for how well “Live from Lanford” was executed with nary an actor dropping a line, it wasn’t anything special. There’s a chance that the West Coast taping will be more of an analysis of the primary results rather than a live feed. That may be more interesting. That said, ABC Entertainment president Karen Burke did say that their strategy is to present “one live or big tenspot event every month.”

That means that ABC has 10 months to retool this idea for the main event in November.

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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