'The Conners: Live From Lanford': TV Review

ABC
Solid laughs/pathos; bloodless political commentary.
2/11/2020

A pair of special live episodes about the Democratic primaries allowed the show's characters to remark on the results in real-time.

ABC on Tuesday night aired a pair of special live episodes of The Conners that promised to respond to New Hampshire primary results in real-time. (The episode was filmed twice: once for the East Coast and once again three hours later for the West Coast, with slight differences in the dialogue as outcomes came pouring in.)

ABC was one of the first networks to develop this sitcom gimmick when it aired a much-hyped live episode of The Drew Carey Show in 1999. Now the network hopes to perfect the format with its highly rated Live in Front of a Studio Audience franchise, which casts movie stars to play characters from classic ABC comedies during special one-off live events. The Conners' showrunner Bruce Helford, who also orchestrated "Drew Live" when he was an executive producer on the show, pulled off a well-oiled but ultimately bloodless half-hour last night. (I watched the East Coast broadcast.) "Live From Lanford" is as funny and tender as any episode of The Conners, which, against the odds, has developed into a consistent comfort. However, if you were expecting any partisan ferocity or raucous debating you were out of luck: The episode is more a PSA for voting than a political thrill.

Unlike Roseanne, The Conners has generally refrained from overt political commentary, instead finding its pathos in socioeconomic strife. (In my favorite line of the episode, Becky, played by Lecy Goranson, balks at the idea of being put on the no-fly list for political activity. "When was the last time any of us flew? If they ever put us on the no-bus list, then we'll have a problem.") Here, the writers can't afford to circumvent real-life politics, so instead they throw a few superficial digs that call to account the U.S.' plutocratic tendencies or this presidential administration's particular brand of pageantry. Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) lobs the biggest hand grenade of the evening, mocking President Donald Trump's tweeting habit. “That’s how we learn where our military is," she sneers.

Refreshingly, the main plot revolves around Darlene's children, Mark (Ames McNamara) and Harris (Emma Kenney), who have been mostly used as props on the show. (Conversely, on Roseanne, teens Becky and Darlene, played by Sara Gilbert, were flesh-and-blood players.) Middle schooler Mark has to write a school report on the primaries, so he sits in the Conners' living room watching, and describing to the audience, the live results from New Hampshire. (A flat-screen TV in the corner of the set featured real-time TV journalists reporting from the Granite State.) Mark is sanguine about the country's future, firmly believing in the power of democracy. "When you don’t take this seriously, you get the government you deserve," he chides.

His older sister, who's now officially of voting age, scoffs at this optimism, convinced the election is corrupt and that voting makes no difference anyway. The series often presents sisters Darlene and Becky as foils, but they mostly just snipe at each. Darlene's true spiritual foil is Harris, a kid whose hardened utilitarianism clashes with Darlene's longstanding ambition. Harris wants to succeed at her retail job and study for the GED — four-year college is not one of her goals, much to Darlene's disappointment. I was impressed with newcomers McNamara and Kenney, who honored the stakes of this episode and performed as effortlessly as any of the acting veterans.

While Mark confronts Harris over her cynicism and disregard for his well-being, Darlene and Becky embody the spirit of their dead meddling mother and try to reunite their dad with his not-quite-girlfriend before the she leaves Lanford to tour with her band. I thought perhaps real-time primary results would punch, forcing the cast to ad-lib their lines, but they merely amounted to a bunch of statistics being read aloud periodically during the broadcast, including a brief mention that Andrew Yang dropped out of the race mid-recording. 

The best moments of the episode, however, zeroed in on Dan's (John Goodman) conflict with his daughters, who want to see him happy with barmaid/rock singer Louise (Katey Sagal). At one point, Goodman bellows so savagely at the women I actually got scared for a moment. (Both Goodman and Metcalf made their bones in theater before they became TV stars.) 

The episode couldn't have gone more smoothly, which is a feat for the production but actually somewhat of a letdown for the shark-like audience, constantly on the hunt for that little taste of blood. During a pivotal scene, my screen briefly cut to a commercial for Window World of Boston, which might have been the second time I cackled at the TV set during the broadcast. (The first was when Mark and Harris fight over a laptop and the machine goes flying across the set.) Overall, the cast and crew pulled off a flawless execution, which I attest to Helford's veteran producing skills and the trust between the castmembers, many of whom have been working together for more than 30 years. Goranson, in particular, is the MVP of the episode, delivering zinger after zinger with her signature serrated verve and impeccable timing. 

The next time The Conners attempts this format, I hope they inject a little more acid into the proceedings. In the words of Becky Conner, "Take a hint and move on!"

Cast: Sara Gilbert, Lecy Goranson, John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, Ames McNamara, Emma Kenney, Katey Sagal, Michael Fishman, Jayden Rey
Showrunner: Bruce Helford
Aired: Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (ABC)