LOS ANGELES — Veteran TV producer Bruce Helford knows how unpredictable a live sitcom episode can be. He has a vivid memory of the moment on “The Drew Carey Show” when an extra mooned the camera with a cheery “Hi Mom” scribbled on his behind, a broadcasting milestone that Helford figures gave network censors fits.
He’s trying something with even more potential for the unexpected: A live episode of ABC's “The Conners” airing 7 p.m. CT Tuesday that will incorporate, in real time, the Democratic primary in New Hampshire. The venture’s scheduling already counts as lucky.
“We were talking about what would have happened if we had done it during Iowa,” Helford said, referring to the state’s caucus voting a week ago that fell on a Monday, not on “The Conners'” regular air date, and has yet to be settled. “It would have been, ‘So what’s going on in Iowa? Uh, nothing.’ Very, very awkward.”
In the episode, which will be performed live twice for different time zones, Darlene's children Mark (Ames McNamara) and Harris (Emma Kenney) are watching news reports on the primary. Mark has been assigned a school report on it, while Harris plays the cynical observer who considers the influence of money in politics a blockade to change.
Other family members circulate through the room and spout off. The episode also focuses on the relationship between John Goodman’s Dan Conner and Louise (guest star Katey Sagal).
Injecting real-world events into a live scripted show gives it an immediacy that can draw viewers in and, something, Helford said with satisfaction, is rare if not unprecedented. The aim is both to entertain and to motivate, albeit in the blunt, disaffected manner of the sitcom's blue-collar household.
“It’s the Conners version, which is basically, ‘We’re not looking for anybody we love to vote for. We're just looking for the one that's gonna screw us the least. So if it's that cynical, we've been beat up a long time. We're just looking for some relief,’” was how Helford summarized the perspective.
The sitcom has never been “extremely political” but doesn't avoid reality, said Gilbert, who plays Darlene and is also an executive producer on the “Roseanne” spinoff.
“The issues that naturally come up are for a working-class family. So if we can't pay our health care bills or we can't make the rent, there's something inherently political about these things,” she said. "Some people may say that we don't get political enough ... and some people may say we get too political. I'm sure there is no perfect line that we can walk. But I think what we're trying to do is stay true to our show.”
The live episode, instead of being a TV stunt, offers a chance to “remind people they have a voice” and reinforce the importance of voting, she said.
(Asked if Roseanne Barr has weighed in the show, Gilbert replied, “No.” Barr's Twitter comments led to the demise of the “Roseanne” reboot, followed by the birth of “The Conners.”)
Unfolding events will demand some spontaneity from the cast and especially McNamara, who Helford called the point man for the story and, at only 12, a “brilliant” youngster able to handle the job. Rehearsals included charting possible directions the story could go and how the actors might respond, he said.
There will be an equal-opportunity approach to the candidates, Helford promised: “Everybody's going to catch a little fire.”
The episode also has what he called a “message of hope” to counter what he sees as the youthful pessimism represented by Harris.
“It’s not that it’s apathy anymore, it’s simply disbelief that the system can work,” Helford said, in contrast to the activism of his Vietnam War-inspired generation. “I see so much anxiety among young people about what’s going on in the world. They’re kind of feeling helpless about it. And this is a reminder that there is something you can do. You have to seize the moment.”
Messages aside, he said, “this is a comedy. This is all in good fun. We've got such tense times, people want to laugh.”
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