Virtual Learning, Dream Guest Stars, and Representation on “The Conners”
What parent can't relate to the challenges of virtual schooling at this point? While it's nice to watch TV and film as a form of escapism from everyday realities, it's also comforting to see TV shows address these challenges head-on. It makes us feel seen and less alone in our daily struggles. ABC's “The Conners” is doing exactly that.
I had a chance to chat with Sara Gilbert and Ames McNamara for a relatable and engaging, moderated conversation about “The Conners” the upcoming episode in Season 3 where their characters Darlene (Gilbert) and Mark (McNamara) deal with the realities of virtual school. In the upcoming episode (airing Wednesday, April 21 at 9/8c), Mark is stressed and exhausted from studying for an important entrance exam, so Darlene steps in to help, but her plan backfires.
Both Sara and Ames have dealt with these issues firsthand in their personal lives as well, so we chat about the series and how the show is depicting life’s new reality.
A conversation with Sara Gilbert and Ames McNamara
Can you share some of your own experiences that allow you to relate to what your characters are dealing with?
Ames: I know for myself, I've definitely experienced a lot of virtual school; it's inescapable the problems with virtual school so, and you know it's, it's really not the same as in-person school, but it's the best that we can do right now. I was able to relate to everything that Mark is going through because it's stuff that's happening to me and so many kids across the country right now and across the world.
Obviously, this technology is amazing, and it's so amazing that we're all in this Zoom call from all different places right now. But it's not perfect and there are some glitches and stuff like that. I feel personally lucky to have had amazing teachers who have helped me through my virtual school experience and really made it still engaging, which can be a problem sometimes. And you know, Zoom fatigue is a very real thing.
Sara: I feel fortunate that I've just had meetings, and I have more breaks than what my kids were dealing with, but there were definitely times like, my computer's not working right, or my charger's not working right, and then, you know, missing school and particularly for my youngest, I think he checked out a decent amount because being 6 years old, sitting on a screen all day, it's just exactly the opposite of what we try to do for our kids.
We use it when we're in a pinch, but we don't like them sitting on screens all day. So it's definitely been a struggle, but I'm happy to see things slowly returning back towards what we think of as normal for that and obviously a multitude of even more serious reasons.
What are you hoping your audience takes away after watching this episode on distance learning and helping your child study?
Ames: I guess I would say I hope that the audience takes away—and I'm sure many, many people in the audience, the viewers who will be watching this, will already know that this is a problem. But I think our episode helps to illuminate more of the problem and it shows also how it doesn't just affect the kids, but it affects everyone in the family. I think that's something that this episode really does a good job of portraying.
Sara: I think it also shines a light on the inequities in our country. I think we've all seen how people with fewer means already were struggling, but it puts a spotlight on that and it furthered those struggles, so it almost widened the divide between people who have more and people who have less. So they didn't always have tablets or computers, or Wi-Fi access, and so their kids would be falling further behind.
And so what I really like is that this episode talks about how unfair that is, and that it's really not a level playing field, and how much stress that causes a parent who just wants the best for their kid.
So Darlene in this episode does a really good job of trying to blow up the myth of meritocracy during her school confrontation. And in general, “The Conners” addresses this idea often. Why do you think it's important overall for the series to show that not everyone gets ahead just by working hard?
Sara: I think it's important to show because I think the only way we can change things is to first have some awareness around it and see the problem, be in touch with the problem, and then, hopefully, be able to take some action. I mean, it is really unfortunate—and something that I love about our show—that we get to address the fact that this is obviously a fictional group that represents a lot of people who are very kind, smart, intelligent, funny, good people that cannot break the cycle of poverty and cannot break through the levels of how unfair things can be in this country.
Ames: I think also, the pandemic has just, as Sara was saying, it's not like these inequalities did not exist before, but it's widened the gap, in a way, and also it's brought more attention to it, which I think is a good thing and by doing what we do, I think that hopefully, we can do something.
Sara, what subjects have been the hardest for you to help your children with?
Sara: They don't even come to me. I really am challenged when it comes to history. I know a lot of people don't like math or science; those are a bit easier for me. History, for some reason, I cannot keep track when they say, “There are three reasons that this happened,” and, “Three reasons that this other thing didn't happen,” and, “It happened between these dates It just becomes information stew in my head.
I cannot keep track of that. So one time my daughter was asking for my help with something, and we just started laughing because she understood it way before I did, and I was still caught reasoning it out. So that's definitely an area where they know not to approach me.
Ames, what's your least favorite subject to do through distance learning?
Ames: Ooh. That's a tough one. Every subject has its different challenges in distance learning, At my school, we have this really great program where, for languages—the language that I take is French—and it's really in-depth, and our teacher is a native French speaker, and it's immersion French. But it's a lot harder to learn a language online.
There's something about being in person and face-to-face, and just being able to talk in a classroom that makes learning a language when you're speaking back and forth a lot easier.
Sara: By the way, you should all know that Ames is the best student I've pretty much ever met. And it's funny because we have the same teacher. The teacher who was my teacher on the original “Roseanne” is his teacher now, and we just laugh at the differences because when it was time to go to school, Lecy and I would hide—go get food, try to get in another scene, whatever we could to be out of school—and Ames is excited to get back, checking his watch, “I wanna make sure I get to this class.” So it's a big difference.
Ames: Oh yeah, it's, it is pretty amazing that we still have the same teacher. Sharon, she's awesome, and she's definitely helped me stay up with my classes and all that but that's very funny.
Do you have any advice for kids who are feeling the pressures of doing virtual learning and adjusting to this world?
Ames: I think probably my best advice would be to say—it's really tough now, but we've already lost a year of being able to hang out with friends and family and socialize, and even though it's really not ideal at all to be doing schools long hours, and then homework on the computer—there's light at the end of the tunnel.
I hope this is not gonna be the normal thing for too much longer. And I think that you just have to think of the alternative of no school—just limited work is worse than being still, staying engaged and staying online, and still seeing your friends and your teachers, although it's virtual.
There have been some amazing guest stars this season. Who's your dream guest star?
Ames: I think for me, it would have to be someone like Lin-Manual Miranda. He's someone who I think is a really amazingly creative person, and I love Hamilton. I think it would just be so amazing to meet him and maybe get a chance to talk to him and see how he works, and stuff like that.
Sara: That's so hard. Judi Dench, Octavia Spencer, I mean, like we're going for the best. There are so many. It's really difficult to say. When we're done with this, I'm gonna be thinking of a million people.
Oh, and by the way, I thought of another dream person to have on the show, who I've been trying to get on the show forever. And I think it's doable; I've talked to her about it a lot. Lisa Kudrow. So I'm always saying it when I'm in interviews because I'm trying to manifest it because I think she would be so funny on the show.
How important it is to you to address real-life issues in the show, beyond just the virtual learning? How do you feel that TV shows can create healthy examples for their viewers, and how do we make sure we're telling your stories correctly?
Sara: I think for me if you have such a large platform, it's so important to use your voice and talk about what's going on in the world. I don't think we directly go after every topic. It's more when you're talking about what's affecting the family, you naturally are going to be dealing with what's happening in our society, especially if you're dealing with a family that is lower-middle class, and struggling to get by, a lot of the day-to-day issues are going to affect them.
I think our writers are really excellent. They pretty much all come from working-class backgrounds. Dave Caplan on our staff has his PhD in psychology, and when they don't know a thing, they end up doing a lot of research and help us to stay informed and make sure that we're tackling things properly.
As a whole, there are still very few TV shows that are inclusive when it comes to LGBTQ+ characters. So I asked the question about inclusion knowing that Ames plays a gay character, I wanted to know how his character had developed over the few years.
You play a gay character on the show. When the show first started, there were a lot of positive, important conversations around how to talk to your kids about identity. At that point, you had said that your character was too young to be gay and didn’t identify as transgender. In 2019, Ames' character, Mark, came out as gay. Has any of that changed over the last few years as the show has progressed and what does it mean to you to be able to play this role?
Ames: I think it's great to have representation. It's also, like you were saying, bringing up conversations about how to talk to your kids about how they're feeling. And I think that's one of the great parts about playing Mark is that you can see someone who's coming to terms with himself and who he is, as he's growing up.
And how his family has really been super supportive of him, and how they're trying to navigate it, as well. And I think that's definitely sparked conversations, and it's something that's really good to be shown on TV because it's definitely a part of peoples' lives, any person out there, questioning who they are as they grow up, you sort of find yourself. And I think that that's one of my favorite parts about playing Mark, and I think it's also one of my favorite parts about the show.
About Sara Gilbert (Executive Producer; Darlene Conner on ABC’s “The Conners”)
Sara Gilbert endeared herself to millions of television viewers with her portrayal of the sarcastic yet loveable Darlene Conner on the long-running, hit series “Roseanne,” a role which garnered her two Emmy nominations among numerous other accolades. Gilbert reprised her role as Darlene in the series revival in 2018, which premiered to record-breaking numbers, and she continues in her role as both Darlene and executive producer on ABC’s hit comedy “The Conners.”
Gilbert is the creator, executive producer, and former co-host of CBS’s award-winning talk show, “The Talk.” The show has won Daytime Emmy Awards for “Outstanding Talk Show/Entertainment” and “Outstanding Entertainment Talk Show Hosts.” Sara most recently made guest star appearances on “Atypical,” a show following an 18-year old autistic boy who decides it's time to take hold of the reins of his life and turn it into something amazing; and the YouTube Premium series, “Weird City.” The series co-created by Academy and Emmy Award-winning writer Jordan Peele and Emmy Award-winning writer Charlie Sanders centers around life in the not-too-distant future city of Weird.
Ames McNamara (Mark Conner-Healy on ABC’s “The Conners”)
Ames McNamara is a high-schooler from Hoboken, NJ. He has been acting in local musical theater since age 5 and professionally since age 8. He stars as Mark Conner-Healy on The Conners and also voices a lead role in a new animated show for pre-schoolers.
When he’s not acting, Ames likes to direct his friends in short movies, go on hikes with his family, read fantasy novels, and play tennis and soccer. He’s a huge Premier League and Formula 1 fan.
Besides continuing to act and direct, Ames hopes to work in environmental justice when he’s older, and ultimately to become president.
About “The Connors”
“The Conners” follows America’s favorite family as they continue to face the daily struggles of life in Lanford. Dan, Jackie, Darlene, Becky, and D.J. will continue to grapple with parenthood, dating, financial pressures, and aging in working-class America. Through it all – the fights, the coupon cutting, the hand-me-downs, the breakdowns – with love, humor, and perseverance, the family prevails. The series stars John Goodman as Dan Conner, Laurie Metcalf as Jackie Harris, Sara Gilbert as Darlene Conner, Lecy Goranson as Becky Conner-Healy, Michael Fishman as D.J. Conner, Emma Kenney as Harris Conner-Healy, Ames McNamara as Mark Conner-Healy, Jayden Rey as Mary Conner and Jay R. Ferguson as Ben. “The Conners” is executive produced by Tom Werner, along with Sara Gilbert, Bruce Helford, Dave Caplan, Bruce Rasmussen, and Tony Hernandez. The series is from Werner Entertainment.
Watch ABC's “The Connors”
“The Conners” airs WEDNESDAYS (9:00-9:30 p.m. ET) on ABC.