With the fall TV season barely out of the gate, one long-running show is in its home stretch.
I'm speaking, of course, about the 2008 presidential race.
Never fear, it will be back in a flash, relaunched as “Oh, Snap! Now What?” with the president-elect.
But the legally mandated conclusion to the current season is set for Nov. 4, and as we near the end, what could be more fitting (beside voting) than to pay tribute to a TV saga like no campaign that has gone before?
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It's never let us down, “Campaign '08,” chockablock with ups and downs, high drama and low comedy, major characters getting the boot and unknowns bursting on the scene.
Talk about a plot twist! Celebrity was blasted as a bad thing by Republican presidential hopeful John McCain in reference to his rock-star Democratic rival, Barack Obama – whereupon he took Sarah Palin as his running mate, transforming the little-known Alaska governor into a breakout folk hero.
“She was an exciting new development after a long campaign when people were getting tired of the original players in a lot of ways,” noted Tina Fey, who, impersonating her on NBC's “Saturday Night Live,” went beyond mimicry to help define Palin's public image – relatable and desirable, coquettish and combative, and a TV natural.
“You can't blink,” as Sarah Palin (the real one) said in another context, and she's darn right! Blink and you might miss something. (At least until it gets repeated again and again on the cable news networks.)
It's been a roller-coaster narrative played against a backdrop of war, economic collapse and the growing freak-out. It's a duel between who can say “change” the most often (drill it, baby, drill). It's a battle for the soul of America waged between socialist sissies who hobnob with terrorists and all those Bible-thumping plumbers and beer lovers named Joe.
And that's how we like it, especially now in these troubled times. We demand escapist fare on TV, and this political campaign has taken its place alongside “CSI” and “Dancing With the Stars” in keeping us engaged by keeping us diverted. Sure, the campaign has touched on issues that matter, but the candidates and the TV-news impresarios have, overall, done a fine job keeping tedious substance from overtaking entertainment value.
A few years ago, TV's political drama “The West Wing” depicted a presidential race that included a live mock-debate between pretend Democratic candidate Matt Santos and his make-believe Republican rival Arnold Vinick, who, right away, shocked him by proposing that their carefully negotiated rules of engagement be scrapped.
“When the greatest hero in the history of my party, Abraham Lincoln, debated, he didn't need any rules,” declared Vinick (played by Alan Alda). “We could junk the rules.”
“OK, let's have a real debate,” agreed Santos (Jimmy Smits). For the hour both actors, in character, improvised intelligent give-and-take that came off very much like a real debate – the serious, illuminating, old-fashioned kind that Lincoln might have recognized.
Except it was wonky, dry and not so entertaining.
Contrast that with the three McCain-Obama face-offs and the vice presidential debate between Palin and Democratic challenger Joe Biden. No one – neither moderators nor contenders – made the mistake of distracting their audience with a meaningful exploration of the issues.
Instead, each debate's primary focus was getting through it without stumbling. Therein lay the entertainment, suspense and drawing power (each debate captured an enormous audience).
Framing each event were TV's rampant pundits-for-hire and opinion-slinging hosts. This cackling Greek chorus is an essential part of the “Campaign '08” drama, and bless their hearts as they dish up clashing versions of each campaign moment, and make clashing predictions about what will happen next. It's entertaining all right, and, beyond that, mighty reassuring when an “expert” tells us what we already think and want to hear.
It's all good. From the sprawling drama of “Campaign '08,” we get the basic “serious” scenario interlaced with spoofery thanks to talk-show hosts and “faux” newscasts (Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert remain pillars of democracy with their “Indecision 2008” foolishness).
There's also lots of political sketch comedy. “Saturday Night Live” re-enacted each debate as a bite-size parody seized by “real” newscasts as part of their political coverage. And when actual candidates drop in on “SNL,” poking fun at themselves and the comics who ape them, that, too, appears to be newsworthy.
The race is nearly over, but the show will go on. As “Campaign '08” barrels toward its big finish, CNN has even introduced an in-house news-oriented comedy hour airing weekly with standup comic D.L. Hughley. In TV's hall of mirrors, there is no end in sight for life in its amusing derivations. But should that be news to anyone?