September 07, 2012 3:00am PT by Tim Goodman
Convention TV: An Exercise in Preaching to the Choir
Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair. Former President Clinton delivering a rousing speech. First Lady Michelle Obama doing the same. The president himself not quite reaching those lofty heights but, depending on which pundits you were listening to, either did exactly what he needed to do or failed utterly.
No matter which party you belong to, there's little evidence that airing the national conventions of the Republicans and Democrats does anything other than turn us into a nation of speech critics. And like everything else in our partisan nation, our criticisms fall neatly into party lines. Meaning, you are the choir -- Democrat or Republican -- and you were preached to this week. Your results may vary.
Every four years you hear complaints by politicians that the broadcast networks -- those ungrateful bastards who are using the public airwaves -- have shirked their responsibilities as they devote less and less time to the political blathering of each party. But the networks are in the entertainment business and they know from experience that political conventions are not entertaining. They're dull. They divide the viewing audience. Let the voracious 24-hour cable channels feast on this bloated, self-righteous mess. That seems to be the network attitude. And it also seems like sound advice.
Of course the cable channels eat up this stuff. But what, exactly, does the viewer get? They get confirmation of their beliefs. They -- allegedly -- get pumped up to vote. They get speeches. And, based on a lot of channel flipping and a history of covering these things, they got a lot of crappy analysis.
What is it the allure of a convention as a television event? They are unpaid political commercials at best. Of late they have been depressing reminders of our massive political divide. And good Lord, they are poorly staged mini "dramas" as transparently manipulative as the worst reality show.
They are almost never interesting, unless you like speeches. Rather, unless you like speeches made by people you already support. It's not like any Democrat is going to watch presidential candidate Mitt Romney's speech and say, "I'll be damned. He nailed it. He's got my vote." If Democrats watched the Republican National Convention it was to dismiss the spin and knock down the other side's speeches as boring and empty. They didn't tune in to better understand the agenda. They were waiting to pounce on something. And unfortunately for the Republicans, Clint Eastwood really gave the nation something to talk (and laugh) about. Eastwood's rambling at an empty chair completely derailed the carefully crafted Republican message and obscured the fact that Romney -- yeah, the guy actually running for office -- had some things to say.
So chock that up as an unfortunate glitch in the carefully crafted script. When the Democrats came around, a lot of ink and chatter was used up in touting the memorable speeches of Clinton and the First Lady. I agreed with those conclusions because -- just to prove the main point here -- I voted for him and I voted for her husband. In the midst of yet another tired and time-sucking convention, I thought those stood out. But I'm supposed to, right? On those nights and at those moments, I was the target audience. There is no mystery to it. The predictability is almost Pavlovian.
Following in that light, Fox pretty much hated anything the Democrats did and MSNBC pretty much hated anything the Republicans did. It was partisan, party-line adherence masquerading as journalism. Although nobody is really masking it anymore. Only CNN is still in the not-very-convincing game of faux objectivity.
So, how did all of this play as a television event? The Democratic convention seemed a little more like the people producing it realized it was a television show, not a city council meeting. It was slicker and had more punch. But of course I would say that, right? Until Eastwood, the Republican convention was more like a CBS procedural, never losing sight of the message. No harm in that -- until Clint went off script. Despite what I thought were two excellent speeches (and a decent one by the president, who was superficially dinged by pundits for not being his wife and for not being Clinton) the actual watching of the Democratic convention was just as boring as donkey's being forced to walk in a circle at the fair, carrying children.
Apparently political conventions bring out the most hackneyed and simplistic directorial flourishes across the dial. It was bloated rhetoric from the pundits, followed by speeches where the camera crew found it necessary to shoot an overabundance of close-up crowd reaction shots. Everybody was happy and waving and nodding in agreement -- because they were rooting for their home team. Crowd reaction shots piled up until you were sick of looking at people. No doubt some of you started hating people in your own party for their inability to clap in rhythm, wear appealing clothes or not look like they were in a cult indoctrination. A little of that crowd reaction goes a long, long way. A lot of it just hurts the mind.
None of it is entertaining. Only the speeches can rise to that level. And only when your side is saying the words can those speeches be rousing or moving. People should be thanking Eastwood for rambling and failing to pull off his intended schtick. Political theater is the most boring kind of theater. But at least Eastwood tried to shake it up a little. And he sure made Jon Stewart happy.
Look, conventions are supposed to pump you up for your candidate. That is all. You know how you're voting. The rest is just filler and speeches followed by analytical overkill. Not even a laugh track and a cameo from a big star can make that compelling.