Critic's Notebook: Michelle Obama Steals the Opening Night of an Unconventional Democratic Convention

As Michelle Obama ended an 18+-minute address to America, capping off the first night of the virtual Democratic Convention, broadcast and cable networks scurried away from the DNC feed to begin deconstructing the former first lady's alternately pugnacious and inspiring (and inspiringly pugnacious) words. That meant they missed out on the extremely strange collaboration between Stephen Stills and Billy Porter on the 1960s protest classic "For What It's Worth."

Half well-past-last-call karaoke bar from 1992 and half Mos Eisley cantina backroom at its finest, the duet was an immaculately bizarre combination of unmistakable talent and situational inconvenience. Was Porter singing in front of a Zoom background of Stills or was Stills playing the guitar in front of a Zoom background of Porter? Or is the sad reality of 2020 that we're all just trying to live up to whatever Zoom background we're given, for whatever it's worth?

(When I re-watched a little later, with a bit of distance from the chaotic end-of-evening context, I found it much easier to concentrate on the empowering background imagery behind Porter, the reliably strong vocals and how the performance fit into the overall evening.)

The opening night of the Democratic Convention was always going to be weird as hell, and it seems fair to warn the countless conservatives mocking the proceedings on Twitter: Y'all won't do any better. A quadrennial event normally characterized by unruly crowds, external protests and, ideally, a burgeoning esprit de corps was never going to feel right this year whether it was a socially-distanced ghost-town convention in Milwaukee or their own political version of a Zoom family Seder.

The Democrats chose the latter approach, enlisting Eva Longoria as a so-called "convention moderator," standing in a dark studio and alternating between conducting on-screen interviews, cueing up guests, speeches and performances or just connecting countless montages. Some of the latter consisted of regular people speaking to different themes of the night and some were passionate musical assemblages that, unlike whatever the Republicans attempt to do, won't be followed by the artists suing the next morning.

I saw some people on Twitter complaining that the night wasn't policy-heavy enough, as if this weren't the first of a four-night event. Of course, it would be hard to compare the event to more typical political conventions given how it was handled by the various networks. CNN and MSNBC showed two hours of speakers and clips and montages. The broadcast networks and Fox News checked in only for the last hour — and people tuning into that hour got a speech from Bernie Sanders that absolutely talked about policies he hoped Biden would push, and then the capper from Michelle Obama, building off of her 2016 convention speech (and not in the way that Melania's 2016 speech built off of a Michelle Obama speech, or the way Joe Biden built off of Neil Kinnock's speeches back in the day).

Obama struck a tone that pundits on the right may characterize as negative — "If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me they can and they will" — but the speech was fueled by a belief that empathy is still the thing that can save us. That feels very hopeful to me.

The joined theme of the evening was "We the people…" and "Unity," hence the dozen-plus montages featuring an inclusive representation of the populace, sometimes celebrating America's strength and resilience and sometimes mourning the 170,000 people who have died from COVID-19 in the past five months. There were celebrations of first responders, plus a full-on In Memoriam segment set to "I Remember Everything" by John Prine, who died from complications caused by the coronavirus back in April.

The actual fleshing out of that theme made for a busy affair; in attempting to fill every second of an event that can usually be 50 percent applause and walk-up music, the evening contained parts that landed perfectly and parts that became uncomfortable in avoidable ways. Who thought it was a great idea to do a segment of Biden moderating a roundtable chat in which he and Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo raved about how good most police officers are, with Biden then asking the mother of Eric Garner, killed by an NYPD officer six years ago, how she was doing? And man, somebody should have vetted Andrew Cuomo's uncomfortably wooden remarks about how, in some ways, COVID-19 is a metaphor, which was followed by a blistering address from Kristin Urquiza, whose father was killed by a virus that most certainly is literal and not a metaphor.

The narrative wasn't always coherent. There were conflicting messages between the progressive wing of the party and the moderate side that Biden represents — conflicts that weren't reconciled by multiple "I used to be a Republican, but…" videos or "I'm still a Republican, but…" bits, like the one featuring John Kasich standing at a literal crossroads. Is a party (along with various people and groups who are not actually in the party) unified against one man unification enough? I guess we'll have to see.

Even if it came across as half infomercial and half telethon, isn't that what a political convention is? Maybe we're used to them having more confetti and fewer ill-considered interludes of people on Zoom ostensibly clapping for the preceding speech, but tonight was no more or less corny and heavy-handed than any other opening night at any other political convention.

I'd actually call the technical assuredness of the night rather remarkable. Congressman Jim Clyburn had to retake the beginning of his speech and it stood out because it was maybe the only real glitch of the night. Since a lot of the speeches actually were live — Michelle Obama, remarkable as she was, wasn't just on tape; she was on tape edited together from multiple cameras — that's impressive.

I can't speak to which of the various musical interludes were live or live-ish or filmed weeks ago. Leon Bridges on a rooftop was great. Maggie Rogers on the coast of Maine? Not bad at all. It's still not the same as a great musical performance bringing down the house at a packed convention hall.

We'll see what Night 2 has in store.