Voiceover: TV season's best series? 'McCain & Dueling Dems'


If "they" were a movie, Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Spencer Tracy could be the topliners. Washington can play the pithily poetic, Streep can do both brittle and brainy, while Tracy in his heyday could adroitly alternate the curmudgeonly with the avuncular.

Or we could think of the three candidates who have made it through to the last rounds in the presidential grudge match as the longest-running and most compelling TV series of the season. With Hillary Clinton's wins in the Texas and Ohio primaries this week, even the Democratic debates are destined to hit 22-episode numbers before all is said and done.

I'm not the only one to make these entertainment analogies: Frank Rich in the New York Times has compared scenes of John McCain campaigning to a black-and-white reel from the 1940s, so dated and gray do his persona and entourage sometimes appear; others have described the candidates as "The Mod Squad," "American Gladiators," even "Charlie's Angels" (though that last one flummoxes me in terms of relevance).

And just to name one among the media mavens who so obviously relish the proceedings, Fox Business Channel anchor Stuart Varney, a transplanted Brit, has been telling viewers that this political race is the most fascinating epic he has observed in his 25-odd years in this country.

In short, in a season in which the strike-struck TV business has struggled to come up with decent scripted series, and audiences seem only lukewarm about moviegoing, the presidential race features for the first time ever three of the country's three most visible underclasses: blacks, women and seniors. It is the most globally reverberating at least since John F. Kennedy's victory over Richard Nixon in 1960. And in that hoary age, the big question was whether a Catholic was electable.

Speaking of that long-ago upset, more people likely remember that campaign's most emblematic media moment -- Nixon's five o'clock shadow during that fateful debate with JFK -- than they do any particular thing the candidates said.

Almost 50 years later, politics and entertainment have blurred their lines in ways and to degrees that would have been unthinkable, and almost sacrilegious, back then. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe would have never made it through that Madison Square Garden birthday bash. (The sexy "Happy Birthday" rendition would have been up on YouTube in no time.) Any slip-up by a current pol is now instant fodder for radio ranters, bloggers or America's funniest home videos, while any pronouncement by a top-tier entertainer is just as likely to get solemnly deconstructed by the pundits. Worrying, this all is; changeable, probably not.

The three most telling episodes of the past 10 days were a "Saturday Night Live" skit mocking the press' infatuation with Barack Obama, Clinton's whining that she always "has to go first" in debates, and that aggressive exchange of ads about the 3 a.m. phone call to the White House. They might indeed turn out to be turning points.

Books no doubt will be written about the media's own starring role in this campaign -- as many, I imagine, as tomes about the different pols' stances on the issues. Already, inordinate amounts of time are devoted on talk shows and op-ed pages to self-analysis: Has the press given Obama too easy a ride? Have pundits over-obsessed about Clinton's thick ankles or makeup or testiness? Have newscasts short-shrifted McCain because he's so colorless, rather than to the candidates' views on, say, the mortgage/credit crisis or health care?

Despite the historic aspects of this race and the fascinating contenders, media overload eventually might backfire. Maybe that's what Tom Hanks was getting at Wednesday during the D.C. premiere of his "John Adams" miniseries: "I wish the election was being held tomorrow. I'm bored!"