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It’s been a good week for cephalopod-related TV.
First, there was the high quality Cthulhu cameo at the top of HBO’s Lovecraft Country.
Then there was the firing of that guy from Squidbillies, which I’m sure wasn’t something Cartoon Network wanted to do, but hey… firing the guy for making vulgar comments about Dolly Parton is better than keeping the guy who makes vulgar comments about Dolly Parton.
Finally, night two (Tuesday) of the Democratic National Convention introduced the country to an iconic new figure: Rhode Island’s Calamari Guy, featured in the virtual roll call as a loving evocation of a tiny state’s most beloved appetizer — but surely a metaphor for how anything, no matter how chewy and tentacle-covered, can become delicious with enough deep frying.
And ain’t that America?
The second night of the four-night event was dedicated to the theme of leadership. And like the first night, it left some staunch liberals and progressives a bit taken aback at the sight of people like former Secretary of State Colin Powell taking speaking time away from actual Democrats.
But I’m a TV critic, and I’m talking about this eerie virtual convention as a piece of expertly mounted televisual theater in the midst of a national catastrophe. So: Tuesday’s telecast contained one variation on the traditional format that I hope changes things forever, and another that I hope no political party ever has to do again.
Let’s start with the positive. Some people love the roll call, in which one state rep after another gets a microphone, lists two or three things their state is known for and then says how many of that state’s delegates are going to the “next president of the United States.” It all has a quaint charm and speaks to the sort of complicated and brokered conventions we haven’t had in this country for a long time (even if every election cycle features pundits speculating that this will be the year we return to a multi-day process of convention balloting like something in the sixth season of West Wing). But roll calls also tend to be just a wee bit dull.
Don’t believe me? Trust all of the people on social media tonight whose confusion about the process spoke to how often this is a part of the convention that causes us to go see if there’s a new episode of Big Brother or to check out an inning or two of baseball. The perplexity was manifest among people who simply had never paid attention to this part of things before. Why was AOC endorsing Bernie Sanders? Was she plotting an insurrection? No. She was entering his name into the record (seconding his name, actually) in a way that doesn’t always happen at conventions, but it was quite precedented and not in any way untoward or unfaithful to her previously declared support for Biden. Along the same lines, the amount of eyebrow raising when Delaware initially passed? That one absolutely happens in every convention.
But what the head-scratching meant was that the organizers found a way to get people to actually watch the roll call — and, more than that, they found a way to actually get the roll call right. Rather than letting each state be represented in-person by whatever politico had the most clout, we went to all 57 states and territories, with each given the opportunity to decide who represented them and how. And the results were occasionally quaint, occasionally corny, occasionally cheaply produced and generally lovely.
There were hilarious representational choices, like the masked chef from Rhode Island with his delicious-looking platter of calamari or the young woman in Montana who was drowned out by the noisy cattle behind her. There were symbolic choices, as statues or paintings dedicated to the likes of Frederick Douglass and John Lewis were prominently featured. There were strategic locations picked, whether it was the Black Wall Street mural in Tulsa or a gorgeous seaside vista in California. There were endorsements given in several indigenous tribal languages and one (Puerto Rico) in Spanish. There were familiar faces, like Khizr Khan and DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, who may get to appear on every night of the convention at this rate. And then there were people who, once they were identified, became immediately powerful and heartbreaking, like Matthew Shepard’s parents speaking from Wyoming.
They didn’t all work. Mayor Pete in a scarily futurist, unnervingly empty office building did not convey the idea of a prosperous Indiana he was presumably going for. Various Midwesterners whose presentations boiled down to “Let’s stand in front of a cornfield” didn’t go very far. But I loved the message conveyed by the representative from the Northern Mariana Islands who said, “We may be far away, but we’re American citizens.” America is better represented by these glimpses of real people in real environments all brought together by the power of Zoom than some political elites chanting on a convention floor.
This was wonderful. Never go back to doing it the old way!
I did, however, miss the keynote speech. After introducing the keynote with highlights from past luminaries like Barack Obama, Barbara Jordan and Mario Cuomo, the Democratic Party, represented this year by a man who would be 78 at his inauguration, opted not to choose one or even two people embodying its future. Instead, it was a Zoom around-the-horn celebration of over a dozen up-and-coming Democratic politicians, several of whom absolutely are the future of the party.
But you know the best way to showcase your best and brightest? Let them speak in their own voice and with their own time. Instead, from Long Beach Mayor Richard Garcia to an array of congresspeople, state reps, mayors and other officials, they got to read one or two sentences in a ghostwritten middle-of-the-road speech that not a single one of them probably would have endorsed as an individual. I understand that this gave exposure to more of these future stars, especially notable for how many of them hailed from Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida, Georgia and other potential battleground states. But I now know their faces (and their living room decor), not what they believe in, what they stand for and what they want to do for America.
And then the hodgepodge was followed by Stacey Abrams, who got at least a couple of minutes. Why didn’t the Democrats treat the gallery of ascending leaders as an intro and then give Stacey Abrams a full 10 minutes as a real keynote? Keynote speakers really have become the next generation of future senators, governors and presidential candidates, and giving 20 people a glint of lens flare is nice, but it’s not the same as giving one person a real spotlight.
Let’s not do this one again.
It was still a solid night of image-building, capped by Jill Biden’s earnest and affectionate speech, which began with a minor technical goof but then proceeded to a reasonably ambitious walk-and-talk through a school hallway and managed to be both emotionally satisfying and on-message (“How do you make a broken family whole? The same way you make a nation whole.”). Selling Joe Biden as a person with friends, colleagues who respect him and a wife who would willingly hold his hand coming down an airplane staircase? I would say tonight succeeded entirely on that front.
A few more quick thoughts:
*** The roll call was spectacular, but not every network was ready for it. CNN had to tap out to sell products sometime in the Gs. ABC just stopped showing the roll call for a while and had talking heads blathering. Bad coverage decisions.
*** Tracee Ellis Ross didn’t get quite as much to do in her capacity as “convention moderator” as Eva Longoria did on the first night, but she was very good.
*** I’m personally glad Bill Clinton was wedged into an early leadership section with Jimmy Carter rather than given a bigger and more central platform. Maybe they could have skipped Bubba entirely? Just saying.
*** The Zoom “celebration” after the roll call ended didn’t really work, even if Joe and Jill being attacked by loved ones with confetti in a school library was cute. It’s hard to imagine the Republican nominee doing anything so small-scale.
*** AOC probably deserved more than 60 seconds. She also could have just been given the keynote slot. Instead, she was in the strange position of being too big to be a piece of the Keynote Voltron, but not big enough in the eyes of the DNC to take time away from John Kerry. I’m just gonna go out on a limb and say that wasn’t a great decision.
*** John Legend closing the night at a piano was much less audacious, for better or worse, than Billy Porter and Stephen Stills.
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