Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney debate game show

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times

When Newt Gingrich tore into CNN’s John King for kicking off Thursday night’s presidential debate with a question about his embittered second ex-wife, it was reality TV at its finest.

The long series of debates among the Republican candidates has been one of the most unexpectedly influential factors in the current campaign. If not for the debates, Gingrich -- who is so good at them – would be back to spouting his big thoughts on Fox. Rick Perry -- who is embarrassingly bad at them -- would be one of the final four candidates instead of the latest to drop out.

The appeal of the debates to a surprisingly large audience has to do with far more than civic engagement. They have all the elements of a successful television show: colorful characters, high stakes and comforting familiarity. 

For characters, no TV writer could do better than Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain for zaniness. Gingrich himself is a wonderfully pompous know-it-all (haven’t we seen his type on "Downton Abbey"?). And Mitt Romney could walk on to the set of "Mad Men" as a stunt double for Jon Hamm.

Each debate episode has offered the likelihood that one of the characters will be voted off the island. As the losers have been culled, the tension has grown and the remaining actors have gotten better at their game. As was evident Thursday night, each of the four survivors has shown he can steal a scene and command the stage.

Viewers know there will be surprises, but also that certain things will be the same -– the gaudy red, white and blue sets, the dwindling number of podiums and the candidates’ lines that never vary far from the script. In fact, it is more or less the same script for every episode. That’s what makes the sudden appearance of something new so riveting.

Thursday was the first time I actually got inside the hall where the debate was being held. I can now attest that not only do the debates have the appearance of a television show, they are TV shows.

The stage set is huge and elaborate -- giant screens, flashing graphics, hanging banners with rows of 3-D stars, big blue-and-red boxes with no apparent purpose but to sit there, take up space and glow. It makes the set design of "The Price Is Right" look like a middle-school talent show.

As on the "Tonight Show" or any other program shot before a studio audience, a professional cheerleader whipped up the crowd prior to airtime. In this case, the warm-up man was a CNN producer named Kevin.

"Are you gonna give some love tonight?" Kevin asked the crowd. "We want your enthusiasm. Show your love through your applause, but think before you speak, hug your neighbor and enjoy the show!"

Kevin cautioned that the debate was being broadcast in high definition so it would catch every line and crevice in every face. "And I hope everyone’s sitting next to who they ought to be sitting next to," Kevin joked. "This is TV, and everyone will be able to see you, so, if you need to, you’d better move now."

After the unflappable, earnest John King, stepped out to chat with the audience and rather randomly observe that the lack of snow in Iowa and New Hampshire had "been a bit of a buzz kill," the countdown began, the music pumped up and an announcer’s voice boomed out a welcome to "the fight for the South!"

And the show went on with each person playing his part -- Gingrich, deeply offended that his infidelities were the first topic of discussion (come on, Newt, it's TV!); Ron Paul, like Kramer crashing through Jerry's door, the character who dependably sends the plot in unexpected directions; Rick Santorum, the street fighter in this fight for the South; and Romney, projecting equal portions of Ward Cleaver and Don Draper with just a trace of Gordon Gekko thrown in.

It may be a crazy way to pick a president, but this is must-see TV.

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