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Television

Commentary: This fall’s hot new drama? The democratic process

Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.
Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Politics or no, it was a historic 36 hours in the annals of live television.

Hour upon hour of impeachment hearings and a Democratic debate, accompanied by nonstop analyst chatter, interrupted by a brief break for sleep, and capped off by another round of hearings. Did anyone remember to feed the kids?

Viewers who tried Wednesday and Thursday to keep up with politics in real time risked petrifying in front of their screens, empty ice cream container in one hand, remote in the other, clad in a shameful combo of pajamas and work clothes.

Hard to watch. Harder to turn away. It’s politics as we’ve rarely seen them — a raw, unedited look at what happens when partisan narratives collide, facts intervene, elected officials defend indefensible acts and the rest of us watch our hopes for a viable democracy hijacked and defended in timed intervals.

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Whoever said this stuff is boring needs to check her pulse. There’s no more suspenseful drama on TV right now than the throes of the democratic process. After all the valid criticism that Washington works behind closed doors, we’re finally invited into the room — witnesses who don’t bear the burden of testifying.

Half of America was still in bed on Wednesday when Ambassador Gordon Sondland threw a busload’s worth of White House players under the wheels during his dramatic and damning testimony before the House Intelligence Committee.

One needed a flow chart to keep up with all the characters Sondland implicated in President Trump’s alleged scheme to extort Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate political rival Joe Biden by withholding military aid: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. Vice President Mike Pence. GOP Sen. Ron Johnson. Rudy “Hand Grenade” Giuliani.

Walter White, Tony Soprano and Stringer Bell may have been in there too. The chain of malfeasance was so widespread that anything seemed possible during day four of the public hearings. And the day was still young …

Democratic Presidential Candidates Participate In Debate In Atlanta, Georgia
Democratic presidential candidates former Vice President Joe Biden, left and Sen. Bernie Sanders, as seen on television monitors during the Democratic presidential debate at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta.
(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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There was no time to stretch, or eat like a responsible adult, between the ensuing testimony of Defense Department official Laura Cooper and State Department official David Hale and the evening’s Democratic primary debate in Atlanta. It was the third debate — ever — helmed entirely by female moderators, but in the day’s wash of unprecedented programming, it was simply another historic happening, wrapped in an impeachment, inside an enigmatic presidency.

The most memorable moments during the event, jointly hosted by MSNBC and Washington Post, stemmed from the previous 12 hours of live TV drama. On the question of who among the debate’s 10 candidates was most electable, Sen. Amy Klobuchar said: “If you think a woman can’t beat Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day.”

Unless they dreamed about it, viewers had little time to savor or lament the moment before “The Impeachment Show” resumed bright and early Thursday, with guests Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official, and David Holmes, a diplomat in Kiev. Usual hosts Reps. Adam Schiff and Devin Nunes, the chairman and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, respectively, were there to keep the trains running in opposing directions. GOP Rep. Jim Jordan reprised his role as a human subterfuge cannon.

The daylong hearings, a presidential debate and the parade of disturbing/amusing news it generated (Wednesday’s winner: a new Trump Sharpie note) are no longer disrupting TV as usual. Live political crisis is TV as usual. It’s the new, old standby, replete with standout performances.

Wednesday’s award went to GOP impeachment Avenger Nunes. He compared the president’s foreign policy to that of President George Washington, the general who, according to Trump, bravely “took over airports” back in 1776. Nunes said that if the Democrats had been around back then that they probably would have tried to smear Washington too. (Unless they were delayed at said airports trying to check their muskets, of course.)

And seeing Fox News’ inverted narratives about who are the heroes and who are the villains in the Ukraine affair alongside the realities presented in public hearings by Trump’s own appointees beats the justice-seeking fantasy of HBO’s “Watchmen.” But even Jordan’s twisted logic is easier to follow than whatever Jeremy Irons’ humanity-destroying Adrian Veidt is up to.

The impeachment hearings attracted an audience of 12 million-plus total viewers in each of its first three days, ratings Trump would like if they weren’t attached to his potential downfall. But as the impeachment hearings have shown, it’s not only about which candidate inherits what’s left of our fragile democracy after next year’s election. It’s about laying bare the facts, in public, on live TV, and seeing if we’re still strong enough as a nation to bend toward justice without snapping in two.

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