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Why we can't stop watching Trump vs. Clinton cliffhanger TV

Why we can't stop watching Trump vs. Clinton cliffhanger TV
The much-discussed handshake between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at the first of three 2016 presidential debates. (Joe Raedle / Pool Photo)

Television has lately embraced the short run. Old-timers may remember the days when a TV season could last upward of 30 weeks. But while it's still not unusual for a network series to aim for 18 to 22 episodes, even broadcast networks are looking to the 13-weeks-or-fewer model, borrowed from cable television, which in turn imported it from Britain. It's a sane approach to a world with too many series in it; you can get through one in a reasonable amount of time and get on to the next one.

By contrast, the current presidential election, whose next major installment comes Sunday night with the second presidential debate, is a show that seems to have dragged on forever, especially if you regard it on one hand as the continuation of a story that began back in the Clinton administration and on the other as including 11 years of "The Apprentice," as hosted by Donald Trump. (And it is a show, even if it is a show with real-world consequences for the whole real world.) The campaign has come to us not in a single digestible package, but from many angles, on multiple platforms, from screens and second screens and however many screens you can keep open. It is everywhere you look, taking up space, choking the air.

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And like any mystery show, any cliffhanging, nail-biting serial that catches our attention, we get invested, we hang on helplessly to an end that will either satisfy or disappoint us.

As news, this saturation is understandable, but the media  onslaught can be exhausting to the point of being punishing. Not just the primaries, but the predictions and the post-mortems; not just the conventions, but the previews, the warring analyses. There is the debate and there is the tweeting of the debate, and the live-blogging of the debate, and the recapping of the debate, in a thousand bits and bites.

Then there are the many subsidiary industries of the campaign complex, all feeding off and back into the flood of infotainment. There are the "Saturday Night Live" imitations, the hot takes of Samantha Bee and John Oliver and Seth Meyers, of Bill O'Reilly and Joe Scarborough. There is Hillary Clinton on "Between Two Ferns," letting Zach Galifianakis provoke her; Donald Trump on "The Tonight Show," letting Jimmy Fallon muss his hair, each appearance meant to soften the candidate or extend his or her appeal to undecided or persuadable voters, each appearance taking its place in the ever-cycling media — professional, social, professionally social — to be celebrated or kicked around. Hosts and pundits battle like the dinosaurs of old, between and even within networks — as at Fox, where Megyn Kelly and Sean Hannity were  feuding — and that, too, becomes part of the stream, the torrent.

Saturation is understandable, but it can be exhausting.... There is the debate and there is the tweeting of the debate, and the live-blogging of the debate.


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And there is the occasional comic relief of affable Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, a kind of character actor who seems consistent and clueless by quick turns, allowed to be himself by the impossibility of his ever actually becoming president. And there is Green Party candidate Jill Stein, too, but only barely. Neither have been invited to debate. They find their footholds in the conversation where they can.

It's interesting to note that after the first televised presidential debate, between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in 1960, we went 16 years without one; the country carried on electing presidents regardless. Still, debates are not without practical value to a candidate — Clinton's polling numbers improved after the last one — and to the comparison-shopping electorate. It is true that we are at least partially electing personalities; whoever wins, we will be seeing them on television a lot over the following four years.

Younger viewers, and hopefully voters, have never known a world in which the news cycle didn't run 24 hours, in which political conventions were not television events but events that were televised, in which the word "reality" didn't come swathed in irony. One can forgive them for not knowing that there really is something different about this year, in which one of the candidates is running largely as a character from a television show. Kids, this is not normal. There is a bridge between politics and show business, and show business and the news business, where a gap should rightly be. You can still make it out if you squint.

If Trump is a person you can bait with a tweet, as Clinton is fond of saying, it is no less true of the people. We are a captive audience, and a reactive one. (I suppose there are people who can ignore this contest, who don't care one way or the other, but I can't actually imagine them.)

It's hard to say whether the providers created the market, or the market the providers, but we get the news we pay for, with our eyes if not our wallets. The game we are forced to play is also the game we chose, as driven by ratings and social media call-and-response. That politics are sentimentalized is nothing new, nor is the sensationalism that competition among journals and journalists creates. But as with everything in the connected, webbed and networked world, the scale has changed, and lines once blurred have become hard to make out at all; news has become entertainment, entertainment bleeds into the news. "Entertainment," is how Trump recently characterized some of his unflattering remarks about women [before his "Access Hollywood" comments came to light after this column was published]. We award candidates points for style where substance may be absent; substance is discounted for lack of style.

In the end, one very long month away, there will be a winner. In the meantime, we will force all this information and supposition, the righteousness and self-righteousness, the claims and counter-claims, the flotsam, the jetsam of our noisy politics into a story we can live with, however much and many times it might have changed shape over the more than two years since this contest began. There is another debate coming, and on the surface it might (or might not, we'll see) look relatively civilized; people will use their words, at least. At the same time, it feels like the scene toward the end of the superhero movie — the only kind of heroes we understand anymore, it can sometimes seem — where two powerful beings, in the twilight, rain and mud, aim blows at one another, while the city shakes and crumbles around them, and the world is ready for it be done, already.

On Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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UPDATES:

Oct. 9, 12:30 p.m.: A note referencing Donald Trump's "Access Hollywood" comments, revealed after this story was published, was added.

This story was originally published Fri., Oct. 7 at 5:30 a.m.

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