by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & The Democrats' Debate & r & & r & (ABC, aired on April 16 at 8pm) & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he intro was schmaltzy. The orchestral score, Survivoresque. The graphics looked tacky and Charlie Gibson tried (unsuccessfully) to manage both folksiness and gravitas as ABC News treated its Pennsylvania debate like an old-fashioned prizefight.
By now it's been widely reported that everyone except the New York Times' David Brooks -- pundits, columnists, the average American TV watcher -- considers the debate a low point in the history of journalism. But in addition to being horrible news coverage, ABC's Pennsylvania debate was really bad TV. Having watched a lot of bad TV in my life, I can say that this was probably a personal worst.
I get the idea: ABC wanted to make the debate more like daytime talk shows, so they asked a bunch of questions designed to attract the average American consumer. People who don't care about the direction of the country, who just want to work their job, buy their land, drink their beer and watch some dude from a trailer park squirm as he learns the cousin he slept with is pregnant.
The debate was in bad taste, sure, but Gibson and his partner, the helmet-haired George Stephanopoulos, seemed to recoil from the brink of complete depravity. No, this debate wasn't near where it needed to be to make truly entertaining bad television. And since no one will ever do trash TV better than The Jerry Springer Show, here's a primer on how ABC can do better (worse) next time.
If you're going to drop bombshells, you gotta hear the explosion. Audience reaction is key. Whooting is a plus, but it has to sound spontaneous. You need rednecks, not laugh tracks.
Fat Suit/Bad Teeth
Physical abnormalities allow the home audience a topic of conversation ("Lookee how fat Hillary is," or "Hey, that part black feller's missin' teeth!") when the candidates try to steer the discourse to boring things like improving healthcare.
Bad Graphics /Cheesy Set
The producers did all right here. The set was tacky and the graphics could have been made with the Hewlett-Packard I had in college -- nice counterpoint to the whiz-bang chicanery and haughty issues-based analysis of CNN and MSNBC. Conspicuously lacking, though, were chairs light enough for the candidates to pick up and hurl at each other.
Guests who can contradict certain assertions are key. You ask Barack about whether or not he condones the actions of the Weather Underground, you better have someone backstage willing to say, "I don't know why Barack gotta lie about how much he loves blowing up things. He do that allllll the time."
Is Chelsea really Bill's?
Watching Gibson flail around saying, "the audience is turning against me," was fun. The trick, though, is to get the audience heckling the guests, not the host.