Won’t somebody please think of the goofy hats?
The Democratic National Convention has long been a bloated four-day event that’s come to be known for a few mainstays: impassioned speeches from rising party stars, deafening applause and balloon drops that extend those speeches far too long, and—of course—the goofy hats. This year, for obvious reasons, there was not a crowd of thousands wearing bedazzled Stetsons and hand-decorated bonnets as Joe Biden accepted the party’s nomination. Instead, viewers peered into homes across America as families sitting on their couches applauded and cheered in relative silence as speakers looked slightly off camera to check if they were supposed to start talking or not. The 2020 Democratic National Convention was odd and awkward in many ways, but the remote nature of the event also breathed new life into the traditionally turgid summit.
The following will not delve into the policies (or absence of policies) discussed during the 2020 convention, but rather assess the effectiveness of the Democratic National Committee’s symposium as a televised event. The DNC decided to do their event remotely long before Donald Trump acknowledged that thousands of maskless MAGA fans would not be good for
Charlotte, North Carolina, Jacksonville, Florida, Charlotte, North Carolina, but the organization still only had weeks to put together eight hours of programming that would require footage from all 50 states; six territories; Washington, D.C.; and one lady luck enough to be living abroad right now. And that global undertaking was for just one 30-minute segment of what, essentially, transformed from a convention into a TV show.
The line between politics and entertainment has been blurred for decades, but never more literally than the past four nights. There were the hosts: Eva Longoria, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Kerry Washington effortlessy emceeing better than some who’ve been fronting live telecasts for years; and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, channeling the best late-night personalities. There were the catchphrases of varying popularity: “It is what it is,” “That’s a big f’ing deal,” “Build back better.” There was crossover stunt casting (John Kasich), returning fan favorites (thanks, Obamas), and a reunion special (with Cory Booker as Andy Cohen). There was even a theme song: Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising.” And, just like after binging a show on Netflix, I never want to hear that theme song again.
As with any medium, the convention succeeded most when it played to its strengths. Unlike planning a four-day rally that just happened to be televised, the DNC found ways to make this year’s convention almost cinematic, despite the occassional awkward transitions and delayed crowd reactions. The organizing comittee relied heavily on mini documentaries and pre-taped packages. Some of these packages felt like filler, but many of them told stories that otherwise would never have been televised. (Most of the networks popped in and out of the two hours of nightly programming, but those who watched the full stream saw Biden hosting mini town halls on everything from healthcare to job creation and Longoria interviewing Americans across the country about their take on our nation’s many current crises.) Compared to speeches made at the traditional conventions—which are interrupted every 30 seconds by the fervent live crowd and often make the speaker feel distant from the viewers at home—many of this week’s political sermons felt more like presidential addresses, with the politicans speaking directly to each of us watching from our living rooms.
Contrastingly, the telecast stumbled whenever it pretended to be the convention it was intended to be pre-pandemic. Seeing a wide swath of Americans watching from home gave a bit of the sense of communal excitement we’d have seen in Milwuakee, but it never rang true when one of the politicians pretended as though that crowd was present in front of them. This was never more evident than during Kamala Harris’ acceptance speech on Wednesday night. The vice presidential candidate began her 20-minute address looking around the room as though there were constituents standing just off camera. There were about 30 journalists and a small crew in that large studio with her, but the room was otherwise empty. And even if it had been more populated, Harris should have kept in mind what any good American Idol contestant knows: You’re not performing for the studio audience, you’re performing for the millions at home whose vote you need. It got even more cringe-worthy when Harris’ powerful speech ended and she walked over to the giant video screen and started waving and pointing to various viewers as though she were standing in front of a giant iPhone. At first glance, it could have seemed as though she was having a Zoom happy hour, but any heartwarming impact was washed away the minute it became evident that it was akin to any of us conversing with the TV like we were watching Dora The Explorer.
The Biden team clearly took notes, as the presidential candidate ignored anyone else in the room when he gave his impassioned acceptance speech the following evening. At one point the camera zoomed in maybe a little too close, but Biden’s eyes never drifted from the lens—his message hitting all the stronger for it. He even managed to avoid the awkward waving until his wife started interacting with the screen. Still, pointing at a baby and smiling was an improvement from the night before.
If the convention had been an actual TV show, the credits would have been rolling over the program’s most traditional footage: The candidates and their spouses in front of a crowd with fireworks exploding overhead. The enthusiasm was palpable, and gave a sense of what could have been without COVID-19, but will the DNC go back to conventions as usual after we’ve gone back to the office and school? Maybe. But, as with many elements of our daily lives, this pandemic period is a chance to hit the reset button: keep what works and adapt what doesn’t to create a new normal for what these quadrennial events can look like. Now, let’s see how we feel about these remote conventions after four days of the RNC’s programming. Maybe they’ll have some goofy hats.