Perhaps the best advice all along was to not turn the TV on this election night — to spend the evening making a good meal, listening to old jazz, reading a book, calmly sipping wine. While democracy started to crumble before our eyes, people shared song playlists, supplemented with Instagram pictures of dozing dogs and darkened TV screens.
Sadly, most of us couldn’t avoid it, or didn’t have the luxury of tuning out.
Too much hangs in the balance, and the dead seriousness of the outcome long ago stopped feeling like hyperbole. Having dreaded Tuesday night’s election coverage for, well, four long years now, there was the even more depressing realization that we could not not watch it.
It was like forcing yourself to go to the umpteenth sequel of a horror movie in which the basement stairs never end, things just keep going down and down. Everything we were warned about came true: An early surge for President Trump didn’t officially reflect the hundreds of thousands of still-uncounted votes in key parts of the swing states that were leaning heavily toward Democratic nominee Joe Biden, and no matter how many times CNN’s John King tried to point this out on his interactive wall map and urge patience and calm, nothing could penetrate his colleague Wolf Blitzer’s usual metabolic over-exuberance for the old ways. Just how many cases of borderline hypertension in American viewers is the cable news industry indirectly or directly responsible for, do you think? A rough guess will do.
Long before the post-midnight madness, CNN anchor Jake Tapper reminded viewers that there had been a lot of magical thinking lately on the part of Democrats and liberal pundits, who spent too much time entertaining pie-in-the-sky dreams of flipping Texas and Georgia to blue states, imagining a landslide victory for Biden. “As they say, ‘You can’t get high on your own supply,’ ” Tapper zinged.
Over on MSNBC, as Florida turned redder, co-anchor Nicolle Wallace summed up the viewer’s dilemma during the 9 o’clock hour on the East Coast: You could caution us all you wanted to, reminding us that this experience — election night on TV in America, with its big graphics and bright blues and vivid reds and bombastic music cues for the latest projections — would not look the same or feel the same. “People still expect an election night. That is what people are down for tonight.”
Confession time: I don’t watch a lot of cable news. The media critics have it covered (and then some); for my own sanity I began to focus my energies on the rest of television. But election years lure me back in like everyone else — part curiosity, part American duty — and I once again marvel at the manic degree of messaging that now defines the genre.
MSNBC’s election night coverage felt the most comforting, not because of its leftward lean, but because of the three women who now anchor its report — Maddow, Wallace and Joy Reid, with Brian Williams chiming in with breaking news of results and projections. No matter how dire the mapping became, the MSNBC crew managed to sustain a mix of wit and intelligence, even when they didn’t like what they were seeing. There is also the added fun of watching Khaki Kornacki (real name: Steve), who over the years has become the best and most knowledgeable magic mapper around.
When and if we do move on, could all this magic wall effort be heroically repurposed into daily coronavirus mapping this winter? Track hot spots, infection rates, hospital totals, deaths; give viewers a constant national picture, delivered with that same election-night intensity.
For the full wallow Tuesday, one had to keep flipping channels: CNN’s Tapper’s reflexive and informed drollness is worth the price of having to endure Blitzer; and although it is responsible for the age of disinformation, Fox News Channel was the only place Tuesday night that most often showed a raw number that bears only the faintest spiritual meaning anymore: the current popular vote tally, nationwide. It’s a figure that tends to resonate, when all is said and done, in a nation that will never fully comprehend the complexity of its own election laws.
What fell flattest were the actual live comedy specials, such as CBS “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert’s “Stephen Colbert’s Election Night 2020: Democracy’s Last Stand: Building America Great Again Better 2020,” which aired on Showtime, and Comedy Central’s “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah’s “Votegasm 2020.”
Both hosts went in knowing the current conditions leave everything to be desired: No studio, no audience; just more of that pandemic ingenuity that they keep digging deep to sustain.
A lingering memory from the 2016 election is how Colbert’s live special collided with the news that Trump had defied polling numbers and data crunching and defeated Hillary Clinton. “It was quite famously a painful experience,” the host said Tuesday.
Now, after four years of pummeling Trump with the apparently useless ammunition of satire and outright disdain, Colbert decided to try again, opening with a tedious animated short from his “Our Cartoon President” spinoff (a Batman vs. Joker riff, in which Trump is the Joker) and, in his opening introduction, attempting to make light of the evening’s unknowability. A reading of already old-news election returns resulted in groaner puns and jokes about different states. (“Oooooklahoma,” Colbert sang, “Where they don’t care Trump killed Herman Cain.”) A Zoom-like gathering featured a smattering of big-name guests (including Madeleine Albright, Bryan Cranston, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and RuPaul). Things only picked up when Colbert interfaced briefly with the CBS News team (Norah O’Donnell, John Dickerson and Gayle King), who looked as if they needed a laugh.
Noah didn’t fare much better with his show, which was set in his pandemic bunker and co-hosted by comedian Roy Wood Jr. The usual attempts at humor from “Daily Show” correspondents felt, on this night, like a tired format, left over from a time when elections went more or less as planned — and lawfully.
That’s not the kind of night America was having and not the kind of TV it was watching — especially once Trump appeared in front of those many, many very wrinkled American flags and falsely declared himself the winner.
“This is why people are boarding up the stores,” CBS’s King said.
This is also why I finally turned it off. It was too heartbreaking to watch a country lose its last shred of sanity.