Following the latest, looniest developments in the presidential campaign on television over the last few days, it was easy to see a nation falling apart. Or maybe, just maybe, it was finally coming to its senses. “BREAKING NEWS,” that dreaded appellation, lived up to its billing for the first time in this never-ending 2016 election.
In the roughly 48 hours since The Washington Post on Friday revealed old “Access Hollywood” footage of Republican nominee Donald Trump bragging about his techniques for assaulting women, your TV and the nation erupted in a weekend-long BREAKING NEWS pussy riot, something you sometimes wished you could turn off but certainly couldn’t look away from. The madness continued all the way through Sunday night’s debate, when Trump, after the thinnest attempt at contrition and sounding as if his nostrils had been superglued shut, threatened to prosecute and jail his opponent, Hillary Clinton, if he gets elected.
The three-day sequence of events was staggering, even in an election cycle that has provided plenty of bizarre surprises since 2015. A CNN pundit panel erupted Friday over the use of the word “pussy”; Trump delivered a sour-faced apology ’round midnight in front of a shiny Manhattan backdrop that might as well have been the grungy bedsheet that hangs in a hostage video. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) issued a public rebuke of Trump, which by Saturday morning turned into a parade of Republican disavowals and condemnation of the candidate’s misogynistic remarks.
The hits kept coming, sometimes subtly and always entertaining. In their never-quite-fully-enlightened way, Republican leaders across the country invoked the dignity of their wives and daughters with lots of possessive pronouns. (“Our women,” Mitt Romney mansplained, on behalf of the female population.) Social network users, especially on Twitter, once again dedicated their day to pointing out that all women are people, even if they’re not married or related to you. Millions of women took the opportunity to describe the first time they encountered a man’s unwanted advances, gropes or kisses.
Then of course, came “Saturday Night Live,” which, in one of its finest episodes in recent memory, acted as a much-needed halftime show.
Hosted by the hypertalented “Hamilton” creator/star Lin-Manuel Miranda, SNL had a rare moment where it hit all the right topical buttons through its entire 90 minutes, something that is not often achieved, even if you hand the show an October surprise that no room full of comedy writers could have dreamed up on their own.
The opening sketch, briefly lampooning the already forgotten vice-presidential debate on Oct. 4, shifted to the breaking news of the “Access Hollywood” footage and the begrudging apology from Trump, who is played now with lefty gusto by Alec Baldwin. He initially got mixed reviews a week earlier, but, in my view, has correctly amplified the devolving, Trumpian unctuousness and bombast that other imitators mimicked but couldn’t quite nail.
The show’s reigning star, cast member and recent Emmy winner Kate McKinnon, captured the behind-the-scenes joy of the Clinton campaign, as Clinton stopped dancing to Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” long enough to soberly express her outrage over Trump’s remarks. Trump, meanwhile, kept digging himself deeper in trouble with a hot mic.
But the finest, if fleeting, moment in Saturday night’s episode came from a surprise guest, SNL alum Tina Fey, who appeared on “Weekend Update” with “Tonight Show” host and fellow alum Jimmy Fallon (in drag) as a pair of undecided female voters from Philadelphia. Fallon, whose comedy chops have atrophied on his weeknight show, treated his under-rehearsed, slipshod appearance as an occasion to merely goof around, while Fey came with a purpose, digging at Fallon for his recent, fawningly worthless interview with Trump, in which he playfully mussed the candidate’s legendary hair.
This seemed to be Fey’s way of telling Fallon that he needs to stop jerking around; that, yes, even late-night hosts (particularly late-night hosts, in this day and age) have a complicated responsibility in the modern political process. It’s a message Fallon likely understands (he works too hard to please people to not sense their disappointment in him) but probably lacks the true talent to act on.
In picking on Fallon, however gently, Fey and “Saturday Night Live” can’t go too far before things get uncomfortably hypocritical. It was only 11 months ago that SNL, in a giddy, can-you-believe-this-nonsense bid for ratings, invited Trump to host the show, rather than just appear as himself in a sketch or two — something no other candidate for president had done during a campaign.
On top of being an unfunny guest, Trump’s episode brought the ratings NBC wanted but further eroded the seriousness of the primaries ahead. Historians should include Trump’s SNL episode as a choice example of how television — in both its news and entertainment offerings — enabled his rise and gave him all the effectively shallow publicity that money could never buy.
It somehow makes sense that the 2005 “Access Hollywood” footage that preoccupied TV’s weekend of political fireworks co-starred the exquisitely smarmy Billy Bush, who is heard, in classic frat-brother style, egging on Trump’s remarks and partaking in his ogling of a woman greeting them on the set of a soap opera.
In the 11 years since, Bush, who is the nephew and cousin of the 41st and 43rd U.S. presidents, ascended from movie-junket gnat to a more lofty role reserved for the kings of infotainment — the Ryan Seacrests and Carson Dalys, whose superhuman work schedules and ability to yammer on camera never abate. They host music competition shows, New Year’s Eve countdowns, red-carpet shows, morning talk shows, Olympic Games, radio shows. They exist in a ubiquitous, onanistic state of lifestyle and entertainment worship, and they do it for so long that they eventually become the bolder name among the gaggles of barely boldface names that they “interview.” But what is their job, really? Part of me wants to call these rarefied creatures yanchors. Part of me wants to call them brosts.
They’re successful because we so rarely, truly think about them. We reward them with the same mindlessness they serve to us, a daily exchange of pablum. To think that the outcome of this election could have somehow, all this time, hinged on Billy Bush, who exists mostly because America leaves the TV on all day so the dog won’t feel lonely.
Lately, Bush had been plucked from the NBC-owned “Access Hollywood” and assigned to inflict himself on the vapid mess that now passes for the once useful “Today” show. This, after his particularly douchey work at the Summer Olympics in Rio. Everyone remembers Bush’s bizarrely bros-will-be-bros defense of U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte and company’s ill-considered night on the town, but some of us are more haunted by a segment in which Bush went in for a Brazilian bikini wax of his private parts, which the network treated as the highest expression of infotainment filler, fit material to launch the majesty of that night’s competitions.
By Sunday, what everyone else has always sensed finally dawned on NBC: Billy Bush is not worth all this trouble, and, frankly, you can find a dozen more like him for the job, if you really must. Thus the network has suspended Bush while they think about what a tool he is.
It’s just courage all around at NBC, isn’t it? On Friday, the network’s news division was reportedly nearing its fourth day of dithering over whether to air the “Access Hollywood” bus footage when The Post acquired it and had it online within hours.
A fitful sleep and then the Sunday talk shows, where Trump loyalist Rudolph W. Giuliani (who ran the Sunday morning show gantlet as Trump’s chief surrogate) said that maybe the filthy bus chatter between Bush and Trump was, in addition to mere locker-room talk, just the sort of thing men say to impress one another, but is not, perhaps, entirely true.
Like that matters now. Heaps of cable news chatter and preshow speculating later, with little more than an hour to go before the debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Trump held a photo op with three women who had previously accused President Bill Clinton of sexual misdeeds and one woman who had been the victim in a rape case in which Hillary Clinton defended the accused rapist. (It ended in a plea deal.) It was as if Trump had borrowed one of those globular time machines from NBC’s new drama “Timeless” and rocketed back two or three decades to find them.
Finally, after all that buildup, there was the debate itself — capably moderated by the well-prepared duo of Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper, who nevertheless struggled to get both candidates to stick to the questions asked of them by a forum of undecided voters. It even included a fleeting Internet sensation — a heavyset man in a Mister Rogers-red zipper sweater named Kenneth Bone, whom SNL’s Bobby Moynihan may well find himself playing this Saturday night, if the stars align.
Trump brought contempt to this debate (“It’s just words, folks. It’s just words.”); Clinton brought her Michelle Obama mantra about sticking to the high road. And America brought the big ratings. But, when it was all over, a quiet settled over the land. For the first time in three days, it felt safe to turn the damn thing off, including all the many Internet browser windows one has to keep open just to keep pace.
Imagine how good it will feel to shut it all down in the wee hours of Nov. 9. Imagine America briefly at rest.