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Dissecting the Debate: One More Episode in This Season's Best TV Drama
October 3, 2008  | By David Bianculli
veep-debate-2.jpgI'm hesitant to dissect Thursday's vice presidential debate in political terms. But in TV terms -- looking at performances, drama and its place as the most compelling television drama of the season -- there's a lot worth noting...

First, its effectiveness as live TV. No less so than Tina Fey's Sarah Palin impersonations on Saturday Night Live, the real Palin's appearance opposite Joe Biden was must-see TV. (Fey's bits have been seen much more online than on TV, making them more like Must-See Downloads, but that's an issue for another day.)

The unpredictability, the not knowing what was coming next, was what made those 90 minutes fly by so quickly. Unpredictability, it appears, is a big part of Palin's conversational style whenever she strays from the script. Whether being interviewed by Katie Couric, or aiming to fill two minutes of debate time without answering the question, her approach is somewhat free-form.

When on solid ground, Palin is an assured, casual, ingratiating speaker. She even winked at the camera -- no doubt a first for anyone running on a presidential ticket. And in deflecting question after question by retreating to remarks on energy policy, Palin handled the first half of the debate adeptly, using the time constraints -- and moderator Gwen Ifill's too-general questions -- to her advantage.

But caught unprepared, whether at the podium or in one of her rare media interviews, Palin talks the way college students who didn't study for a blue-book exam write. Start anywhere, say anything, repeat a lot, and just go with whatever pops into your mind until time or space runs out. That's not a political observation, just a stylistic one.

When she proudly said she wouldn't answer questions the way Ifill or Biden expected, she actually was rejecting the very terms of the debate in which she had agreed to appear. Yet since she got away with it, that has to count as a very successful tactic. (Or strategy. I'm sure John McCain can explain the difference.)


Palin's big victory at the debate was that she exceeded, by a wide margin, the low expectations set for her. Biden, too, avoided any major gaffes, and each side scored one easily repeatable sound bite.

Palin's was her feisty "Say it ain't so, Joe" rejoinder, complaining that he once again insisted on referring to the Republican and McCain track record. (But since McCain is so big on accountability, how can his ticket ridicule an opponent for referring to the past? Never mind. I guess that IS political. Nothing to see here. Move on.)

Biden's best sound bite was soundless, when he choked up talking about his own past family hardships, and countered Palin's hockey-mom status with his own single-dad story.

Overall, most networks seemed to give the slight edge to Biden, but gave Palin her due -- the first time in a week there was an opportunity to do so. The narrative now shifts back to the top of the respective tickets, and Tuesday's second presidential debate.

It's clearer than ever, now that most of the new TV series have arrived and been met with an underwhelming response, that the most dramatic and compelling TV series of 2008 is this election campaign.

And unlike the Nielsen ratings, which arrive overnight, the final tally for this one won't be in for another month...




Lance said:

I loved the analysis of the debate. Some great observations and even better writing makes it a pleasure to visit your website on a daily basis. I am not sure if I watched the same debate as everyone else. Palin's lack of intelligence is obvious, yet the American people seem to love her. Palin's effort seemed admirable, but then again this won't be the first time she finished in second place. My prediction? Obama wins in a landslide! Biden is intelligent, smart, well spoken and a no non-sense type of guy. Isn't this what the American people want? I guess we will find out! Take care and keep up the awesome work! (Thanks for the kind words, but I'd counsel you against expecting a landslide in either direction this election day. However, as the narrator once said on "Rocky & Bullwinkle" in an episode about landslides, "Avalanche is better than none..." -- David B.)


Comment posted on October 3, 2008 10:15 PM

Susan said:

Good analysis of the debate.

While watching, I had to keep reminding myself that viewers were being distracted by "form," and substance was being ignored. My mom commented about Mrs. Palin's "acting" skills.

Any undecided voters reading this post (but I suspect that most readers of this website have an intelligence that sees beyond winks and folksy sound bites)should go watch Mike Judge's "Idiocracy" for a fresh perspective on this election.

Comment posted on October 5, 2008 8:26 PM
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