I want it to be over, and yet I can’t bear to let it go.
No, I’m not talking about Fox’s “’Til Death,” which the network mercifully put on hiatus last week. As much as I enjoy using Brad Garrett’s unwatchable sitcom as a synonym for “crappy television”—and despite the fact that there’s nothing funny about a hundred or so people anywhere losing their jobs—I will not mourn when Fox finally cancels this clunker.
My conflicted emotions are about the election.
I want there to be a decision. I want the negative ads to end (and even some of the positive ones). I want to know whether I can breathe a little easier about the next four years, or start figuring out if I can do my job from Mexico (it’s the new Canada!).
But the end of Campaign 2008 also means the finale of what may just be the longest-running, most unpredictable, most riveting and most consistently entertaining miniseries of my lifetime. It’s been “Roots,” “The Winds of War” and “l Know My First Name Is Joe the Plumber,” all rolled into one.
My pop-culture competency has paid the price for my addiction to the coverage of this election. Entire seasons of shows I once wouldn’t dream of missing sit untouched and forgotten on the digital bookshelves of my three DVRs.
And yet I can’t bear the thought of a conclusion.
I need to obsess over the latest numbers in the Gallup tracking poll and to furiously hit refresh on my browser if the data hasn’t been updated by 10:01 a.m.
I want the release that comes with throwing something at my computer in reaction to the bizarre story Matt Drudge has decided to hype so that the GOP has a talking point for the next 48 hours (or, in the case of Mr. The Plumber, 48 months).
But most of all, I crave the nonstop punditry and pontification that TV has provided during this never-ending campaign.
At first, I was ashamed to admit my love for the hot air and spin that comes spewing forth from the small screen. But it turned out I was not alone. As has been reported extensively by TelevisionWeek and numerous other outlets, politically themed programming has been breaking ratings records all year long.
Like any junkie, I’ll take a good political high wherever I can find it.
“First Dude” Todd Palin’s talking to “The Insider”? I’m there. C-Span is offering up a replay of a panel of D.C. wonks opining endlessly about the validity of polls during a breakfast panel? Set the TiVo!
I even sank so low as to watch Al Gore’s Current TV for a few minutes last month when I stumbled upon its Twitter-adorned replay of one of the debates. I quickly changed the channel, momentarily ashamed at the cost of my habit.
There are some shows, however, for which my viewership requires no apology.
MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” has become my favorite TV hour of the day. The rants against his competitors are fun—particularly when he “fixes” his ire on one target in particular—and I get a bit giddy whenever I hear the theme music for “McCain in the Membrane,” in which Mr. Olbermann mocks the dumbest things said by or on behalf of the GOP candidate.
What really makes “Countdown” must-see TV, however, is Mr. Olbermann’s Howard Beale-esque sense of outrage. Some no doubt see it as histrionics—something Mr. Olbermann has confessed to dabbling in from time to time.
But many Americans are just plain angry over the state of the union, and Mr. Olbermann’s not-so-thinly veiled disgust for those he believes have gotten us into this mess offers a nightly catharsis for those who agree with him.
Mr. Olbermann also deserves credit for helping to birth “The Rachel Maddow Show,” perhaps the most unlikely hit in cable news history. Ms. Maddow isn’t a perky blond, doesn’t appear to have had extensive plastic surgery and seems notably smarter than just about all of her guests. The fact that she’s killing in the ratings indicates something strange is happening in America.
Ms. Maddow is still finding her voice in prime time. But so far, she’s living up to the promise of her show’s motto, “Mind Over Chatter.”
That slogan also could apply to CNN’s best newscast, “Anderson Cooper 360.” Unlike the two MSNBC shows, Mr. Cooper still adheres to the increasingly quaint notion that cable news can succeed by playing by the rules of journalism—i.e., both sides get equal time.
As much as I love the unabashedly partisan nature of “Countdown” and “Maddow,” Mr. Cooper’s newscast is essential viewing. CNN’s slogan might be arrogant, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that it really does have the best political team on television. And “AC360” is home base for its best reporting and analysis, from the indispensable Candy Crowley to my homeboy David Gergen.
Plus, you gotta love any anchor who’s not afraid to ask James Carville, “Dude, aren’t you Mr. Washington?”
CNN is also the home to “Larry King Live,” which has pretty much gone all-politics this year. While that’s been bad news for stars looking to pitch their latest film projects, it’s been good for “LKL,” which had been growing stale in recent years.
While Mr. King can seem as if he’s phoning it in—wouldn’t you if you had been listening to the same blabbermouths for 25 years?—his producers often do a good job of booking interesting pundit panels. “LKL” is also the show on which Arianna Huffington most frequently appears, reason enough to forgive Mr. King his occasional outbursts of rage against guests who talk over each other.
My ultimate drug of choice this campaign season, however, is the one that’s hardest to get: HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher.” Unlike the other shows, Mr. Maher’s broadcast airs just once a week—and it doesn’t even run every week.
Leave aside the comedy elements of the show, which are often brilliant. Mr. Maher’s roundtable segments offer the sharpest, most diverse political debates on television.
As Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times noted a couple months back, many political talk shows pretend to offer “conflict,” but in fact make do with commentators who offer just slightly different shades of mainstream political thought. Mr. Maher, however, isn’t afraid to offer a forum to the kinds of guests whose out-there opinions would likely end up as fodder for a McCain campaign commercial.
Thankfully, all of these shows will continue after the election ends. A new administration will offer plenty of material for debate and commentary.
Something tells me it won’t be quite the same without the dramatic arc of an election as a backdrop. The good news: As Sarah Palin made clear last week, planning for the sequel has already begun.