TV Commentary

Presidential Primaries: The Surprise Hit of the TV Season

The Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton showdown has been TV's best drama and the ultimate reality show

Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton
Image credit: ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN KASCHT

The most entertaining TV show on the air for the past five months has had it all: power-hungry lawyers, cross-country chases, snipers on airport tarmacs, fire-breathing preachers, and one famous former (White) Housewife looking more desperate by the day. That's right, we're talking about the 2008 Democratic primary race, which has been the best thing to happen to TV drama since what's-her-name shot J.R.

It used to be you had to rely solely on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report for consistent election entertainment. No longer. This year, as hit shows like Grey's Anatomy and CSI: Miami saw serious declines in viewership, ratings soared for CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News (at least by cable news standards) ever since the contests began in January — with a debut episode called Iowa. Last March, Barack Obama's ''race speech'' in Philadelphia pulled more than 4 million viewers to the cable nets in the middle of a Tuesday, while Hillary Clinton's April tête-à-tête with Bill O'Reilly had 3.7 million tuning in just to Fox News. And on broadcast TV, ABC attracted a hefty audience of 11 million to April's Philadelphia debate. This was the 26th face-off of the season, a point when voters are usually crippled by talking-points fatigue.

True, the 2008 Republican race, after an initial American Gladiators-like parade of posturing, didn't take long to become as predictable as a StickUp Bulb infomercial. But the Democratic drama has veered toward Shakespearean, a battle royal between a preordained queen-in-waiting (and her Lady Macbeth-like husband, Bill) and a golden-tongued young prince who wants the throne for his own (if only someone would rid him of that meddlesome priest). Other times, it's been more of an Aaron Spelling production, with surprise plot twists (John Edwards' endorsement!), cliff-hangers practically every week (how would they count Florida and Michigan?), and dialogue so bitchy it'd make a Gossip Girl gasp ('' You're likable enough, Hillary'' ). This battle — which finally looks to be reaching an end — has the narrative flow of a Melrose Place-grade melodrama, but it's also as real (and deadly serious) as reality TV ever gets. Still, it's not merely American Idol with nuclear codes. It's the best season of The West Wing ever.

NEXT PAGE: Does it matter if the coverage trivializes the process when the results are energizing not only the ratings but also the electorate?

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