The two occasions that anyone in the UK engages with American TV are while desperately searching for a hooky NBC stream of a Saturday afternoon (don't do it, kids) and during the biannual election maelstrom, so seeing exactly how intense its vibe is always comes as a bit of a shock.
Over here, our native coverage of the unfolding election day meant some tapping of red and blue state outlines on giant screens. Later, as that got less interesting, we started to wheel out talking heads whose lucidity and insight landed anywhere between calmly repeating "It's just to early to say" and the early morning rantings of sadly curdled butter fanatic John Lydon.
Which is to say, it tended toward the endearingly tinpot way that we see elections here. In America, of course, the situation demands something much more Michael Bay. Look at CNN's big intro, which makes White House Down look like Little House on the Prairie.
This CNN intro is just SO INTENSE! pic.twitter.com/0qBMzTJcgw
— Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) November 3, 2020
It's quite a lot, isn't it? The bombastic news intro isn't exactly new; Brass Eye and Stephen Colbert both took the piss out of them. But this one is particularly mad. "If Biden wins," says Trump at one point, "yuh country is gahn." Alongside the doom-laden voiceover, there's a very Armageddon feel to proceedings.
Underneath it all there's a score which starts out slightly bigger than Wagner and balloons from there. You've heard of Shepard tones? Chris Nolan likes them: they're cycles of climbing notes which sound like they just keep going up and up and up into infinity. By the time the everything-and-the-kitchen-timpani backing starts slamming home stills of rallies, Biden, Trump, Harris, Pence, Trump, Harris, Biden, Biden, Trump and Biden before wheeling out the big guns – huge words! Lens flare! Mike Pence doing a thumbs up! – you're sweating and involuntarily gripping your own thigh. Finally, after scaring you into submission, it stops.
You've probably heard it said that everything is wrestling now. The idea is that most aspects of public life come with the caveat that everyone knows it's not entirely real, or at least that the most entertaining aspects are amplified to distortion, but that we're comfortable with unreal and real events flowing into and out of each other.
Football is wrestling. Politics is wrestling. Greco-Roman is wrestling. And politics, especially when Mike Pence promises that, "We will make America great again, again," is extremely wrestling. Boris Johnson's election campaign last winter felt quite wrestling at times, even if he seemed mostly to be wrestling with making up man-of-the-people pastimes like painting buses.
The way that we watch the wrestling is an insight into aspects of our national psyches, and generally there's more whimsy than bombast to our coverage. The unveiling of Jeremy Vine's latest CGI fabtraption is a national event. And when we actually see the great moments of British democracy in action, red in tooth and claw, it's rooted in the tragicomic sitcom tradition. What came first: Steptoe and Son, or staying up to 2.30am to watch the Lib Dem deputy leader lose their job in a leisure centre somewhere outside Peterborough, accompanied by a man dressed as a Sooty?
It's hard to say. But there's absolutely no room for dignity in our sweaty, provincial staging of democracy, and that's something I'm grateful for. If it's still too early to take any other conclusions from the American election, it's that at times of great national stress each of our countries become more themselves.
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