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In case you missed it, the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump took place last Monday. Some words were said. Some feelings were felt. Some faces were made. Hopefully you’ve cleaned up all the popcorn crumbs, spilled liquor, and dried tears by now, and are ready to read some real hard-hitting debate reaction from someone whose vodka intake was nearly proportionate to the frequency of Trump’s sniffing.
First of all, what a show. The Super Bowl doesn’t command this kind of pageantry and drama. You could almost see the excitement puddles leaking out from beneath NBC’s news desk. With the field of battle (a stage of scattered podiums and microphones) looming behind them, Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie talked shop and strategy, setting the scene as the cameras cut to Bill Clinton and Melania Trump sharing a handshake (did Bill hang on too long? Or was it Melania? Am I imagining both?).
Cut to a split screen of the war-torn combatants exiting their motorcades, ready for their firsthand foray—Trump sporting his extra shoulder padded suit with a surprising blue tie, Clinton rocking the mono-red pantsuit. They’re stately, gorgeous, and repugnant all at the same time. Somewhere in this barely-observant writer’s head is an opine about how these candidates’ visages in this fleeting garage moment are a true portrait of Americana, perfectly illustrating our lust for money, celebrity, and power, representing our best and worst (worst) ideologies and values. Hard as I shook it, the take wouldn’t fall out.
On to the intros: it was shortly before the candidates mounted their podiums, at 9:04 p.m. EST that we got our first look at Lester Holt, the NBC Nightly News anchor. He looks like everyone’s favorite uncle from an imaginary sitcom that never actually told jokes. I can’t help but feel a sense of pride having watched Holt’s journey from Nightly News weekend fill-in to full-timer, eagerly awaiting his sign off each night in giddied anticipation for Extra! with Mario Lopez. This is Holt’s biggest moment, the largest stage for any journalist or television personality to occupy, and as soon as he appears I realize I can’t wait for this to end so Mario can give us the real scoop on Brangelina’s split.
Holt introduces Trump and Clinton, Trump and Clinton walk out and shake hands, and what ensues is what you might actually call the debate, the meat of the program, what everyone tuned in to watch. It was somewhere in this haze of attacks, reaffirmations, prepared answers, interruptions, Hillary grins, and Trump sniffs that I got lost, wading into a lagoon of potato-based alcohol, eye-rolling and head shaking on my way to the bottom. But even that doesn’t disqualify my opinions!
The debate, for what it’s worth, went exactly as expected. After a couple of fidgety minutes, Trump was brash and bold early on, but his lack of preparedness shined through as the night dredged along, leaving huge openings for Clinton to bait him into talking about whatever she wanted him to. The Republican nominee landed a few good blows, particularly when addressing Clinton’s emails, but glanced away quickly, too eager to talk about and defend his past actions and words. Clinton, on the other hand, clearly won the soundbite battle and came away with the moment of the night, a shimmy that shook the internet to its core, and from which I’m still not sure it’s completely recovered.
Exciting as the night was, can we legitimately say any of this was really surprising? Did any of us really think that Donald Trump would rise above all the negative reports surrounding his debate preparation and put together a complete, coherent performance? Was there any chance Hillary Clinton wouldn’t be prepared for any and everything Trump threw at her?
It’s hard to imagine some undecided voter watching the debate and thinking anything differently of these two candidates afterward. They reiterated their positions and revitalized their attacks, but it was more of the same. No Clinton supporter walked away from their television thinking Trump made good points, and no Trump supporter decided that Hillary wasn’t so bad after all (Dad, call me). The only partisanship displayed all night were viewing parties agreeing they hadn’t seen someone as viciously flattened as Lester Holt was since this infamous Power Wheels tragedy.
The key to good television—good anything, really—is heightening the drama, raising the stakes. The #lamestream media certainly accomplished that with the lead-in to this one, making it seem as though the podiums and microphones would be cast aside for a balance beam and an American Gladiators-style Q-tip fight.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was that the first debate of an election season defined by the salacious soundbite was devoid of any truly memorable ones. Maybe that’s why I drunkenly stumbled away from my television feeling gipped, deprived of the train wreck spectacle I expected. It’s a political debate—chances are things won’t ever get crazy or dramatic enough to warrant untold hours of pre and postdebate coverage, overcooked punditry, and commercials anywhere near this ballpark—but here’s to holding out hope for debate No. 2!