Donald Trump is a star of reality TV, but in a very specific genre — the competition reality show, with winners and losers and backstabbing and vicious eliminations. His entertainment brand has been his political brand: He sees a zero-sum America where you’re either crushing the losers or joining them, and he’s cast himself as the president of the winners.
The Democrats’ reel, on the other hand, recalled a different kind of reality show that also makes up a big chunk of the TV universe: the noncompetition show that surveys subcultures and explores a varied world. It made me think of “Taste the Nation,” the Padma Lakshmi Hulu series that combines mouthwatering American regional cuisines with dives into cultural history and issues like immigration.
Even calamari, after all, is political: It is a product of cultural identities and regulatory systems and government responsibilities, like managing public health, that can keep you in business or put you out of it.
The roll call, connecting panoramas and policy, was a reminder of this. It was counterprogramming to the Trump-TV aesthetic of eat-or-be-eaten. But it also made an intangible emotional statement. It acknowledged what the pandemic, a political theme of the convention, has cost us: not just lives and jobs, but one another.
It was also, in a key way, an accident. Some of the better moments of this unusual convention have come out of necessity. Conventions, like other rituals — TV awards shows, say — are creatures of habit and obligation. You do things because you’ve always done them or because if you don’t, someone will feel slighted.
The pandemic-compressed proceedings, for instance, had the loquacious former president Bill Clinton speak for only around five minutes. (Even if arguably, in the first convention of the #MeToo era, it might have been better if he hadn’t spoken at all.)