The Democratic Presidential Debates

Reality is meant to trick the eyes. The high of housewives bickering about who said what over a bottle of . Cast members secretly scheming to avoid elimination off the . Contestants blatantly lying to rig the in their . What unfolds before us, to quote Susan Murray and Laura Ouelette in 2008’s Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, “is an unstable text that encourages viewers to out their own notions of the real, the ordinary, and the intimate against the before them.”

, inside ’s , Democratic presidential hopefuls participated in the second round of debates. Last night found two of the top candidates— and Vice Biden, along with Senator —center . The whole ordeal played out like an episode of The Real Legislators of .

Remember: Absorbing, can’t--away TV is not about stability, much we yearn for—and need, really— to be. The value of the unstable text is in its consistent guarantee of popcorn-worthy . Those who , myself included, find a perverse comfort in it because it’s entirely reliable; it gives us something to bicker about with , , colleagues. It challenges us in ways for which we are unprepared, and sometimes for the better.

The primary of debates, like with its twisting plots and snaking subplots, obeys a simple formula: an of disorder. Biden, who remains the frontrunner despite his moderate establishment policies and a thrashing from Harris in June during the round of debates, was again assigned the role of villain. A textbook archetype of the genre, the former doesn’t quite find a kindred spirit in the diabolical of Spencer Pratt (The Hills) or Jax (Vanderpump Rules), but TV hinges on the characters submit to. That’s one of the more fascinating parts about Murray and Ouelette’s theory: Although the text itself is prone to unpredictability, the characters must conform to stationary .

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invoke President more than anybody in this campaign,” Booker said to Biden, railing into him. “You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not.” Later, again pounced on him over the matter of criminal justice reform, and Biden found himself in the of Harris’ agitation on the topic of health care and paralyzed by former ’s of his shaky record.

But before drama turned rapid-, was the sly splendor of the 10 candidates on stage, by , captured with a canniess by Brendan Smialowski. There’s a static, almost robotic feel to the vertical poses they take; their top halves have been severed by the ’s frame. The linear symmetry of their lower limbs, the uniformity of their , suggests an analogy: Not unlike reality TV, we all have a role to adhere to.

But then, almost instantly, the challenges its very hypothesis by displaying the full-body reflection of the on the stage floor ( Peele’s tethered beings from Us sprang to ). And so, in the democratic upside down, a counter suggestion is proposed: that even the roles candidates were assigned—The Hero, The Antagonist, The Everyman—are not, in , as stable as we anticipate.

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