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Earlier this summer, WIRED’s Jason Parham pointed out, rightly, that “some of the best TV is not on TV anymore.” Instagram Live, TikTok, Quibi—these are now home to the best shows around. Netflix waters run deep, but at a time when everyone is binge-watching, they can also run dry. Even Zoom has become entertainment: a new kind of appointment television where people watch their friends’, family’s, and coworkers’ lives unfold in bursts of indeterminate length. As the Covid-19 pandemic marched on in America this summer, there was no doubt that the 2020 Democratic National Convention—a televised event that attracts viewers the world over—wouldn’t be able to take place in-person. What was unclear was whether it would be effective or exciting. Could political pageantry be compelling without balloon showers? The answer, it seems, is yes.
Actually, without the standard-issue red, white, and blue banners, flags, and confetti, this year’s DNC was allowed to put on a whole new drag. Kerry Washington, Wednesday’s host, got to bring Olivia Pope energy back to prime time. “Witchy feminist rock star” Maggie Rogers turned in a very socially distanced seaside performance on Monday; finally-old-enough-to-vote goth-pop star Billie Eilish gave a heavy-lidded rendition of her new song “My Future” on Wednesday eve. (Conservative Twitter, the Daily Beast points out, received that latter performance like it was “the equivalent of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion grinding to ‘WAP’ on top of the American flag.”) Quibi CEO, and longtime Republican, Meg Whitman showed up to say President Trump “has no clue how to run a business, let alone an economy.” And, in the week’s most eye-catching number, Pose star Billy Porter gave a vigorous performance of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” with Stephen Stills in front of a series of protest images.
Meanwhile, the convention gave America a sense of how everyone—even political heavyweights—might look if they air-dropped into your company’s Zoom call. Former first lady Michelle Obama, possibly the week’s most powerful orator, gave her 18-minute address in front of a subtle Biden poster while wearing a “Vote” necklace. Senator Bernie Sanders’ backdrop had big wood energy. Ohio’s former governor, John Kasich, parked himself at a crossroads, which was meant to symbolize the decision America will make in November but also made him look as though he wanted to make some kind of Faustian deal to learn to play the blues. Washington, DC, mayor Muriel Bowser spoke in front of her Black Lives Matter Plaza while Senator Elizabeth Warren gave her address from inside a classroom, where the eagle-eyed spotted “BLM” written out in playroom letters.
The best backgrounds, however, were provided by the states themselves. As the virtual convention took viewers around the nation for the roll call of delegate votes (Joe Biden, of course, took the majority of them), each state got to put its own twist on their offerings. Georgia’s delegate cast her vote in front of a mural of recently departed congressperson John Lewis. Democratic activist Cozzie Watkins noted, “I’m putting on my mask, and we’re going to every corner in North Carolina to help organize” for Biden, while gesturing to the red mask below her chin. (She instantly became a Twitter fave.) But perhaps best of all, Rhode Island cast its votes next to a plate of calamari, the state’s official appetizer, and instantly went viral.
The DNC has simply been a few nights of compelling prime-time television—an occurrence that hasn’t happened for most of the summer. If anything, the only other program the convention competed with for viewership was the current NBA playoff series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Portland Trail Blazers. Turning politics into spectacle, and entertainment, is always a dodgy enterprise, but at a moment when the only thing that might unite America is the fact that no one can gather in large groups, seeing senators and former first ladies in the same isolated rooms as everyone else feels apt for 2020.
Near the end of Wednesday night’s proceedings, former president Barack Obama gave a much anticipated address. Pulling no punches with respect to his successor, Obama said President Trump has shown “no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.” The Republican National Convention begins on Monday—and will give him exactly that.
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