CNN’s "Battle of the Network Star Republicans /Part Deux" turned out to be an unexpectedly long, and strange, political/pop cultural/TV mashup.
So many flashes of this "debate" seemed to suggest other TV moments -- from sitcoms to reality programming -- that I’m just going to riff on all that the show suggested.
It started off sweetly enough, just like the recent Miss America broadcast, with a line of earnest contenders standing together as each got his/her introductory moment on camera. As with the aforementioned "scholarship" pageant, the debaters tried to shine and connect with the audience by sharing upbeat personal tidbits about their home lives, home states, families and hobbies.
"Good evening, everyone," said Mr. Kentucky, Rand Paul, for example. "My wife, Kelly, and I have been married for nearly 25 years, and I spend my days defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights."
Chris Christie tried to distinguish himself from the pack by asking Mrs. Cleaver -- I mean the CNN control room -- to turn the cameras on the audience, instead of himself. I detected a tiny note of Eddie Haskell in the sudden-niceness department, but the embattled New Jersey governor did manage to bring a refreshing "can’t we all just get along and stop talking about Carly and Trump?" vibe to the evening.
Whereas The Donald was getting even right out of the gate, when from out of nowhere, he announced: "Well, first of all, Rand Paul shouldn’t even be on this stage. He’s number 11, he’s got 1% in the polls, and how he got up here, there’s far too many people anyway."
A few seconds after the equivalent of yelling at the old Kentucky eye surgeon to get off his lawn, Trump assured us: "I think I have a great temperament."
Indeed, as the Three-Hour Tour (to borrow a phrase from the "Gilligan’s Island" jingle) dragged on, many other TV mainstays came to mind: "Celebrity Jeopardy," "Celebrity Death Match," "Walking Dead," "American Idol." and, certainly, "Survivor."
As a viewer, I had a hard time staying awake.
So I imagine that for the candidates, having to remain upright and coherent while standing under the hot lights behind that podium for three hours was an extreme physical challenge, akin to any of the bizarre trials that "Survivor" contenders had to endure to "outwit, outplay and outlast."
Except these CNN contestants looked less like sexy island castaways and more like models for a Men’s Wearhouse commercial. (Well, 10 of them in blue jackets and red ties were “Gonna like the way they looked.” Carly had her own fun, ferocious, female power suit happening.)
The set, an auditorium at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library — with Reagan’s actual Air Force One airplane as the backdrop, dwarfing the pageantry of politicians fanned out in front — lent an aura of fundamental male power and thrust to the proceedings.
And you know what they say about a gun appearing in act one that has to go off by act three? I wondered whether the show would end with the 10 men and one woman actually boarding the plane, (and taking a page from "Oprah," bringing out John Travolta as the pilot) and taking off.
That could have led to a very special episode of "Lost" or perhaps "Fantasy Island" -- although the contestants seemed more intent on screaming "Jake, Jake, Jake!" than "de plane!"
Speaking of Jake, over the years, CNN host Jake Tapper has proven to be a quick study and a terrific TV interviewer. So I was surprised and annoyed by his many-pronged, leading-the-witness-style questions. Rather than directly asking the candidates for their stances on the issues, these requests felt more like Mr. Rogers’ instructions from hell: "Please turn to your neighbor on the left, and tell him why you hate him and why you’d never trust him."
Bringing up the unpleasant things that your fellow stars have said about you in previous episodes also brought to mind the "Real Housewives Reunion" episodes at the end of each "RH" season. That’s when Bravo’s Andy Cohen, who has to act as moderator at these events, shows clips of the most outrageous disses and then tries to stay in control of the panel, or at least to not get body-slammed.
But back to the CNN contenders.
The heart of the evening, of course, came in the interaction between Carly Fiorina and the Donald. Fiorina absolutely owned the evening in her response to Trump’s previous affront about her face. Earlier in the week, he was famously quoted in Rolling Stone saying, in relation to the former HP CEO, "Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that?" Later, he tried to cover his tracks by insisting that he was actually talking about her "persona."
But Carly, whose PAC had already released a well-written and produced commercial in response, chose the perfect time to shoot back: "Women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said." She received huge applause. So she certainly can play the gender card when she wants to.
"I think she’s got a beautiful face, and I think she’s a beautiful woman," Trump countered lamely, only adding more condescension and cluelessness to his error. With a tap of his eyebrows, he seemed to realize that his sudden conversion about Carly’s looks seemed less than authentic. My thought was that there will be hell to pay for whichever consultant suggested that line.
But while talking the feminist talk that women are "not a special interest group" and mentioning that her party was the party of the suffragettes, Fiorina also talked about de-funding Planned Parenthood over harvested tissues. But her description of seeing a Planned Parenthood video of a "fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking" was proven to be entirely wrong.
There was the biggest problem of the evening -- that there was not a single follow-up to fallacious statements.
It was also disappointing that Carly chose not to name a woman for the $10 bill. And it was ridiculous and belittling to women for Huckabee to name his wife and Carson to name his mother.
Along the way, while candidate Jeb seemed to be much energized (close to the code name he chose for the Secret Service, Eveready), he also flubbed the response for the same softball question. “Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher,” he said. Way to promote an important women in American history! Not so incidentally, Thatcher was a friend of Poppy Bush — and was famous for surrounding herself with men and enjoying the Queen Bee status.
And that brought to mind another TV quiz show: "Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?"
But really, it circled back to the Miss America pageant. That’s when Miss Colorado received the exact same query from the judges. Her answer? That important historical figure, Ellen DeGeneres.