The sexual-assault allegations brought by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford against Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh are a very serious matter. On Thursday, they also became a strange, disjointed, emotional TV show.
Every major broadcast and cable news network, plus streams on dozens of news websites, devoted more than eight hours of programming to live feeds of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, where Ford recounted the night that Kavanaugh allegedly sexually assaulted her, and where Kavanaugh later denied that any of that ever happened. The whole nation may not have been watching — there’s no doubt that some people had work to do, or didn’t have access to a TV or device that allowed them to see and hear the conflicting reports — but it felt like the whole nation was. For those who tuned into the whole thing, it was a perverse binge-watch, the kind of televised marathon that induces illness.
What we all saw was the equivalent of multiple TV series blurred together. Sometimes it was a congressional hearing not unlike what airs on C-SPAN. Sometimes it was a courtroom procedural, especially when the Republican-selected female prosecutor, Rachel Mitchell, questioned Ford by proxy on behalf of the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, all of them white men, and briefly did the same with Kavanaugh until the GOP senators decided to reclaim their time. Sometimes, like when Lindsey Graham exploded — “You’re looking for a fair process? You came to the wrong town at the wrong time, my friend!” — the whole thing went full House of Cards. Shortly thereafter, it transformed into an episode of Veep:
Judge Kavanaugh: “Senator, I was at the top of my class academically, busted my butt in school, captain of the varsity basketball team, got into Yale College. When I got into Yale College, I got into Yale Law School. I’ve worked my tail off.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse: “And … did the word ‘ralph’ you used in your yearbook relate to alcohol?”
It all added up to choppy, gripping, but unpleasant television that came with more than a little guilt — primarily, guilt for watching as a woman rehashed the most traumatic experience of her life on live TV.
The two main characters in this “show” were fascinating, particularly when considered in terms of gender expectations. First, Ford testified in what was, by far, the less partisan and more orderly portion of the program. She answered every question directly, sometimes nervously, but without ever wavering in her “100 percent” certainty that Kavanaugh was the person who assaulted her in high school. If this were a politically themed reboot of an ’80s or ’90s sitcom, Ford probably would have shown up on Capitol Hill in a pink pussy hat and a Nasty Woman T-shirt, making statements to the committee that quoted Betty Friedan and Samantha Bee. But she did not fit that stereotype, nor did she easily slide into the typical courtroom procedural role of the emotional female victim placed on the stand. “I am an independent person,” Ford said during her testimony. “I am no one’s pawn.”
Even the talking heads on Fox News had to acknowledge how persuasive Ford was. “The more fragile she has seemed,” Britt Hume said, “the more powerful she comes across to the audience.”
Ironically, Ford never seemed nearly as fragile as Kavanaugh did when he took the hot seat late in the afternoon. During his lengthy opening statement, he spoke with fiery anger — “You may defeat me in the final vote, but you’ll never get me to quit. Never.” — and frequently fought back tears, particularly when he referenced his family and friends. As his testimony began, you could feel the room’s temperature (and its preponderance of testosterone) shift the conversation to a different direction. Mitchell, who started out functioning as chief investigator for the Republicans, disappeared like a supporting character written out midseason with no explanation. At that point, the hearing became a partisan battle as if Aaron Sorkin scripted a mash-up of The West Wing and A Few Good Men. “I am innocent!” Kavanaugh shouted at Senator Dick Durbin. All that was missing was someone demanding that the Democrats admit that they ordered the code red. Given the Republican senators’ arguments about how Ford’s once-confidential letter leaked to the press, maybe we actually did get that.
If Kavanaugh won sympathy from some viewers during his initial statement, he came across as privileged and petulant during the back-and-forth with committee members, particularly when addressing Democratic senators. He rarely responded to a question with a straight answer, more than once firing back to Senator Amy Klobuchar’s inquiries about his beer drinking with, “Do you drink beer, Senator? What do you drink?” After a break in testimony, Kavanaugh had to apologize to Klobuchar for lobbing that clap back at her; minutes earlier, she had acknowledged that her father was a recovering alcoholic. Snap comments like that, for which he immediately had to say sorry, made Kavanaugh seem not just like a man who made some bad decisions as a teen in the ’80s, but like an ’80s movie bully.
At the end of it all, though, it felt like none of that would matter. Any expectation that this genre-hopping episode would involve one final twist and resolve its lingering mystery did not come to fruition. Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana ended the hearing by asking Kavanaugh a series of point-blank questions about whether he assaulted Ford, as well as Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick, two other women who also have publicly come forward with accusations against him. Kavanaugh said no, under oath. After feeling like it was impossible to disbelieve Ford’s testimony earlier in the day, the vibe, at least as I felt it, was that Kavanaugh will likely be confirmed.
This confirmation show ended, like many true-crime and scripted dramas, with plotlines left hanging and no clear resolution. Those of us who binged the whole thing felt frustrated, confused, and exhausted. We don’t know for sure what will happen in the next episode, but there’s a creeping sense that it’ll be pretty predictable. I’m not sure I have the stomach to watch.