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The All-Virtual DNC Is Good, Actually

Photo: PBS/YouTube

The first night of the all-virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention looked like many things. It was a telethon sometimes, especially when host Eva Longoria spoke to interviewees from inside her strange placeless studio and then turned toward the camera to ask viewers at home to help however they can. It was an awkward but sincere virtual celebration, as in the opening chorus of people from across the country, stitched together so they could sing the national anthem in a group, with all the cornball vibes of an elementary-school end-of-the-year slideshow. It was a strained facsimile of liveness, as big speeches concluded by cutting to footage of people applauding from their homes. Sometimes, though — and I almost can’t believe I’m saying this — the strange and tragic circumstances of this virtual national convention made for a better, more moving, more intimate political platform.

National political conventions were not originally designed as televised events. They’ve shifted that way in the past few decades, but what we think of as a traditional convention has always been retrofitted, backwards engineered from what was once just a big political meeting into something programmed for at-home viewers. There are standout optics, sure, performances designed to play to the people at home: Hillary Clinton in her white suit, striding out to yet another exhausting performance of “Fight Song,” and Clint Eastwood and the chair. Conventions arguably made the Obamas’ political fortunes, beginning with Barack’s purple-states speech in 2004.

Those memorable moments, though, be they stirring or ridiculous or obviously forced, were brief images or speeches within several hours of prime-time convention programming, very little of it nationally significant or striking. As a dedicated convention viewer of long standing, I can assure you that, most of the time, prime-time national conventions make for boring, rote TV, in part because they still bear the remnants of the event that wasn’t supposed to be TV: the states’ roll call, the opening and closing prayers, the speeches from politically important but less telegenic figures. It’s a little like if the majority of the Oscars telecast was the part with the accountants from Ernst & Young.

There was room for improvement is what I’m saying. So even though the first night of the Democratic National Convention was a half-baked attempt of at least five different kinds of virtual formats, each of them filtered back through the framing device of Longoria’s empty studio, it was fascinating to watch a national party be forced to try something different. It was the first national televised convention designed, from top to bottom, to be on TV.

Much of the distinction between this and a more typical convention was in presentation rather than content. The short films about the candidates’ background were familiar — that clip about Joe Biden, Man Who Rides Trains, could’ve easily run in a traditional convention hall. There was also an underlying cheesiness of patriotic boosterism, an appropriate mood for this kind of event. More than anything else, that warm, open sincerity felt like the unbroken line between this convention night and the long lineage of conventions in the past. We love this country, and our guy’s the right guy for the job does feel different when it’s being beamed in from a prominent Democrat’s living room rather than yelled from a podium on a large stage. But the message is functionally the same.

Some of it was messy and underconceived. Cuts to live, at-home applause usually left odd gaps. There was a disorienting sterility to Longoria’s hosting studio. Footage of Biden speaking at an event left his face out of focus while the flags behind him were crystal clear. Politicians who haven’t honed their delivery of speeches with no applause lines were left sounding stilted and uncomfortable. Punch-line jokes — like Amy Klobuchar’s bit about Trump applying for a change-of-address card — are tough to deliver when there’s no one to laugh after the joke.

It’s not just nitpicking to point out the things that didn’t really work on a design or production level. When we spend so much of our lives being onscreen, as Sonia Saraiya pointed out earlier this year, dissecting what does and does not work in these new virtual formats is not useless. Like it or not, all forms of entertainment and education and news and communication are in a massive, unavoidable, communal crisis of form. We’ve all spent the last few months scrambling together to try to invent a new set of socially distanced visual-storytelling modes, and each one of these big events is like a new iteration of the experiment. Does it work to mix live and pretaped speeches? How important is it that everyone have the same basic camera resolutions? We have no live audience, but could we stitch one together on the fly? Will people be distracted if Bernie Sanders stands in front of a giant pile of wood? A note to anyone running one of these in the future: The segment during which Maine Senate candidate Sara Gideon gave a speech and then turned to musician Maggie Rogers, waiting to perform from a strange rock perch somewhere off to the right — that did not work.

Nevertheless, the most important elements of the night were delivered in a format that, for the first time, were designed primarily as a screen experience rather than a big podium speech retrofitted for TV. As a result, they were more politically persuasive and personally appealing than most of what runs in a usual convention. The participants who showed up inside familiar domestic spaces came off as more intimate and personal. Beto O’Rourke appeared in front of his impressive vinyl collection, and Andrew Yang sat in front of an aesthetically unappealing home printer. They looked like real people. The DNC smartly adopted the visual language of the morning show and of the family sitcom. You, the voter, sit on your couch at home; Catherine Cortez Masto sits inside her unassuming kitchen, with its white appliances and laminate countertops. It turns out a stage can be even more compelling when you’re allowed to forget that it’s a stage.

The effect was most powerful for Michelle Obama, whose closing speech was the night’s biggest success. Obama’s political identity has always stemmed from her uncanny ability to come off as apolitical and grounded, someone with a distaste for fussy pomp and circumstance and someone with the magic ability to make prepared speeches sound candid. When she’s presented on a huge stage with lights and a podium and surrounded by thousands of people, her public persona doesn’t quite match her setting. Last night, speaking from a curated but comfortable interior space and addressing Americans up close and personal, Obama gave perhaps her best political performance ever. Afterward, I heard more than one pundit remark sadly about how amazing it would’ve been to watch Obama deliver that speech in front of a huge live audience, but that sentiment exactly misses the point. Her skill has never been to play to the crowd. Her talent is in making everyone feel a connection with her and in forgetting the crowd’s there at all.

Still, what I found most striking about the first night of the convention wasn’t the visual rhetoric of the speakers appearing from comfortable domestic places, and it wasn’t the weirdness of the disjointed virtual format. (The weirdness of the disjointed virtual format came in a close second, no question.) I was most struck by the way a virtual convention let the DNC tell stories about Americans with a completely different emotional register than would have existed in a giant convention hall.

The first night of the convention felt like a telethon, a school slideshow, a morning show, a fake version of liveness, but, in some moments, it also felt like a funeral. And I’m glad it did. There was an in-memoriam segment with the names and occupations of some of the many people who’ve died from COVID in the past several months. One of the most poignant speakers was Kristin Urquiza, who spoke clearly and sharply about her father’s death from COVID. The brothers of George Floyd spoke and then called for a moment of silence. And when the big-name hosts (Longoria but also Megan Rapinoe and Biden himself) spoke to citizens about their lives, their first questions were always a mournful, soothing, and, yes, funereal, “So, how are you? How are you doing?”

In the basest sense, it is convenient that, for Democrats, a sober recognition of national tragedy also plays into their political narratives. It’s also an unbelievable relief, almost gasp-inducing, really, to see familiar and powerful voices come together on a big national platform and give everyone a moment to just talk about how bad this shit has been. The paradoxical intimacy of the virtual space helped make that possible. A convention hall full of confetti and balloons is not designed to let everyone feel really, really sad for a few minutes. I think that’s what Americans need, though, and the virtual DNC gave everyone some room for catharsis. Whether that catharsis and the event’s new, TV-native visual intimacy will move any political needles is still an open question, but night one of the DNC was a good start.

The All-Virtual DNC Is Good, Actually