TV review: <i>TV was the place to be yesterday</i>

22:33, Apr 06 2009
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL: New Zealand television stations did a mixed job of covering Barack Obama's presidential inauguration.

There are few days in a lifetime where all you want to do is sit riveted to the TV set, but yesterday's presidential inauguration was definitely one of them.

Pity the poor Wellington CBD dwellers whose power cut out before the tears had even dried. Because, whatever else you might say about the Americans, they know how to do a big event that sweeps you from hooplah to high-minded patriotism and back again.

The Obama coverage also underlined the genius of Washington's design.

The wonderful progression of the mall, its emphatic monuments and breath-catching vistas could have been purpose-built for such a day - the arrival of two million, heart-burstingly happy, proud citizens.

It might also have been designed for optimal television coverage.

It's hard to think of any time in modern history, save the swearing in of Nelson Mandela, when the world has all but stopped to watch and celebrate the advent of a politician.

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This was hours and hours of live news coverage of a political event, but devoid of cynicism.

And the knowledge that we were watching not just a carefully crafted spectacle, but a careful piece of political choreography - the guest list, the speakers' lineup - made the coverage all the more compelling.

It was really the grand pilot episode to a long-running potboiler. This man is the hope of the world. Can he live up to his people's expectations?

The coverage also underlined the profound cultural differences between this country and the United States. We would never exult a politician, nor spend money on a celebration of such formality and splendour.

Sure, we have the opening of Parliament, and it's televised, but we're kind of embarrassed by the pomp and the Gilbertian costumes involved, and deeply uncomfortable about seeing MPs being made a fuss of.

Whereas the Americans are unabashedly serious about the ceremonials of democracy.

As all the dignitaries filed on to the balcony, announced by an unseen Major Domo, the American cable channels gave an informative, sober commentary on who was who, while on TV3's Sunrise, Oliver Driver and sundry panellists talked over Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, mocked wheelchair-bound Dick Cheney and made the inevitable unoriginal jibes about George W Bush.

This jarred. There are times when, as clever and hip as our TV stars think they are, the cleverest, hippest thing to do is shut up and let the pictures tell the story.

Or at least defer to someone who knows what he or she is talking about, and can spare us unoriginal bursts of polemic; someone such as experienced diplomat John Wood, the sole, and very sound, commentator on TV One's Breakfast, where Paul Henry did a heroic job of restraining his own waspish tendencies.

According to normal TV rules, this would have been classified as dry television: two male talking heads for a protracted period of time. But it was one of those rare situations where less really was more.

We needed a New Zealand perspective and context for the Obama ascendancy, not a gaggle of dimly relevant people with only snippets to contribute.

A highlight of the local coverage was the live cross to the American embassy, where the charge d'affairs was able to joyously declare, without fear of offending his apolitical brief, "I'm excited beyond belief!"

Like, I suspect, most other people with Sky, I eventually abandoned TV One and TV3 - handicapped by ad breaks and regular programming - for a marathon flick- between of CNN, Fox, BBC and Sky News, all of which live-streamed everything, from go to whoa and beyond.

Their coverage spanned a splash-out of the menu for the inauguration lunch - molasses sweet potatoes, no less - and the shocking news of the collapse of two frail senators, presumably overcome by the enormity of the occasion.

We heard all about the pair of glass fruit bowls specially commissioned as inauguration gifts for the new president and vice- president. We heard prayers, poetry and music, not least from the ageless Aretha Franklin, dressed fit for a royal wedding.

As expected, the highlight was Obama's tough but inspirational speech. It made it worth the while of those two million people, rugged up against a wind chill factor of minus 11 degrees.

And - sorry to have a Princess Diana moment here - seeing extended coverage of the Obama family - especially Michelle bopping to the street parade music - was gush-provoking.

In fact, a remarkable facet of the families of practically all the politicians we saw on the balcony for the swearings-in was that they were ridiculously good-looking and pleasant-seeming. On a global scale.

It wasn't just the expert dentistry, all were good-looking enough to be American TV actors. Even George Bush (the original) and lovely old Barbara looked beautifully preserved, like a nana and pop from a children's storybook.

How does this work? Must one be good-looking and have a good- looking family to get into American politics, or do the looks somehow get enhanced in the process?

It was a little spooky to a New Zealand audience. We have had remarkably few globally good-looking people in our Parliament, and it's not that many years ago that we had a first lady who favoured pink cardies for public occasions.

The nice thing about inauguration fever is that it winds up on a playful note, with a giant parade of marching bands and goodness knows what else from all the states, and that's a cue for the pomp to deflate into good, old-fashioned, Busby Berkeley-style fun.

My favourite: the Lawn Rangers from Arcola, Illinois, billed as a precision lawn-mower drill team, but really just a bunch of masked exhibitionists, whose motto is: "You're only young once, but you can always be immature."

* What did you think of television's inauguration coverage? Post your comments below.

The Dominion Post