For an event that necessarily unfolded from scattered locations across the country, the theme of the 2020 Democratic National Convention was unified from the start. Over four nights, a (virtual) parade of politicians, celebrities and citizens solemnly told the audience at home that this election is about saving “the soul of this nation” from Donald Trump. Forced by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to rely on pre-taped videos, moving montages and socially distanced live speeches, the DNC felt less like a convention and more like a particularly earnest telethon trying to raise awareness of a democracy in crisis. It was strange, corny, touching, exhausting, and more straightforward than ever.
Electing Joe Biden, the event’s core argument went, could be a one-stop shop to reverse course on the damage Trump’s time in office has wrought. “What a thing that would be,” marveled fourth night host Julia Louis-Dreyfus with an audible hitch in her voice. No matter the issue on the table, the convention was defined by this thread of tentative hope in a more decent and more pleasantly boring future, helmed by Biden. The convention attempted to balance throwing the Democrats’ greatest hits at its steadfast base and luring in that ever elusive and confusing bloc of undecided voters by featuring Republicans who wouldn’t be caught within six feet of this convention pre-Trump (and pre-COVID).
This balance wasn’t always successful, and sometimes downright confusing. (Why tap an oratorical bore like John Kasich and bench a rising star like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the rare politician who truly understands how to communicate in a way that resonates on television?) And yet, the convention’s persistent goal of proving Biden to be the stabilizing force to counteract Trump’s brand of chaos remained clear as day. By Thursday’s closing night of programming, the case for Biden as America’s great redeemer had been thoroughly outlined, if not altogether proven.
Making a political convention telegenic is a near impossible task even in the best of circumstances; there’s only so much you can do to jazz up an event that was always meant to be a collective of dry meetings and procedural votes. So it was genuinely fascinating to watch the DNC tackle the challenge of shifting its format to an entirely virtual one, essentially putting on four awards shows worth of #content in one week. Each night was “hosted” by a different actor, with Eva Longoria, Tracee Ellis Ross and Kerry Washington erring on the side of radiating somber gratitude while Julia Louis-Dreyfus stretched her comedic MC skills. The many pre-taped segments were a mixed bag, often erring towards such aggressive sentiment that you’d be forgiven for thinking the convention had cut to a plaintive infomercial. And indeed, some broadcast networks opted to cut away from them altogether — both an annoyance and, in the case of something like Billy Porter’s well-meaning, deeply strange rendition of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” a blessing.
The most successful deviation from the norm was Tuesday’s roll call, a typically interminable segment. With a combination of live and pre-taped videos from all 56 states and U.S. territories, this virtual version showed the breadth of the country and highlighted its diversity in a much more visible, meaningful sense of the word. (If the roll isn’t done this way come the next convention, regardless of isolation protocol, it would honestly be a shame.)
Even the marquee speeches got a jolt of innovation from the new socially distanced format. Typically given before an enormous, anonymous convention crowd from the same podium, the politicians had to strategize so much more about how they would deliver their remarks, and what might make them more effective. The differences between approaches is evident even within a single powerful marriage. Michelle Obama, keynoting the first night, spoke to the country’s conscience while seated in a modest living room; Barack Obama, speaking before Kamala Harris on the third night, expressed his stern disappointment in Trump while standing at a lectern flanked by the more typical regalia of flags and Constitutional script. Choices like these, Bernie Sanders gesticulating in front of a wall of logs, Dr. Jill Biden doing a walk and talk through her former classroom and Elizabeth Warren pleading for reason in a preschool classroom all made clear exactly what each politician hoped their audience might take away from their speeches and carefully honed personas.
After blowing through most of the Democrats’ biggest pinch hitters in previous nights, Thursday was all about affirming the nuances of Biden’s career and humanity. Four days of “Joe Biden is a stand-up guy” had led to a critical moment in which he had to prove it. And by the time he formally accepted the nomination for president late Thursday night, the DNC had done enough trial and error to understand that the most powerful way for him to deliver the final word was as directly as possible: at a podium, in the same auditorium as Harris, but with the camera staying close and steady on him throughout his every forceful plea. As he addressed the pandemic and “the current president”’s inability to handle it, his tone took on a sharper edge and the camera reacted accordingly, closing in to provide a visual urgency to match. After four days of buildup, months of campaigning, and years of anticipating this moment, Biden and his party found a way to exemplify his slow and steady brand at a moment that feels anything but.