The Best Reality Show on TV: Presidential Race

Ty Burr can't stop watching reality TV. And he says the show with the craziest plot twists, the nuttiest characters and the biggest payoff is what he's dubbed "Primary Reality." It's on at all hours, on almost every channel. And everyone else is watching, too. It also happens to be the race for the presidency of the United States.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Commentator Ty Burr is the film critic at The Boston Globe. He says the presidential race is the best drama on TV.

Mr. TY BURR (Film critic, "The Boston Globe"): I love the writer's strike. It gets my family out of our TV rut. I know, the Golden Globes went dark. But it's the 21st century, and we can watch stars get drunk on YouTube anytime. And of course, there are still the reality show contests. My daughters love to watch "America's Top Model" and say rude things about Tyra Banks. But the TV program our whole family's really been getting into, the one with the craziest plot twist, the nuttiest characters, the biggest payoff, is the race for the presidency of the United States.

It's a little show I like to call "Primary Reality." And you don't need TiVo. It's on at all hours and on almost every channel. Everyone's watching, too. Ratings for the debates and coverage of the state primaries have been triple, even quadruple those at previous elections. And the cable channels are rushing to add more talking heads and play-by-play analysis. Well, sure they are. It's a wide-open race, and the direction of our country hangs in the balance. But "Primary Reality" is as ridiculously entertaining as a season of "Survivor: Washington, D.C."

On the left side of the island, we've got Queen Hillary and her consort, the man who used to be eldest, upstaged by Kid Obama, surfing in to the heartland on waves of hope. On the right side is a grizzled, but likeable veteran, call him Sergeant Rock McCain, in a tussle with preacher Huckabee and a smooth-talking suit named Mitt. What happens when the two teams get winnowed down and come together for the final contest? Even my kids are hooked. During the last debates, they subjected the candidate's body language to the same comedic scrutiny they give in "Gossip Girl" episode.

The supporting players and the castoffs look even further back to the Hollywood studio stock companies of the 1940s. Rudy Giuliani, he's a Elisha Cook Jr. - the tightly-wound tough who goes kabloey in the final reel. Ron Paul? Dennis Kucinich? Mike Gravel? They're all those colorful characters filling the edges of classic screwball comedies. Maybe this sounds like heresy, until you realize how many people are hanging onto each new episode. The TV executives call them viewers, but let's call them voters. They're addicted. Involved. Engaged.

Of course, the news media ran the footage of Hillary Clinton getting (unintelligible) into the ground, because they understand it as a narrative turning point, the twist that goes in the clip reel, the commercial, the blog and the history books. The funny part is that the race for the American presidency has always been a reality contest - the only one that matters. This year, the election has become not just the sole entertainment in town, but the best. Why root for somebody that has become top chef, "American Idol" or "America's Next Top Model" when you can pick the leader of the free world without even calling a 900 number.

NORRIS: Ty Burr is the film critic at "The Boston Globe" and the author of the Best Old Movies for Families: A Guide to Watching Together."

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