This election cycle has already seen one sleepy presidential debate and one stand-off between an apparently dehydrated fitness enthusiast and everyone’s favorite drunk uncle. So honestly, neither Barack Obama’s rumble with Mitt Romney nor Joe Biden’s badgering of Paul Ryan held a candle to classic debates between Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd, or Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits.
While those debates from Parks and Recreation and The West Wing may be fictional, they’re at least a model for Obama and Romney on how to turn policy bickering and platform posturing into good TV. As the presidential hopefuls prep for Tuesday night’s second debate, they may be wise to look to these entries in the Fictional Debate Hall of Fame for pointers.
“Should all oppressed people be allowed refuge in America?” The question frames a mock classroom debate between Alicia Silverstone’s iconic ’90s heroine, Cher, and Elisa Donovan’s gum-twirling mean girl, Amber. Hilariously—and kind of ingeniously—Cher spins a yarn comparing the influx of “Hate-ians” (her mispronunciation of “Haitians”) to the U.S. to guests who show up to a garden party without RSVP-ing. All it takes, she says, is for some rearranging in the kitchen—or the government—to accommodate the unexpected guests: “It does not say RSVP on the Statue of Liberty.” Amber’s way harsh, and pretends it’s not a brilliant metaphor. As if. (Trivia: Cher’s “Hate-ians” goof was not scripted. Silverstone really didn’t know how to pronounce the word, and director Amy Heckerling left the goof in the film because it was so funny.)
‘Parks and Recreation’
Did Amy Poehler foresee the 2012 election narrative? The Parks and Recreation star also penned the Emmy-nominated episode, “The Debate,” which finds erudite, charming, surging City Council frontrunner Leslie Knope (played by Poehler) get completely blindsided by her squandering challenger (Paul Rudd, in all his puppy-dog, buffoonish glory), who gives an unexpectedly—and perhaps inadvertently—strong performance. It aired in April, but essentially foreshadowed the first presidential debate two weeks ago, in which Romney completely reversed the tide of the election with his showing against an underwhelming Obama. Though that snooze-inducing showdown could’ve used a jolt of energy from one candidate shouting, like Rudd’s character does, “You’re being mean!” to his rival.
‘The West Wing’
That a network TV show would run an episode that discussed so many issues as “The Debate” episode of The West Wing did is, in itself, remarkable. But more impressively, the series performed the episode live. Alan Alda played Arnold Vinick, the Republican candidate to succeed Martin Sheen’s Jed Bartlett as president, and Jimmy Smits played Matt Santos, the Democratic hopeful who was modeled after a then real-life young Illinois politician by the name of Barack Obama. Of course, this fictional debate was almost implausibly eloquent, as evidenced by this clip of Vinick and Santos arguing over whether the term “liberal” has become a bad word.
Will McAvoy would not stand for Jim Lehrer’s nonsense. McAvoy, the fictional TV-news blowhard and ceaseless crusader for journalism reform on HBO’s The Newsroom, lobbied to land a slot as moderator of a GOP primary debate, going so far as to stage a mock version as he envisions it: one in which the candidates actually are forced to explain ludicrous past statements, provide facts to back up their assertions, and open themselves up to a Spanish Inquisition-style line of questioning to prove their presidential bona fides. But alas, this debate was destined for the same fake journalistic utopia that much of Aaron Sorkin’s idealized broadcast-news universe exists in, as the debate committee passed on the proposal.
Performing well in a debate is as much about disguising your flaws at it is spotlighting your strengths. For Modern Family’s Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen), who was running for City Council, that meant suppressing nearly every natural tendency: talking with her hands, licking her lips, being sarcastic, rolling her eyes. Thanks to a brutal living-room practice session staged by her ruthless prep team—her family—Claire manages to stifle the bad habits during the beginning of her debate against the council incumbent, played by David Cross—before unforeseen circumstances set off a disastrous herky-jerky, flailing meltdown (and physical comedy gold from Bowen).
As if Robert Redford would ever struggle in a political poll. Still, in The Candidate, Redford plays Bill McKay, an underdog Democratic challenger in an already sewn-up Senate race. McKay agrees to campaign despite his inevitable loss because he sees it as an opportunity to spread his views on the trail. Yet as his polls plummet to the point of humiliation, McKay begins centering and generalizing his platforms, and begins a debate against his rival by doling out tailored answers. A crisis of conscience, however, causes him to do a monologue at the end of the debate about how useless and uninformative it was, a risky move that ultimately wins over voters. Will McAvoy swoons.
Only in the movies could Will Ferrell beat star political consultant and commentator James Carville in a debate on the role of government in supporting innovation in the field of biotechnology. But in one of the most satisfying scenes of the frat-pack raunchfest Old School, in which Ferrell attempts to start an all-inclusive fraternity at a fictional New York college, that’s precisely what happens.
In his 2009 mockumentary comedy, Bruno, Sacha Baron Cohen plays a gay Austrian fashion reporter whose series of ditzy, boneheaded antics confuse unsuspecting bystanders who think he’s filming a real documentary film. Among the victims, an ex-Palestinian minister and the ex-head of Mossad, who participate in a debate on the politics of hummus, which Bruno confuses for Hamas. “Isn’t pita bread the real enemy?”
No one sets fire to a monologue like Dixie Carter as Julia Sugarbaker. The opinionated Designing Women character runs for commissioner and loses self-control when her über-conservative opponent continues to treat her with an egregious lack of respect, unleashing a classic sharp-tongued, smoldering monologue. And that was the night the lights went out in Georgia.
The issues at hand may be the right to wear hair gel, coming to school on the weekends, and whether a candidate should be embarrassed by her past as stripper, but credit Glee’s candidates for student-body president and vice president for at least having the courage of their convictions. Especially if those convictions inspire one candidate to tear off his shirt and flaunt his chiseled abs.