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This debate wasn’t even close, but it sure was entertaining

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump leave the stage after the first presidential debate.Timothy A. CLARYTIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Let’s look at this as theater for a moment.

Well, OK, it is theater. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Yes, your vote on Nov. 8 will help decide the most important election of your lifetime and affect the future of humanity on this planet. No, that’s not hyperbole. But because we’re a shiny, shallow culture that likes to feel good about feeling good — even when things look really bad — we tend to process even the super-serious stuff as entertainment.

All of which is to say that Monday night’s presidential debate was truly, satisfyingly entertaining. In large part that was because the evening served as a refresher course in such virtues as competence, professionalism, preparation, and being able to form a sentence that scans from one end to the other. Unless you are wholly in the tank for Donald Trump or you believe that the top of Hillary Clinton’s head really does pop off when no one’s around to release a stream of bat-winged hellspawn, it is likely that you think the former Secretary of State mopped the floor with Trump, in part simply by letting him serve as his own mop.

Clinton will never be warm and fuzzy. Many of us don’t care. But she spent most of the debate in a deeper comfort zone than we’ve seen her in this election. She knew this was the first time millions were able to compare the two candidates side by side, like tomatoes in a supermarket. She seemed relaxed. She let Trump slowly and surely hang himself with gobbledygook about 400-pound hackers and Rosie O’Donnell. She knew that every time he interrupted her, he looked worse. At points she responded to his blurts by calmly staring out at us in the audience, as if Jim on “The Office” were reacting to Michael Scott jamming two feet and both hands into his mouth. And, oh, to have had subtitles for the internal monologue going through Clinton’s head when Trump accused her of lacking “stamina.”


That was only half the show, though. If you were following along on social media, the other half was the bleak black humor of anti-Trump schadenfreude turning slowly into a comedy of unexpected delight. Judging from Twitter in the days and hours leading up to the debate, when a steady drumbeat of polls was pointing to a dead heat between the candidates, anyone who feared a Trump presidency was apparently in line at the packie, stocking up on everything up to and including absinthe. I’ve never seen so many alcohol-related posts in my life.


That GIF of Amy Schumer swilling from a massive glass of wine circulated like a fly refusing to land. People proposed drinking games — take a shot every time Trump tells a lie — hoping they’d be comatose before the third question. Others hid from the sight behind bunkers of streaming TV episodes. There was wailing and gnashing of teeth before a word was exchanged, because surely the Donald would work his reality TV mojo and surely Clinton would freeze up behind a wall of wonk.

As the evening progressed, though, Clinton found her feet and Trump lost his cool. She was prepared; he sputtered and sniffled. She was lucky. Substantive or not, lines of inquiry that could have played to Trump’s base — Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation — remained offstage. When he raised the e-mails, she apologized, and there the matter lay. In a face-to-face contest, Clinton was rarely challenged. It wasn’t even close. One candidate seemed presidential. The other seemed flustered, angry, petty, and mean.


As the reality of who was whupping who sank in, the tenor of social media changed. Images of Clinton split-screened next to a Photoshopped Lloyd Bridges in “Airplane!” — “looks like I picked the wrong day to give up sniffing glue!” — started to pop up. The sense of half a country watching in horror between its collective fingers turned to a growing sense that the grown-ups might carry the day. People started policing the media responses and online noise; a rumor that Trump’s team was deleting past tweets was debunked.

The scorn ran particularly high for journalists and news outlets that bent over backward to reach for an equivalency that, by the night’s end, with Trump complaining his microphone was defective, seemed patently and absurdly false. MSNBC’s Chuck Todd was raked over the coals for faulting Clinton as seeming “over-prepared” — wait, isn’t that a good thing? — while The Atlantic’s David Frum was booed for complaining that she kept “smiling like she’s at her granddaughter’s birthday party.” (This after Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus had criticized Clinton for not smiling enough during an NBC forum earlier in the month.)

When all is said and done, was there enough meat on the table of this debate to serve the public good? No, but there were at least some facts, figures, and proposals from Clinton while Trump served strictly meatless goulash. These events are always theater, though. They have been since Lincoln-Douglas, and they especially have been since the invention of television. We come to them hoping to see someone in command of the issues, whose worldview jibes with our own, but we also want to see someone who seems commanding, because like it or not, the job of president of the United States is at least partly theater. Who do you want representing us to the rest of the planet? After Monday, the answer seemed awfully clear.


Maybe this is all written from a bubble. Maybe no one’s mind was changed. Perhaps the first-debate relief felt by those of us who fear a Trump presidency or hope for a Clinton victory will fade like smoke if a majority of Americans choose the man who incoherently “speaks his mind.” At that point the country will have finally chosen total theater, and we will reap the consequences. But for now it seems as if we’re one step closer to that moment when we can finally turn to Donald Trump as a society and say: You’re fired.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.