Hollywood West

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 October, 2008, 12:00am

Couch potatoes everywhere are rejoicing that we're into October, and most of their - OK, our - favourite shows are back. After the writer's strike, when pickings were slim, it's nice to have that old TiVo filling up again.

But despite the season premieres of all those highly rated shows - Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives and even, heaven help us, Dancing with the Stars - the TV landscape has been profoundly altered by that one television event that rolls around every four years: the presidential debates.

Given the historic nature of the campaign - 'Look, it's a black man for president!' ... 'No, it's a white woman for vice-president!' - it's not surprising that shows which usually command millions of viewers are being held off for a week so people can gather round their tellies and mock the debates. There are viewing parties around the US, in bars and people's homes, where the real purpose of politics is sidelined for the evening in favour of good old-fashioned heckling.

After all, sometimes it's the best TV ever. Around 70 million people tuned in to watch Alaskan governor Sarah Palin wink her way into the annals of history when she debated with Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden, he of the perfectly coiffed hair and gleaming smile. And those same 70 million people - with the possible exception of dyed-in-the-wool Republicans in the Alaskan town of Wasilla, where Palin was once mayor - argued over the water cooler the next day, dissecting what she had said (or hadn't said). As in - and I paraphrase her - 'I'm not going to answer questions, I'm just going to say what I want.' Roll on, November 4.

Really, the debates can be hugely compelling - more so than your average reality show. You have snide comments, obfuscation, chicanery and barbed insults being whizzed back and forth.

Palin, with her grating tone and 'gee shucks' persona, isn't too far removed from the blonde bimbettes on Girls Next Door, the reality show about Hugh Hefner's three favourite Playboy bunnies. John McCain is awkward, Barack Obama looks confused (in a presidential way), and Biden resembles an overly tanned Hollywood producer lunching at the Ivy. And, like good reality TV, it makes you want to throw something at the screen.

Of course, these sessions have provided fodder for news programmes and late-night talk shows, and some comic relief from the other gloomy news out there. So, going back to my original point, this is really the objective of television: it's a weapon of mass distraction, getting people so focused on the lives of those desperate women on Wisteria Lane that they might forget they haven't paid the mortgage and that there's no food in the fridge.

For the first time in ages, people are talking about television again. What's on. What shouldn't be. What's terrible. In a couple of months of lacklustre showings at the box office (did anything even open after Sex and the City?), TV is all people have, the only thing they can huddle around like a Mongolian hot-pot, looking for comfort and sanity in uncomfortable and insane times.

To that end, TV is trying at least to make a go of it. Prison Break, after a season that appeared to go nowhere, is back in fighting form again, a show filled with menacing characters and double-dealing. Love it. American TV has also just started running the trailers for 24, which begins with a two-hour season premiere in the US late next month. The ads boast, 'Jack is Back' (and not a minute too soon; the country seems to be circling the drain without him).

Desperate is enough of a diversion, even though it's hard to swallow the fact that five years have passed between the end of last season and the start of this one. Grey's Anatomy has yet more ridiculous medical cases to solve (one real doctor in California said a case in the opening episode was nothing more than 'science fiction'. Oops). Dirty Sexy Money is all that - all about high society and people who are filthy rich, and it is such a Hong Kong show.

Boston Legal is more topical than ever, mining the front pages of the newspapers for cases it can present in a way only Alan Shore can win. And Lipstick Jungle is back when few people thought it would be, up against the horror that was Cashmere Mafia, a show about a trio (or is a quartet?) of successful New York women that's gaining some traction. January will see the return of Lost and American Idol, and one hopes the country is in sufficiently high spirits then to enjoy them (which all depends on the outcome of the November election, after which people will either be celebrating or booking one-way flights to New Zealand). But the real treats on television these days come via David Letterman and Jay Leno, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the talk show hosts who skewer the media in general, politics, politicians, celebrities and Palin (did TV even exist before her?). If you haven't yet caught the new season's episodes of Saturday Night Live, with Tina Fey's criminally spot-on impersonation of the wannabe veep, you absolutely must. It's all on YouTube, by the way, so there's really no excuse.

Which makes me think that maybe we shouldn't be excluding our favourite TV personalities from running for president. A country run by Jack Bauer? I'm so on board. Tina Fey for vice-president? Count me in. And Oprah should definitely be Secretary of the Treasury. Because if and when the country goes bankrupt, she's the only one who can dip into her own savings to bail us out.