The touch-maps, the projection calls; the reaches for explanation and chest-beating on MSNBC, while over on CNN Wolf Blitzer constantly interrupted John King's insistence on waiting for more Broward County numbers. The wayward attempts at live comedy and fun by Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah and the ladies of "The View" — it all suddenly turned into a dour and futile acceptance for so many people in the strange hybrid business of entertainment and reality, including the president-elect.
Yes, Donald Trump's victory happened exactly as you saw it on your television — not just early Wednesday morning but in so much infotainment that came before it.
A night many TV addicts jokingly called America's "series finale" had by 9 p.m. ET turned into a genuine, nail-biting cliffhanger. But after 10 p.m. there was no longer any clinging to the cliff. Fingers let go and gravity took over — for several hours of free-fall. The only surprise, while plummeting, is that anyone could be surprised.
The evening's channel surfing began in an entirely different way. Fueled by polls and data and number-crunching that lulled news shows into a false sense of outcome security, the anchors and their assembled pundits seemed to be going through the paces — juicing up the earliest returns and electoral victories in a way designed to keep viewers tuned to manufactured suspense: MSNBC's Chris Matthews seemed to relish one last tussle with his old, soon-to-be-irrelevant frenemy Rudy Giuliani. Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway made what for all the world seemed to be her last rounds. CNN's Dana Bash licked her lips and said "It's going to be a long night," in a way that seemed more like a "stay tuned" plea rather than an actual prediction.
And lo, it was a very long night — so long that Hillary Clinton's camp called it a night shortly after 2 a.m. while votes in a few remaining states were still being counted. But so many of the cultural cues accompanying a Clinton victory had been swept instantly away: the memory of the cutesy segments about schoolchildren voting (they chose Clinton); the predictions of zoo monkeys and other supposedly prescient animals; the assured data from armies of number-crunchers; the viral videos of dancing women in pantsuits. Everything changed.
Showtime, Comedy Central and Lifetime stuck to their original plans for election-night entertainment — but it was painfully clear they had all prepped for a Hillary Clinton victory. ABC's morning talk show "The View" moved to a live two-hour chat on Lifetime and you could see all the genuine planning that had gone into it, with guest stars, news updates from ABC's Juju Chang, remote reports from both Clinton and Trump party scenes, a lounge-act performance from Mario Cantone that crammed every possible 2016 campaign joke into one song called "Undecided." They brought out Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe who'd been on the receiving end of insults from Trump. They even brought a bartender who supplied the drinks.
"The View's" studio audience was clearly primed to witness the election of the country's first female president — oh, how they giggled during the show's first live shot of subdued Trump supporters and cheered as crowds gathered in Times Square in anticipation of a Clinton win. The mood soured by the third martini or so (and the morning's stock-market futures plummeted) and things got very dark indeed.
Because CBS' election coverage pre-empted his usual "Late Show," Colbert took his act to Showtime for an 11 p.m. show, where the audience in his Ed Sullivan Theater had been unable to use their phones to keep up. It was up to Colbert to break the news to them elegantly, perhaps in an ad-libbed monologue.
Instead the show opened with an animated recap of the Trump's rise, beginning with his simmering outrage at being made fun of by President Barack Obama at the 2011 White House Correspondents Association dinner and leading up to 2016. On another night, it might have been a clever bit. In the United States of America at 11 p.m. Eastern, it just felt like the wrong thing at the wrong time — and it was all too easy turn away and return to the news.
After the animated bit, Colbert stuck to a mostly pre-prepared monologue that emphasized the freedom he would have to say naughty words on Showtime and only reluctantly acknowledge the election results: "I'm your host, Stephen F—— Colbert," he said. "This (election) is a nail-biter and a passport-grabber. It feels like we're trying to avoid the apocalypse and half the country just voted for the asteroid."
Colbert then segued to clips from his "Late Show" where the f-word had been bleeped out; now the f-words were restored, but meaningless. No amount of f-words, whether uttered in anguish or jubilation or simple disbelief, could have captured what it felt like to be watching TV in American between 11 and midnight.
Back, then, to more maps and results on the news channels — along with attempts at face-saving by so, so many pundits and experts. "Punditry only goes so far," said MSNBC's Matthews, who, as the electoral map went further toward Trump, became one of the more surprisingly articulate observers of the night. "Punditry is based on history — and we don't have a history for tonight."
On Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Trevor Noah," Ana Marie Cox, whose latest gig is at MTV News, seemed to understand where the evening was headed better than Noah and company — and rather than go for laughs, she used her talent for eloquence:
"I'm heartbroken," she said. "This is not the country that I thought it was. ... It's not funny and it's not something to laugh about. I've been making jokes, like, I still call top bunk in the work camps" — and here "The Daily Show" audience had no laughter in response.
Cox and Noah then discussed the looming presence of election night: The invisible white man voter. "Basically the White Walkers," Noah joked. "Winter is coming."
A viewer might have remembered that Colbert was still on and flipped back, only to find the almost useless appearance of his guests, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin of Bloomberg's political news arm and hosts of the horse-race obsessed Showtime docuseries "The Circus." Both men looked almost as stricken as Colbert did, as if all the wrong horses had been taken out and shot.
"I'm not sure it's a comedy show anymore," Colbert said — just as Florida was called for Trump. What now? "How about bursting into tears and screaming f— for the next 45 minutes?" Colbert offered.
"He is now on the doorstep of 270 winning electoral votes," Halperin said.
"I can't put a happy face on that. And that's my job," Colbert said.
Was it really only 14 months ago that Colbert was rubbing his mitts together and eagerly launching his "Late Show" tenure with a raft of unlimited jokes about Trump — not a single one of which seriously imagined President Trump? Comedy failed to really understand what was ahead. Punditry failed, polling failed, analysis failed. TV failed too, but at the very least, it did bear witness — and was still bearing witness at 2:47 a.m., when Trump took the stage at his campaign headquarters.
"Sorry to keep you waiting," he began. "Complicated business."
Welcome, then, to the first morning of Trump TV.