Graham: Massive audience devours Kavanaugh drama

Scripted entertainment can't compete with all that unfolded during Thursday's hearing

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington on Thursday.

The most compelling theater of the year played out in front of all of us this week. 

Lady Gaga in "A Star is Born" has nothing on what we watched unfold Thursday during Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation hearings, nor does anything "This is Us" can whip up.

This is real-deal, high-stakes human drama, and seemingly everyone was glued to their television sets, laptops, desktops, radios, smartphones, social media feeds or other devices to watch as it developed. 

There's been much made of the shattering of our monoculture. There are few things that unite us anymore; award show ratings have plummeted, movie attendance is down, hit songs don't penetrate the popular conscience the way they once did. We're all off in our own bubbles doing our own thing.  

And then something like this comes along and we all get swept up in the tidal wave. It's hard to remember the last time a single event had us all as collectively enraptured, but it's on par with the O.J. Simpson verdict or the television coverage of 9/11. 

The day's events unfolded over a sprawling nine-hour period and was covered across all major broadcast networks, many cable news outlets and streamed across the internet.

The metrics for how we measure the size of the audience don't exist. There are TV ratings, sure. But what about all the other ways people tuned in? It was seen on anything with a screen, and people watched in offices, airports, homes, gyms, on subways and in restaurants and bars.

Because of the lines of division in this country, we all have a stake in the game, which made Thursday's hearings such a fascinating, must-see event.

It went far beyond politics. The hearings encompassed so many major cultural elements -- power, privilege, politics, gender roles, the #MeToo movement, beers -- that it was impossible not to get sucked in on a human level, and the day's events will stick with us for a long time.

The movies couldn't have done it any better. If and when a movie is made about all this, good luck topping what we already saw. 

We were presented with two very distinct portraits of two very different people, Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault at a house party when they were teenagers. They were quizzed and grilled about their backgrounds, and both were convincing when they said their lives have been torn apart by the process over the last few weeks.  

Whom you side with depends on which way you vote and from which TV network you turn to for cable news, which is just the way things go these days. Minds don't get changed, beliefs are only reinforced by the echo chambers in which we choose to engulf ourselves. 

This wasn't true, say, during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991. Audiences couldn't turn to specific news networks to have their points of view reaffirmed by anchors and talking heads. The same goes for other major news events of the past. 

Now it's normal. Which is why our media environment is so fractured, and why the dividing line in our beliefs is so deep. 

But we all come together for something like this. Despite the huge audience, this isn't a show. This is a story of real people and true events that will have a lasting effect on both the participants and all of us. 

That's why pop culture can't compete. Thursday was as riveting as it gets, and movies and TV shows are small in comparison. Entertainment and art can only go so far; sometimes reality is the ultimate -- and most harrowing -- drama.