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Why the rest of the world should get a vote in the greatest reality TV show on Earth – the US election

I've been watching so closely, I am now able to tell Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio apart almost 50 per cent of the time, though it’s still like watching the Chuckle Brothers trying to lead a fascist rally.

We’re only halfway through, and I’m already sick of the US presidential race. As reality television goes, it’s a hackneyed format. The narrative is childish and simplistic. And if I want to watch a bunch of interchangeable thuggish white men and the occasional token minority making terrifying pronouncements to a pounding rock soundtrack, I’ll stick on a Tarantino film.

American commentators often point out that the whole two-year, multibillion-dollar pageant is a great way to distract the entire US electorate from the real-life daily process of democracy. Imagine how the rest of us feel. We’re not even allowed to vote and help decide which candidate gets to go home with all those fabulous prizes, which include a free plane and the largest military arsenal the world has ever known. What can I say? It’s America. They have high expectations. In Britain, whoever Rupert Murdoch picks is usually just excited to meet the Queen.

I’ve tuned in for the past five series of this horror show, and I’ve got to say, it’s getting tiresome. It picked up in 2008, when they made some genuinely progressive casting decisions. The 2012 one repeated a lot of the same material, but the writers’ strike was on and the producers had to work with what they’d got. But in recent years, they seem to have broken entirely with the reality aspect and just attempted to glue us to the screens with unremitting horror and the possibility that one of the contestants might start screaming and try to eat the others.

The same thing happened on Big Brother, where the first few seasons were truly engaging, partly because they featured at least some ordinary people who occasionally forgot they were on television. But then they tried to boost ratings by filling a bunker with G-list celebrities wearing DayGlo spray tans who smiled all the time and tried to get them to have sex or kill one another on camera.

In both politics and entertainment, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of shock value, as long as it isn’t replacing actual content. The presidential race would be embarrassing even if it weren’t supposed to dramatise the proper function of politics in the world’s only democratic superpower.

America does seem, at times, to forget that it’s on camera and the entire world can see when it strips naked and rants at itself in the mirror. Guys, everyone can see you seriously considering leadership by a man who calls global warming a “hoax” and wants to build a border wall out of Muslims.

I’ve been paying as much attention to the Republican race as I can stand, and I am now able to tell Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio apart almost 50 per cent of the time, though it’s still like watching the Chuckle Brothers trying to lead a fascist rally. The candidates appear to be competing to deliver the most unhinged bigotry. Last season, it was enough to oppose a woman’s right to choose. This season nobody will pay attention until you say you’re going to make it illegal for women not to be pregnant and replace what remains of the health-care system with a single giant gun.

It was mildly hilarious at first to think that any one of these swivel-eyed clowns might become the leader of the nominally free world, but that joke has been running for six years now, and it’s not funny any more. It’s just scary. It’s depressing and scary. It’s boring and depressing and scary, and most viewers are bored and depressed and scared and unable to change channel, which is even worse, because it means that these cartoon monsters might even pull it off – like that time everyone voted for four screaming Finns in plastic goblin masks to win Eurovision just to see what would happen. That’s how we got Boris Johnson. Who turned out to have been serious about making London into a giant theme park for millionaires.

Under these circumstances, I am rather nonplussed by everyone asking me what I think of Hillary Clinton. What I think, along with most non-Americans, is that compared to the Republican choices, absolutely anyone at all is acceptable as long as they appear to be at least semi-hinged.

Americans do not appear to realise that, although it would be nice to get the more progressive of the two Democrats, what matters most to the rest of the world is that not a single member of the Republican line-up, the worst boy band in history, ever gets within 50 feet of the Situation Room (hey, I’ve seen The West Wing). What matters is that these people are not allowed to make decisions about climate change, or military intervention, or preferably any decisions at all apart from, perhaps, whether they would prefer milk or hot chocolate at bedtime, because someone should take gentle care of them in a place where they are never allowed to engage in politics again. I’d call them lunatics but it would do a disservice to the many people I know with mental-health difficulties.

At this point I, for one, would feel a lot safer if the selection were done by a lottery of the entire American public. But if we must pretend that this is democracy, there ought at least to be a chance for everyone affected to have their say.

The world is obsessed with the US elections because the outcome of those elections will have an impact on every person on Earth. So, let the world have its say. Why not? Even limited voting rights for everyone affected by US foreign, environmental and trade policy might restore a measure of sanity, or at least oblige the US to acknowledge the existence of several billion non-American human beings who would really prefer not to be blown up or under water.

The world is burning. America is watching a creaky junior string quartet try to play Wagner. Let’s give the species a chance to change the channel.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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