Shallow spectacle between Varadkar and Martin leaves the audience wanting less
There was no need to adjust your televisions.
The preened and image conscious were leading each other on an interminable dance, toying with the idea of pairing up under the thin veneer of being mean to each other. And over on Virgin Media Two, Love Island was on.
As if the timing of this election hadn't disrupted the innocuous joy of Love Island enough, Wednesday night's head-to-head between Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin discommoded the reality TV show to Virgin Media's second channel. This proves once and for all that the political establishment neither cares for nor represents the hard-working huns of Ireland.
The Virgin Media studio was at Level 10 snazz, adorned in the the sort of commercial broadcast sheen that RTÉ would have to sell three Ryan Tubridies for. A camera on a jib soared over a walkway to the front of the studio, which was decorated on either side with Virgin Media branding. Inside, the glossy, backlit foyer had media staff clattering around and stressing out. Security was ferocious.
"Who owns that coat?" a stressed out woman clad in black cried out, pointing accusingly at a coat rack. A lone, Virgin Media branded microphone stood hopefully in the middle of the floor. Leo Varadkar cast it a sidelong glance as he wandered straight by it. "We're not doing a [media] doorstep, are we?" he said to his advisor.
"Ah, go on," news-thirsty hacks pleaded. But no, he was gone.
Micheal Martin, on the other hand, walked straight to the front of assembled pack of journalists and cameras on his arrival.
When the cameras were off and the lights were disassembled, a herd of what one would describe as Emotional Support Cabinet Ministers snuck in. Simon Harris, the health minister; Regina Doherty, the social affairs minister; Helen McEntee, the European affairs minister and Paschal Donohoe, the finance minister ambled into Virgin Media almost unnoticed in their civvies. Journalists struggled to remember any other time when a sitting taoiseach had brought their colleagues with them to an election debate. This was quickly spun as a Fine Gael strategy to focus on the whole team, but it fell flat with reporters who recalled being briefed only a few weeks ago about a campaign which would focus heavily on Leo Varadkar as leader.
Even before it kicked off, the debate had the air of an-over hyped MMA match which everyone already knows will go straight to a rematch. This was the first of at least four television debates that will be smattered across the next two and a half weeks, and the first of two direct head-to-heads between Mr Martin and Mr Varadkar.
Apart from the lucky voters in Dublin West or Cork South Central, nobody watching was going to emerge any more enlightened about which local TD they should vote for. Not many would even glean which party would make a government. This was a purely shallow political spectacle, based entirely on each leaders' individual personality.
The debate started and each leader was given a chance to set out their stall. The Fianna Fáil leader shifted focus immediately to health and housing - two key issues which Fine Gael have been roundly hammered for their record on.
"Too many are left too long on waiting lists, too many are struggling to buy or rent," Mr Martin said, challenging the government on its "proud" record and its plea to have another five years.
The taoiseach made a brief reference to the government's failings, while trying to persuade the electorate to let Fine Gael finish the job they had started.
"I know it's not enough, you expected more from us and I want us to do more," Mr Varadkar said.
Pat Kenny reminded both parties that the anniversary of the treaty was coming up, could they not recreate the spirit of co-operation that existed between both parties during their valiant fight for Irish independence? It seemed quite radical of the Newstalk presenter to suggest recreating a deal between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael which last time ended with a key leader being assasinated.
The debate then evolved into passive aggressive Reeling In The Years. Fine Gael have had nine years, Mr Martin said. Well Fianna Fáil had 14 years before that, Mr Varadkar countered. This may have worn thin for the estimated 50% of the electorate who have no real interest in either party, and know that combined they have both had a grand aul run of about 80 years.
Few things from the debate were that remarkable or new, which made it all the more notable when the Taoiseach rebranded live on air as Humility Leo. Possibly based on some astute internal party research, Mr Varadkar admitted humbly that he knows that people say that he seems like he doesn't care. He insisted that he does, but "I probably can't put it into words as well as my opponent does."
It was an interesting tactic which effectively conceded that the Taoiseach can be cold and robotic and awkward. It's remarkably different to his campaign to take over from Enda Kenny, had been based on his perceived skills as a straight-talking, charismatic star.
There was a brief segue into the votegate and Dara Murphy expenses scandals - both pretty stale and well-rehashed stories that even the nerdiest political journalists are well bored of by now. Then it moved to crime - an issue which forced itself to the top of the election campaign after a number of heinous and shocking events. There was a sensible, if dull discussion where both candidates broadly agreed there needed to be more garda resources, education and specific measures to target disadvantaged people. Then Pat Kenny lobbed what should have been a relatively predictable and tame question - had either of them ever done illegal drugs? Mr Martin was unequivocal: no, never. And Mr Varadkar? Well, he was asked that question in a Hot Press interview about 12 or 13 years ago and he'd given a truthful answer.
"Which is?!" Mr Martin asked, laughing.
"Which is?" Mr Kenny pressed.
An excruciating hesitation. Finally, the Taoiseach admitted that he had, "but it was obviously a long time ago." At the makeshift spin room outside the studio, reporters were groaning in agony. Mercifully, Virgin Media cut to an ad break - possibly on human rights grounds for an agonized TV audience that must have felt like they were experiencing psychedelics by proxy. One can only imagine how traumatic it must have been for the Fine Gael team to watch Mr Varadkar turn into a meme in real time. Twitter was in absolute chaos. Some wondered if the Taoiseach had briefly slipped into a K hole, while Michael Fry, formerly of this parish, commented that "when he said Hot Press interview he’s referring to the time he took fuck load of acid and locked himself in a hot press for 6 hours."
This is the risk of being polished to a fault. Mr Varadkar is usually so strong as a media performer that even a small mistake can seem catastrophic. This is only amplified in a debate as evenly matched and largely predictable as Wednesday night's one was.
The Taoiseach was stronger than Mr Martin in other parts of the debate - particularly when it came to dismantling Fianna Fail's plans to help first time buyers. He also won the only real laugh out loud moment during a speculative discussion on what would happen to politicians who got sick.
"If I have a heart attack or if I have a stroke ..." Mr Varadkar said, before adding dryly: "or if God forbid, Micheal does ...."
A discussion on Brexit and the border poll unfortunately served as an opportunity for both politicians to criticize Sinn Fein without much comeback or challenge. Mr Varadkar commented that Simon Coveney, his tanaiste, was the best politician to come out of Cork in a generation - a savage burn against Mr Martin. One of the few fresh or new things which emerged in the debate came during this section, when Mr Varadkar marginally out-manoeuvred Mr Martin and position Fine Gael as being more open to a border poll.
Having revealed little, both leaders left Virgin Media saying even less. Mr Martin told reporters he had "enjoyed" the debate. The taoiseach cheerfully told journalists he'd see us at the next one. They must have been the only two people glad that it had been so tame. Well them, and a jubilant security guard from Virgin Media who walked past loudly celebrating the uneventful affair.
"No protestors! No craziness!" she cried out as she walked out of the studio. "Wahoo!"