September 17, 2015 1:18 AM EDT

CNN had a problem: A Republican presidential primary with 16 candidates—as many as the pieces on one side of a chess board—and no easy way to break them up. Only real estate mogul Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson are in the double digits in the polls, followed by a vast muddle of candidates so closely stuck together that the numbers are statistically meaningless.

Almost any objective way the network might have tried to narrow the field for the debate it hosted Wednesday would have been criticized by the losing candidates as harsh and arbitrary, especially damaging for a network often viewed with suspicion by conservatives.

CNN’s solution? Invite them all. (Well, almost all. Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore was sent packing.) Two debates: An undercard with four candidates at the back of the pack, and 11 on the main stage, one more than at the Fox News debate in August.

But while the solution CNN hit on may have been satisfying to the candidates, it was frustrating for the viewer. For the casual voter, following the debate was like tuning halfway into an episode from the second season of Game of Thrones and trying to follow along. There were too many characters, too many subplots and, at three hours, simply too much of everything.

At the beginning of the debate, CNN gamely tried to streamline things by focusing on Trump. The former reality TV star didn’t merely stand at center stage as the frontrunner in the polls, he was also the center of attention. The first several questions posed by moderator Jake Tapper were either directed at Trump or asked one of his rivals to react to something Trump had said or done. When other candidates did get a word in, the topic of conversation soon found its way back to the fellow who’s already gotten the most coverage.

The tone of the evening was set early, when former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was asked her opinion of Trump as a potential Commander-in-Chief. She was put into a splitscreen with a candidate who does great silent-movie work. Placed in the frame with one of his rivals, Trump smirked, pouted, grimaced, and rolled his eyes, somehow all at once. In moments like this, CNN effectively shrank the debate to a clash of two personalities: Trump-Fiorina, Trump-Bush, Trump-Walker.

The problem came when candidates either didn’t want to engage Trump or didn’t have a clear opening. Ohio Gov. John Kasich interrupted one of the back-and-forths to scold Tapper for the confrontational approach. “If I were sitting at home and watch this back and forth, I would be inclined to turn it off,” he said.

But it was still early. When Tapper moved away from using Trump as the focal point, as Kasich wanted, the debate meandered.

There were simply too many candidates for a coherent broadcast, and adding time didn’t seem to solve the problem. Trump existed on a diet of feast or famine: When he wasn’t the explicit subject of discussion, he disappeared entirely. He wasn’t alone. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, roughly 45 minutes into the broadcast, evinced an attitude of good humor when informed he was the last candidate to be called on. (Clearly, he already knew.)

But the only potential upside for a broadcast with so many participants is a wealth of potential collisions, something CNN tried for with varied success. An early question attempting to pit Carson against New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (huh?) left the audience longing for the simple clarity of a face-off with Trump.

Even the moderators disappeared. Conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt and CNN political correspondent Dana Bash ebbed and flowed from the broadcast, at times active participants and then silent for long, uncomfortable stretches. Hewitt, who aims to be the conservative equivalent of an NPR host on his show, characteristically asked one of the evening’s most complicated questions, about whether the U.S. Senators on the stage deserved the blame for the Syrian refugee crisis, so his absences felt strange and notable.

In the first GOP debate of this election cycle, on Fox News, questions were posed to candidates and then abandoned; it was an extremely successful showcase for each candidate’s positions without significantly putting them into conversation with one another. CNN used the benefit of time to allow candidates to speak to one another, even when the pairings seemed random or when the conversations tended towards the unproductive. But their set-up, with a very limited audience (early, staged laugh-lines, as with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s overwritten quip about having brought a bottle of water, met dead air rather than applause) and with candidates spread across the stage seemed to stand in the way of watchability.

Some degree of life felt leached out of the three-hour broadcast. It wasn’t just that by the end, the candidates seemed as peaked as marathon runners by mile 26, a bit too relieved to get softball questions about Secret Service codenames and Ronald Reagan’s legacy. For all CNN put a system into place to ensure real conversation between the candidates, there was an element of raucous debate missing. Bush, Trump’s most meaningful adversary, passed up some significant opportunities to land a punch. And while some (like Kasich) think that sort of adversarial politics detracts from sober-minded discussion of the issues, it’s what both voters and audiences want because it’s clarifying. In a field of 16, a little clarity would be helpful.

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