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House of Cards imitates life

On Valentine’s Day, Netflix premiered the entire second season of its increasingly popular political thriller “House of Cards.” The series, which was the distribution service’s first foray into acquiring and providing original programming, saw its second season consumed in its entirety over the next 72 hours by more than half a million people, with almost twice as many watching at least the first five episodes on Valentine’s Day alone. According to a Citi analysis, online searches related to House of Cards have nearly doubled since last year.

Much of the series’ popularity can be attributed to its compelling writing and production, as well as the star performances of Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara and the rest of the cast. But good fundamentals alone aren’t enough to create such a sensation, and the rabid following that House of Cards has earned—especially among younger viewers—indicates that the series is doing something more. Specifically, it seems, the series is painting a picture of Washington, D.C. that may resonate with the disillusioned voters of younger generations.

This is no accident. Beau Willimon, the creator and show runner of House of Cards, worked for Senator Chuck Schumer’s 1998 campaign for Senate and was a part of Howard Dean’s 2003-2004 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Willimon’s experiences resulted in a view of politics as “primitive,” a pursuit whose “purest execution comes down to physical power.” “All politicians are murderers or have to be willing to be murderers,” he declares unambiguously. “With thousands of American soldiers dead and hundreds of thousands of people abroad dead, is that more or less heinous than what we see Francis Underwood [the conniving congressman at the center of House of Cards] do?” Although Willimon insists that he is no cynic, he also claims “the reason the U.S. remains a superpower is not because of any ideals of democracy but because we have the biggest army.”

Willimon’s words are controversial, and reasonable people can disagree over the extent to which global supremacy rests on military might. The wild success of House of Cards, though, suggests that this bleak and stripped-down view of America’s political landscape strikes a chord with many viewers. The popularity of series with similar themes, like Showtime’s “Homeland” and HBO’s “Veep,” “Game of Thrones” and perhaps “True Detective,” indicates that many American viewers no longer identify with the idealistic, basically “good” visions of politics offered by earlier series like Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing.” Each of these newer series entertains to some degree a view of politics as an insulated and ego-driven zero-sum game. At its best, it bears no relationship whatsoever to the general public; at its worst, it threatens to destroy it. The players themselves are objects worthy not of our admiration but of ridicule or morbid fascination. Given that polls have recently shown Congress to be less popular than root canals, “carnies,” head lice, cockroaches and Genghis Khan, the popularity of these shows is less than surprising.

A review of recent polling data sheds more light on the popularity of dark politics in contemporary television. A 2012 Harvard Institute of Politics survey found, for example, that young people increasingly do not fit into the traditional left-right divide within national politics. It also found generally low enthusiasm for the proposition that the federal government can effectively manage complex issues involving health care, education, the economy and international intervention. A Gallup poll from last year found that a record-high 72 percent of Americans identified big government as more threatening to the nation’s future than either big business or big labor. And another poll from the Harvard Institute of Politics indicated declining support among millennials for President Obama, congressional Democrats and congressional Republicans as well. In a political climate like this, it is little wonder that viewers are seeking to escape the civic-minded television of yesterday for dark, realist and cynical shows that share their frustrations.

In the years after 9/11, our cultural awareness as Americans became crowded with film and TV centered on the tragedy we’d experienced. The proliferation of terror-centric thrillers (like Fox’s “24”), innumerable action films and pretty much the entire torture porn genre (the Saw and Hostel franchises, along with “Turistas”) can be understood as a manifestation of our collective fears and anxieties surrounding terrorism and the War on Terror. The screens on our televisions became more than portals through which we could escape to other worlds. They were also mirrors in which we could examine our reflections and see something about ourselves (an insight which is central to the absolutely brilliant new British television series “Black Mirror”). The shows that we watch today are not the same as the ones that we, as millennials, grew up with, and TV has increasingly come to reflect the concerns of a generation weaned on broken promises, botched interventions into all facets of life and a subsequent disillusionment with Washington in general. It’s primetime viewing at the dusk of the “hope and change” era, and for those looking to understand the current moment in American politics, this is must-see TV.

Chris Bassil, Trinity ’12, is currently working in Boston, Mass. His column runs every other Friday. Send Chris a message on Twitter @HamsterdamEcon.


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