Wednesday, December 26, 2018

House of Cards

From Veep, I guess 3rd season, via.

I don't know if I've made a point of how deprived I've been, in recent years, of contact with popular entertainment culture, as the old lady has dropped herself into an insane work routine and the kids have gotten old and don't need to be monitored any more and I'm left to live the non-work half of my life in the blog world and not getting much conventional entertainment of any kind, and, long story short, one of the things in contemporary cultural life I'm most ignorant of is the artistically ambitious TV series from The Sopranos and Game of Thrones onward, but yesterday we wound up watching the first episodes of House of Cards, so that I got to notice something for the first time two years after the election that everybody else saw three years before, with the effect that I saw it, I think, in a quite different way.

Namely, the story of the Conservative politician Francis and his lady Claire Urquhart, originally written by Michael Dobbs, now Lord Dobbs of Wylye, translated to some kind of America where the protagonists are Frank and Claire Underwood, vaguely evokes Bill and Hillary Clinton, as everybody must know: he's a politician from the South, with a very shallowly liberal kind of perspective, and she has short blonde hair, and their connection seems not sexual, or with a sexiness that's not based on sex but the deployment of power, or mind-fucking, like the relationship between the ex-lovers Valmont and Mme de Merteuil as they seduce other victims and brag to each other in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. And I have to say we all thought it was kind of crude, at least at the beginning, with the characters' villainy being so undisguised in the Dallas-style dialogue, though also very exciting and dramaturgically effective, I'm not gonna lie.

Also its British origins didn't seem very well concealed. Frank being a member of the House who wants to push through a massive education bill in the hope of becoming Secretary of State is an inconceivably roundabout route to power in the US, whereas a British MP working diligently on education because he wants to be Foreign Minister wouldn't be at all improbable (British ministers remain MPs and shuffle around all the time and are not necessarily specialists in any particular issue); and it may be that a UK reporter could get a scandalous story front-paged in a prestigious paper with a single anonymous source she's refused to name to her editor, but when Zoe Barnes achieves this early in the US show in Washington, it's not really believable, though other details are unpleasantly plausible—especially when George Stephanopoulos cheerfully lends himself in a cameo to a depiction of how TV journalists like him let themselves be used by unscrupulous politicians in spinning the public.

What struck me is that from the point of view of the time the series launched, in 2013, Frank's and Claire's Bill-and-Hillary attributes are assigned in a somewhat strange way, in that Frank situationally resembles Hillary—she was a former legislator who'd just finished a term as Secretary of State, he's a current legislator who wants to be Secretary of State; and Claire situationally resembles Bill—he was an ex-politician running a nonprofit do-gooding association, the Clinton Foundation, whose activities seemed difficult for the public to understand, and Claire is a sort of not-yet-politician running an NGO whose mission is extremely unspecific, at least to the writers, though its name, the Clean Water Initiative, seems clear enough. And it's Claire who's given a sexual past (with a photographer character at the periphery), like Bill, whereas Frank seems to have no more than a sexual future (with the evil girl reporter).

So that the characters work more like a kind of system with transferable properties than two human beings, like the anti-Hillary posture that always refers to "theclintons" as if she had no autonomous existence, and yet also represented a distinct threat to humanity, and I felt as if I was watching structures inside the ice palace of Maureen Dowd's mind, and this morning I was wondering if the TV show had exercised some kind of influence on the 2016 election, maybe not so much directly on the public (how many of them were watching Netflix serials?) as on the journalists who were making the narrative (probably all of them were watching). I wonder if the ability on the part of 40 or 50% of the public to believe that Hillary Clinton was a murderer and a bribe taker and and inexorable absorber of pure, abstract power with no interest in the sorrows and joys and needs of ordinary humans—so crazy and so at odds with her real-life personal history or any of the things she said—was encouraged by this, through the journalists. Did they soften the public up for the Russian propaganda that presented her as such an extreme (and basically nonsensical) manifestation of evil?

It's not that you shouldn't be cynical, but that this was the wrong kind of cynicism. Nobody's really like Frank Underwood. The most horribly cynical politicians are people like Tony Blair and George W. Bush, self-justifying, weepy sentimentalists. Whereas politicians who want to get real things done may take a jaundiced view of humanity and its manipulability, like Lyndon Johnson, but they do want to get real things done.

The journalists should have been watching Veep instead. Comedy is always truer than melodrama. And of course listening to and reporting the stuff Hillary said, however boring it sounded, instead of focusing on the sex-and-dominance fantasies, so they could understand the difference between her and President Selina Meyer.

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.

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