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Last weekend, I did precisely what you’d expect of a millennial political junkie: I parked myself on the sofa and binge-watched the latest season of House of Cards. From 11am on Saturday until mid-afternoon the next day, I waded through 13 episodes of Netflix’s addictive political drama, which charts the fortunes of Machiavellian fictional president Francis J Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) and his equally calculating and ambitious wife, Claire (Robin Wright).
The previous three series of the show have seen Frank, introduced as a backroom operator in the US House of Representatives, gradually climb the greasy pole to the Oval Office. En route, he has sabotaged the lives and careers of his opponents, and even resorted to murder — twice. The plots may be outlandish but Frank still strikes a chord: he’s everyone’s idea of the ultimate politician, in the worst possible way.
This fourth instalment of House of Cards has a special appeal: it is the programme’s first series to be released during a presidential campaign year, and one of its major plot points is Frank’s bid to be re-elected.
While I was watching it, I had half an eye on the latest primary results filtering through from the ongoing presidential race, which has at times seemed more far-fetched than the wildest episodes of House of Cards.
Just over a week ago we found Marco Rubio and Donald Trump engaged in a back-and-forth about the alleged smallness of Trump’s hands, and how that might relate to the size of his genitalia. Standards of taste and respect have been abandoned, and that’s even before you get to the absurd policies that have been proposed: from Ted Cruz’s suggestion of carpet-bombing Isis to Trump’s giant wall across the Mexican border — paid for, naturally, by the Mexican government. The traditional model of politics, in which the establishment would eventually close ranks against a populist outsider (think of Pat Buchanan or Ralph Nader in the 1990s), is broken.
All this has presented a challenge for the programme’s makers: how do you write a political drama when real-life events are already cartoonishly outsized? This isn’t a new problem. The novelist Philip Roth identified it in a 1960 essay in which he argued that “the American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe and then make credible much of American reality”. The same challenge faces both political journalists and fiction writers today. As Roth put it, “the actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist”.
This season, the writers of House of Cards haven’t pursued a narrative that apes the actual 2016 race, and they’ve avoided the temptation to bring in a Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders-style insurgent. The show is actually at its weakest when it deals too literally with current affairs: the last series got bogged down in the details of Frank’s America Works employment policy and Claire’s attempts to negotiate with the comical Putin-esque Russian president (a storyline that gave rise to a jarring cameo from the protest band Pussy Riot).
Where it works best is as a study of power, and what it takes to attain it. And in that respect, the show already has this year’s election race covered. The character of Frank Underwood is both Hillary and Trump: superficially, he’s a politician in the traditional mould, the careful cultivator of a statesmanlike image; but inside, as he reveals to us in fourth-wall-breaking soliloquies, he’s the ultimate pragmatist, an anti-idealist of the most ruthless sort. When Trump made his claim that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters”, it’s hard not to think of Frank turning to address us in House of Cards.
Meanwhile, many Republicans will have watched the show’s Governor Will Conway in wistful admiration, praying that the electoral gods might deliver them a candidate of his calibre before their party falls apart. He is a Republican JFK, complete with a picture-perfect family and moderate values that pose a serious challenge to Frank’s candidacy. He plays on a nostalgic idea we still have of what politicians could be; he may have no real-life equivalent in the current American scene, but he has the texture of reality.
What the drama does, too, is enable us to see real life with a new perspective, and to put its absurdities into relief. When a photograph of Frank’s father alongside a KKK Klansman makes it into the public domain, we watch him do exactly what you might expect of a seasoned politician: he admits the undeniable truth and makes a very public apology. Contrast this with Trump’s response to his support from former KKK “grand wizard” David Duke — a belated and mealy mouthed disavowal — or his outright rejection of the allegation that his father was arrested at a 1927 Klan brawl.
Played right, even the most obscure mechanisms of politics can take on a new life; we saw this in Borgen, which pulled off the surprising trick of engaging viewers in Danish coalition politics. And this season House of Cards has introduced many people to the concept of the brokered, or open, convention — something that occurs when no single candidate has the majority of delegates required to secure their party’s nomination, last seen in 1952.
In the fictional Democratic race, Frank pushes for an open convention to add some drama to the election, while handily helping his preferred choice of running mate to nab the nomination. In the real-life Republican race, a brokered convention appears to be a real possibility. The GOP establishment is doing everything possible to ensure that Trump does not have the 1,237 delegates required to become their nominee, and a challenge at an open convention could be their last chance to stop him. John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, is predicting this situation, while Marco Rubio is preparing for it. More so than anything else in this season, these prescient scenes add to the notion that the series is interpreting the race, with the knowledge that what is seen in fiction may soon arrive on news channels.
Of course, there is precedent for this in the original British series of House of Cards. The very first episode began with devious Tory whip Francis Urquhart holding up a picture of Margaret Thatcher and uttering the lines: “Nothing lasts forever. Even the longest and most glittering reign must come to an end some day.” The show aired on November 18 1990, just two days before the real-life Tory leadership contest that toppled Mrs Thatcher. The writers had tapped into the national mood of disillusionment and reimagined it in fiction with startling clarity.
A series packed full of loathsome characters might not seem a natural way of helping people to engage with the real world of politics, but when it strikes the right balance between the realistic, the dramatic and the implausible, it does just that. House of Cards is not The West Wing, in which Aaron Sorkin imagined a world of hopeful idealists snappily solving America’s problems as they marched through the corridors of the White House. That programme is still name-checked by a generation of Democrats seduced by its heroic conception of politics. But House of Cards offers something different: a man with an unshakeable hold on the levers of power, able to extricate himself from the tightest of corners. Like Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, or The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort, both of whom unexpectedly inspired scores of would-be traders, Frank’s sleazy glamour may in some perverse way make politics seem more accessible.
The 2016 presidential race will surely continue to provide as much entertainment as any fictional series, while the EU referendum in Britain will offer its own variety of plot twists and bizarre characters. They also happen to be the most consequential and thought-provoking debates for decades.
There has never been a better time to engage with actual politics. Once you’ve finished binge-watching House of Cards, of course.
Sebastian Payne is the FT’s digital comment editor
Binge-watching: ‘an almost heroic act of cultural commitment’
In the mid-1970s compulsive television-watchers were described as “couch potatoes”, who would sit in front of the small screen for hours, barely capable of hauling themselves up to switch channels, writes Horatia Harrod. They got fat, developed diabetes, became zombified by low culture: what they did was considered unequivocally bad.
In the past couple of decades, such behaviour has come to be viewed quite differently. Today, we “binge-watch”: Collins English Dictionary chose the verb as its word of the year in 2015. As television has become more respectable — at least the high-end shows produced by American cable networks — the phrase has been cleansed of its negative connotations. To spend a weekend watching back-to-back episodes of House of Cards, Breaking Bad (with Bryan Cranston as Walter White, pictured) or The Wire is considered an almost heroic act of cultural commitment.
How did we get here? It’s partly thanks to changing technology: TiVo, the digital video recorder that allows viewers to queue up endless episodes of their favourite programmes, arrived in 1999, a precursor to online streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. Before then, we had the TV box set, the first of which made an appearance in 2000; although those bulky volumes of Sex and the City are now gathering dust, they ushered in the era of binge-viewing.
All this coincided with the so-called “golden age” of American television, exemplified by The Sopranos and The West Wing, as well as later shows such as Mad Men. These complex, immersive productions seemed perfectly suited to being watched one after the other, just as we now read Dickens in novel, rather than serial, form. (The comparison is one that TV showrunners have unabashedly embraced: “As television becomes more and more like literature, I’d love to be able to set the book by the nightstand when I want to,” said David Fincher, House of Cards executive producer, back in 2013.)
Freed from the whims of TV schedulers, shows found new followings. In 2002, the makers of 24 found they were able to convert people who’d missed the first series by releasing it on DVD six weeks before the second series aired, allowing them to catch up; they sold 1.7m units and gained 3m new viewers when the show restarted.
By bulk-releasing whole series, first done for the crime drama Lilyhammer in 2012, streaming services have had similar victories: Netflix data suggested that viewers were prepared to sit through an average of 3.44 episodes before deciding whether or not to commit. Not that they’re leaving anything to chance: their “post-play” feature, which prompts viewers to segue straight from one episode to the next, is based on an algorithm that works out when previous viewers turned off.
These developments haven’t made everyone happy. Some have bemoaned the end of TV as a communal pastime: discussing a programme around the water cooler has become a fraught activity, with conversations swiftly shut down for fear of revealing spoilers. Others claim that binge-watching has made us less shrewd viewers, in a variation on the sunk-cost fallacy: once you’ve invested an amount of time in a show, you feel duty-bound to finish it. It’s what one critic described as “TV drama Stockholm syndrome” — and it seems we’re all prisoners now.
Photographs: Netflix; New York Times/Redux/Eyevine; Reuters; AP