Politics & Policy

Masochism TV

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in House of Cards
Why do we watch unpleasant shows?

Okay, I’m all caught up. Done bingeing on House of Cards. Can’t quite shake the sight of Frank Underwood decapitating the minority whip during the State of the Union . . . 

Oh, right. SPOILERS. But everyone’s watched House of Cards by now, right? That was one hell of a season ender. Even though the entire Congress, the Supreme Court, the cabinet members, and the millions of viewers saw him lean forward and whistle the scimitar, saw the head bounce down the steps. You know he’ll get away with it; the only question is how? You hope he gets away with it, too. Frank’s interesting! He talks to us. Takes us into his confidence, spills his secrets, shares his wisdom. Frank’s cool.

#ad#Right? Well, he’s a Democrat — indeed, the entire show seems to exist in a world where there’s just one party. This leads the suspiciously inclined to think we’re supposed to admire Frank. He may be a snake, but he can be counted upon to vote for extending the Family Leave Act to cover an 18-year break. More likely the show’s producers didn’t believe that someone like Frank could possibly be conservative, because he’s smart and utterly self-aware. A Republican version would have to project a façade of morality while secretly downloading underage Thai ladyboy videos while speaking in tongues. Besides, the show requires a phalanx of Decent Government People who want to move serious issues through Congress and help people, and such people do not exist on the right. So that’s off the table.

Party affiliation aside, Frank’s a monster. Married to a monstress. The second season began with America’s Hot Power Couple, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife, Robin Wright, whose severity makes the Ice Queen in Frozen look like Drew Barrymore in Firestarter. They’re clad in black like ninjas, running through a nighttime park in D.C. That’s it. That’s all you need to know. Swift figures of stealth, at home in the dark.

Are we supposed to like them? No. Cheer for them? No. Boo and hiss as comeuppance gathers in the wings? Who knows? I’m pretty sure that when Frank did something very, very naughty in the first episode — imagine, if you will, LBJ kicking a reporter out the door of Air Force Two in flight — we were supposed to be caught off balance and shocked, and we were. Grateful, even, if you want to be honest, because (all right, seriously, SPOILER) that little reporter looked like a sullen elf who’d just had an electroshock treatment.

But is this entertainment? Why do I want to hang around with these people for ten hours?

It’s masochism TV, a new genre. The grittier the show is, the darker its premises, the more Important it is. The prime example is The Walking Dead, the main point of which seems to be: “There are probably a couple hundred people left in Georgia. Let’s see how long it takes for them to kill each other.” While it’s an unsparing examination of a Hobbesian world where people stage pitched battles for the possession of a can of cling peaches, it is unrelentingly joyless, fetid, miserable, violent, hopeless, and filthy. The occasional happy ending goes something like this:

RICK is in the woods with his SON who hates him. RICK falls and breaks his ankle. SON shoots approaching ZOMBIES but runs out of bullets. As the last ZOMBIE approaches, its head is cleaved from its body by STRONG GLOWERING FEMALE. Before he passes out, RICK smiles, because he thought she was dead. AUDIENCE is momentarily uplifted.

Next week:

STRONG GLOWERING FEMALE is alone in the woods, having been sent on a mission by THE SCREENPLAY WRITER. She is suddenly surrounded by ZOMBIES, all of whom she dispatches by driving an axe into their foreheads. She is covered with viscera. She hears a twig snap and raises her axe, only to see three people who have been wandering the backroads in search of SEASON FOUR, where they will be sympathetic or bothersome until they are captured, raped, and eaten. COMMERCIAL. Hey, look at this car! Man! That thing’s a beaut.

It never occurred to anyone to head north for the winter, where zombies would get stuck in the snow, fall over, and freeze, and you could just chainsaw the lot and relax for a while. No, we have to spend a season hunkering down at a farm where the crazy old man’s got Zombie Ma chained in the barn, then come to love the old guy because he’s full of farmer wisdom, and then flee the farm for a merry season in a prison where everyone gets some strange barfing flu. Because if there’s one thing a show that features bloody torsos crawling their way through spilled guts and severed limbs needs, it’s the barfing flu.

And yet I watch every episode. Why? It has a moral center: Rick, the law-enforcement officer who’s trying to keep some semblance of humanity and order, who has every excuse for shedding every civilized inhibition but still seems to wear a star nonetheless. I’ve no doubt the show will end with his complete and utter punishment for being our symbol of hope.

But. If you’re a 16-year-old boy, it’s awesome, just like the online mayhem where you fire rockets up your buddy’s backside and send him two stories in the air is awesome, or a Grand Theft Auto mission where you run over a guy who flips up in the air and gets hit by an airplane is awesome. None of it means anything. It’s just, you know, fun. If you’re older, House of Cards appeals for the same reason: Watching bad people do bad things over and over. None of that means anything, either.

Are there any greater lessons to be learned from either show, wrapped up in a Telling Commentary on Our Times? Sorry; no. Walking Dead is literally about the 1 percent dealing with the ravenous demands of an unproductive class, but the show doesn’t go for allegories. House of Cards might suggest that we think our ruling class is either despicable or weak, but distrust of Washington is not exactly a newly bloomed rose heretofore unseen in our communal garden. Dead concerns itself with keeping alive the essence of humanity in a dying world; House is about moral decay in a monumental, manicured world at the height of its strength. You could drop either one in any decade past and it would fit.

Neither is attractive; both are compelling. I won’t miss an episode of either, but I know what I’ll feel when they’re done. Relief.

— James Lileks is a columnist for National Review Online.

James Lileks — James Lileks writes the Athwart column for National Review magazine and is a frequent contributor to the National Review website. He is a prominent voice on Ricochet podcasts.

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