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Meanwhile, on the Internet

Our greatest shows, like ‘House of Cards,’ are about power and terrible people

First Published Feb 18 2014 11:19AM      Last Updated Feb 18 2014 11:20 am

The second season of Netflix’s "House of Cards" premiered Friday and ignited the Internet. Among other things, the show about politicians and journalists battling for supremacy trended on Twitter, sparked dozens of think pieces and even prompted a top-read story at The Tribune.

All of which raises a question: Why do stories about the brutal pursuit of power appeal so much right now? Why do we love stories of deplorable characters who stop at nothing for more influence?

House of Cards tells the stories of politician Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and other members of the elite political class in Washington D.C. All of them are amoral at best — some are downright evil — and they’re cold, conniving and vindictive to boot.

But the show isn’t alone in it’s preoccupation with powerful but despicable people. Much like the Netflix hit, HBO’s "Game of Thrones" — a fantasy story set in a medieval-esque world — is explicitly about deeply flawed and often selfish characters working toward dominance. The setting, characters and narrative are wildly different from "House of Cards," but the preoccupation is very nearly identical: power.

And then there’s AMC’s recently wrapped "Breaking Bad." It’s a show about a drug dealer, yes, but it’s really about a powerless man building his empire — just like "House of Cards" and "Game of Thrones." Other shows, like "Mad Men" and "Boardwalk Empire," coat these themes in a varying degrees of narrative patina, but power dynamics are always still there. Even the ever-diminishing "Downtown Abbey" plumbs the friction between those with power and those without.



This isn’t entirely new — stories about power and depravity are as old as stories themselves — but the sheer number and popularity of shows telling essentially the same story at the same time is remarkable. And this zeitgeist-y TV programming is among the most lauded ever, leading to spirited debates about rise and fall of TV’s latest golden age.

Brett Martin, a writer for "The Sopranos," offered one possible explanation for the trend, speculating that in cable dramas characters have more room to be complex. "When you have the time to tell a 13-hour, 26-hour, 39-hour story, when you don’t have to end artificially, that lends itself to serious work," he told The Atlantic last year.

But narrative freedom doesn’t quite explain it the thematic similarities of these shows; after all, they succeed because we keep watching them. We’re the ones who are preoccupied with this stuff.

So perhaps in a world of percentages — the 99, the 47 — we’re preoccupied with the thing we don’t have. I’m reminded here of the idea of subversion and containment, a concept used to explain why the monarchy of Elizabethan England was so keen on plays about dead monarchs. The point is that if people see something on stage, they don’t necessarily need it in real life. Art — whether it’s Shakespeare or "House of Cards" — is a kind of release valve for collective, sociopolitical stress.

That might be it, though I think there could also be something more going on. Remember, most of these power-hungry characters in these shows are also really bad people.

There’s a message there about power and those who have it. Ultimately, I think, these stories tell us that it’s OK if we’re powerless because the kinds of people who have power are deplorable. It’s a reassuring but curious message: I am powerless because I am a good person.

— Jim Dalrymple II

Twitter: @jimmycdii

 

 

 

 

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