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DC on the TV: Why We Love Shows About the Nation's Capital

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OLIVIA POPE
Richard Cartwright via Getty Images

This post originally appeared at The Stake.

On Scandal, Olivia Pope's merry band of DC fixers call themselves "gladiators." GLADIATORS. Think about that for a second.

This is what a cultural theorist might call slippage, a rupture, the intrusion of the Real -- that rare place where the pervasive irreality of our postmodern copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy culture begins to tear and What's Really Going On comes crashing through. That's not how it's intended, of course -- mostly, Shonda Rhimes and the characters she's created seem to regard the "gladiator" thing as a point of pride, a label signifying unassailable professionalism and badassery. Still, every time a character on Scandal pauses to call themselves or someone else a gladiator (and they do it constantly, "I'm a gladiator," "Don't forget, you're a gladiator," "Gladiators in suits, remember?") I sit up where I'm planted on my couch as if Kerry Washington just looked at the camera, breaking character and the fourth wall, and said to me, and me alone:

"None of this is real. All of this -- the melodrama, the sex, the intrigue, the power, the OMG plot twists and the silly scenery-chewing speeches -- it's a distraction. We're gladiators, and you're the mob, your thumbs held out, preparing to decide whether we live or die. Bread and circuses, get it? Rome is burning."

Rome is burning.

Now that's a scandal.

***

There are no less than seven shows set in Washington, DC on the air right now. ABC's got Scandal, HBO's got Veep, Netflix has House of Cards, FX has The Americans -- and that's just the shows I watch; there's also Homeland, Alpha House, and The Blacklist.

Did I miss any?

Regardless of the exact count, the DC show is clearly experiencing something of a moment right now, occupying the same position of cultural prominence as, say, the lawyer show did in the late '90s. But what does the DC-based show's dominance mean? What is it about the current cultural consciousness that has allowed these shows to park so squarely in the center of the American zeitgeist?

The most obvious answer to that question is that Washington has captured our collective imagination because Washington is widely held to be broken. Americans may disagree on the source of the brokenness -- some trace it to ideological intransigence on the right, other to federal overreach in Obama's ACA -- but the sense that Something Is Deeply Wrong exists on both sides of the ideological divide. No one knows where the apocalypse is coming from. Will it be the national debt? An NSA surveillance state? A terrorist attack? Economic decline? Corporate oligarchy? But everyone agrees on one thing: there's a storm coming, and Washington is to blame.

In this analysis, TV shows about Washington are so popular because Americans are looking to diagnose the world's current malaise by looking for signs of sickness in the nation's -- and the world's -- capitol. The current crop of DC TV offers plenty of symptoms (spoiler alert, kind of, I guess): lobbyists, big money, interest groups, cynical politicians, backdoor deals, rigid ideology, 24-hour media, election rigging, electronic surveillance, torture, murder, terrorism. It's a sobering list.

How odd, then, that these shows aren't perceived as being sobering. On the contrary -- their portrayals of Washington DC as cesspools of corruption and human degradation are lauded as juicy, twisty, fun and entertaining in a guilty-pleasure sort of way.

What's going on here?

***

Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself, "first as tragedy, then as farce." Something like that appears to be happening with the DC shows currently on offer, in which the specter of our recent history comes back to haunt us -- but in its second iteration, it's no longer scary. Instead, it makes us laugh. It makes us thrill. It entertains us.

This is perhaps most true of Scandal, ABC's blatantly ridiculous DC show in which presidents have affairs, staffers arrange murders, spies torture each other with drills and pliers and pruning shears, and Olivia Pope and Associates rush around town making sure that none of this mess is visible to the American people, that the facade of DC respectability is intact regardless of what fresh insanity is taking place underneath. It's not farce, exactly, but it certainly is outlandish, and in three short seasons the show has enacted the following American tragedies: the Lewinsky scandal, the Florida recount, the Global War on Terror, NSA wiretapping.

House of Cards seems less farcical than Scandal from the outside, but that's mostly Hollywood trickery -- behind the stellar production values, behind big names like Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, behind the veneer of respectability that the association of David Fincher brings, lies a show that is just as preposterous as any soap opera. The show is, perhaps, slightly more perceptive about what's wrong with Washington -- to the horrors evoked by Scandal, House of Cards adds lobbyists, government shutdowns, and obscure fears about China. But these things mostly exist to foreground the juicy stuff: the killing, the scheming, the sex.

Veep is the most farcical of the bunch -- literally, since it's actually funny. (Scandal and House of Cards can be unintentionally funny sometimes; it doesn't really count.) It's also the most ruthless in its portrayal of the capitol, though it's hard to see that at first. Scandal and House of Cards show us a Washington in which everyone's cynical and evil -- Veep gives us a capitol where those things are true but everyone's incompetent to boot. If the people in Washington were half as good at governing the nation as Selina Meyer and her crew are at firing off foulmouthed insults, this would be the most well-run country in the world. If Veep's right about Washington, what's wrong with the town is cynicism, venality -- but above all, pervasive stupidity.

2014-04-18-veep.jpg

That paints a depressing picture of the reality -- and, of course, the reality may well be exactly that depressing. But what's odd about these shows is that they aren't depressing. They're kind of fun. That's what distinguishes this crop of DC shows. Unlike The West Wing -- a show that ran from the Clinton era to Bush's second term but which sometimes seems to be much older than that -- these shows don't package politics inside entertainment. They package entertainment inside politics. When something undeniably real does break through -- when Huck from Scandal gets waterboarded, for instance, or when Selina Meyer honestly wrestles with how to express her stance on abortion -- it's a surprise. Often, it comes as a punch to the gut. Something entirely foreign to the experience of the show.

But maybe that's what we need. More punches to the gut.

***

So, which of these shows gives us the best vision of what Washington is really like?

I don't know. I'm not a Washington insider. I'm told that President Obama loves Homeland, for whatever that's worth; that Joe Biden is a fan of Veep; that, perhaps protesting too much, many in the House and Senate object to House of Cards' cynical portrayal of what they do. No one seems to think Scandal has much to do with what's real. Which is perhaps as it should be.

But maybe it's the wrong question.

Maybe none of them are real. Maybe all of them are.

And maybe that's the point.

At some point, we all tend to ask our favorite fictional worlds to reflect reality, but verisimilitude -- literally, similarity to the real -- is the one thing TV can't give us. Art, however much we might want it to, doesn't reflect reality. It creates its own reality. Veep, Scandal, House of Cards, even The West Wing -- they all create an alternate reality for us to live in. In some ways, the realities they create correspond with actual reality. In other ways, they don't. And which is which and who's to say, nobody really knows. Washington wonks may well spend their time crafting brutal, obscene insults, as they do in Veep. The town may be overrun with torturers, murderers, and spies, as it is in Scandal. And powerful politicians may be motivated more by pride and personal vendettas than they are to their constituents, as they are in House of Cards.

Or maybe not.

But who's to say that the portrayals of Washington that we see on ABC, HBO, Netflix, and the rest are any more or less real than what we see on CNN or Fox News? Who can blame us for choosing an unreal Washington when even the portrayals of the "real" capitol are becoming more and more fake? When we're losing hope that the portrayals we see of what's going on in the halls of power in our nation's capital, of the people who hold such power over the shape of our lives, will ever come close to meeting the reality of What's Really Going On?

And so, faced with a choice between falsehoods, we pick the irreality that appeals most to us. We watch. We tweet. We recap. We dish. We wait for the next OMG plot twist as the gladiators battle it out on our TV screens.

Are we not entertained?