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Caitlin Klevorick Headshot

Why America Likes the DC on TV: Schadenfreude

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HOUSE OF CARDS EMMYS
AP

In the past month with anticipation and release of Season 2 of House of Cards, there has been a slew of stories about who watches the show and why they watch. A particular focus has been on those who live in the political world. And it isn't just House of Cards. There's been similar speculation about other shows like Scandal and Veep.

So what draws us to these shows especially at a time when the public has so much disdain for government? Why does there seem to be an inverse relationship between "approval ratings" of the shows and the real-life counterparts of their characters?

The President's approval rating has been hovering in the mid-40s for the past year as partisan polarization grows. The country's feeling about the "do nothing" Congress is clear as day when you look at its 12 percent approval rating. And there does not seem to be an end site to this complacency, especially given the House plans to spend fewer than 100 days in D.C. this year. (As has been widely reported, the 113th Congress passed fewer laws in its first year (65) than any session on record.)

In House of Cards, the fact that, regardless of his less desirable, downright criminal behavior, Francis Underwood can get things done. An education bill? Seriously? Seems like regardless of the policy it contains, that is something we can only aspire to do some day.

Even in Scandal there is a President who makes decisions -- even if most of the ones the audience see has to do with a covert operation that exceeds a top secret classification. But then again, there seems not to be a legislative branch in the mix. The show's scandals -- while largely unthinkable and illegal -- are at least not simply partisan machinations.

We laugh readily at Veep, and probably catch ourselves every once and a while wondering if the ineptitude we see on the screen is perhaps realistic. Well, it's not. Although I'm sure someone has tried to compare Joe Biden and Selina Meyer, and even Biden himself has had fun with it.

So why then is there such a pull towards these shows? Perhaps people looking for explanations about how Washington does or doesn't work? Perhaps it is a kind of voyeurism akin to that time that you wound up spending far too much time on Facebook just looking around to see what someone has, or hasn't, made of himself? Perhaps it's that these alternate "realities" are just so much worse than the one in which we live that it makes us feel better about our current predicament? Perhaps it's all of the above and more. One unifying element: Schadenfreude plays some part in driving our interest.

Just look at "Stupid People Compilation of 2013" that currently has 6.8 million views and comes out with new videos of "idiots" daily. We are drawn to things that make us feel a little better about ourselves -- even if it's by default or tinged with guilt.

So when we watch these fictional governments, perhaps it is because they share this type of appeal and allure, almost like Survivor did in its earliest days. Except, will he eat the bug becomes will he kill the [insert your favorite example]?

Whether we know it or not, our own readiness and willingness to compare what we see on screen to reality plays an important role. Perhaps sharing interest and enjoyment in these shows is the only way the left, right and center can agree on something -- they all like it. And I don't just mean on Capitol Hill or down Pennsylvania Avenue, but across the country.

Maybe the ultimate take-away, for now, is that regardless of party or political beliefs, we are drawn in by the allure of a D.C. that is worse than the one we have. That's a start. Perhaps next we'll realize we have a say of changing it, just as we have one in what we watch.