I think we can all agree: Television is reveling in another golden age, with scores of beautifully written and shot dramas available on every channel and then some... a veritable bounty of entertainment. But while we're bingeing on this cinematic smorgasbord, there is another trend worming its way into the Zeitgest that isn't quite as golden. One that informs us that, deep down inside, everyone in government -- president or reporter, congressman or first lady, chief of staff or vice president -- is evil with a capital E. If you're paying any attention to TV these days, you know the shows to which I refer.
It's understandable with serial killers, gang bangers, meth cookers, fairy tale goblins, or zombies; from them we expect bloodletting, sociopathy, and amoral rationalization as a regular diet (well, that and their next door neighbors). But in the case of Scandal and House of Cards, we're talking about cauldron-brewing evil stirred by our more mundane of characters; the well-dressed, well-educated, highly erudite who are doing things like running the country or running the people running the country. These folks rushing around the halls of government -- at least as depicted by these shows' creators -- are routinely immersed in epic, off-the-charts, Shakespearean evil of such cartoonish variety that, if either show got any more broadly malevolent, I half expect Dr. Evil to show up with his pinky and penchant for shark pools.
Murdering a press secretary (and a couple of apparently dispensable reporters) "for the greater good"? Check. Shoving a reporter-slash-mistress in front of a train with nary the blink of an eye? Check. Stabbing a gay "second husband" for God's sake (literally)? Check. Debating the president's blowing up of passenger planes while canoodling in the Oval Office? Check. Three-way shenanigans with that weird Secret Service guy? Check. Oh yeah, baby, it's evil.
And what does any of this have to do with Edward Snowden? We'll get to that in a minute.
Political "theater" has always had its broad archetypes and familiar moral dilemmas, most of which have been creatively mined in every way imaginable. Governmental good vs. evil is a classic trope, in fact, seen as either a reflection or reimagining of the times we're in, and typically employs characters that run the gamut from demons to heroes, villains to confused idealists; insipid psychotics to admirable saviors. And most allow for at least some "nobility of leadership" tucked into all the dastardliness, as evidenced by stories where presidents do things like survive aliens, sign the 14th Amendment, dance with Annette Bening, or take a bullet while Channing Tatum kicks mercenary ass.
Well, toss those templates aside because "nobility of leadership" has gone the battered and bloody way of Zoe Barnes and James Novak. With their relentless, sneering, unquestioned negation of all things noble or moral, both Scandal and House of Cards seem determined to rid the earth of such banalities as empathy, conscience, and compassion. Instead, and in their strikingly parallel worlds, both portray the more humane of humans as naive and provincial, putty in the hands of the more powerful baddies. It's those sashaying, articulate, adrenalined villains -- perfectly comfortable with murder, deceit, and political chicanery -- who are positioned as most worthy of our binge-watching attention.
Professor Gene Del Vecchio, author of the book Creating Blockbusters, expressed a similar critique in a recent piece titled "Is House of Cards Headed Toward a Tumble?" He posits that the show has made its able despot (Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood) too powerful and too easily successful, which throws off the balance and rhythm of the narrative. I agree and, frankly, came away from the second season of HOC feeling a bit sullied after 13 episodes in its thunderdome of turpitude with nary a glimmer of good to be found (see my own review here.)
But even primetime has upped the ante on the "all government is evil" theme. The most recent episode of Scandal (which might seriously be trying to out-evil HOC), took its cabal of fast-talking, back-stabbing, soulless ne'er-do-wells to new heights of craven, and almost succeeded in making murder and mayhem seem necessary and sort of "everyday." Whether or not Shonda Rhimes is actively trying to offset the warmth and humanity of Grey's Anatomy by creating an alternate world of uniformly despicable characters, the notion of "nobility of leadership" has been left far, far behind by both these TV juggernauts.
Why blame it on Snowden? Certainly the trend of "evil politicians" started long before Ed and company got busy outing government secrets. But at a cultural time when a notorious figure seen by many as a traitor is conversely vaulted to hero status by others, aggrandized with a platform at the ubiquitous TEDtalks, even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by admiring Norwegians, one can assume the world according to Edward -- in which government participants and intelligence spying are framed with un-nuanced paranoia, cynicism, and conspiracy-laden distrust -- is having its impact on the culture at large.
Debate.org asked respondents the question, "Does art imitate life?" and a whopping 78 percent (at last count) said "yes." Clearly the majority of us believe that art -- music, drama, books, films, TV, etc. -- reflects and interprets the events, tendencies, worldviews, and mores of society as it evolves and changes over time. While art also inspires ideas and compels change, statistically most (even Oscar Wilde) support the idea that it's life that plants the seeds of our artistic sensibilities.
Which brings us back to the Snowden equation.
When you have a society already teeming with distrust of government to the point that conspiracy theorists contend that Obama concocted Sandy Hook, Bush took down the World Trade Center, Democrats want everyone's guns, and the Illuminati is running the country, it's not much of a stretch to buy the Snowden script of an out-of-control government up to absolutely no good while listening to all our phone calls, reading all our emails, tracking all our online searches and doing so with impunity and without moral imperative. Distrust and disrespect of our current president is so rampant, in fact, that the tongue-in-cheek "Thanks, Obama!" memes are everywhere, acknowledging the absurdity of blaming the man for everything from the weather to the disappearance of Flight MH370. (Let's see if he scores any points for announcing -- yes, post-Snowden -- that he "will end NSA phone data collection"... nah!)
While Snowden, Julian Assange, and others of their ilk see government as less "of the people, by the people, for the people" and more of a collection of rapacious, power-mongering puppet-masters, and as that message gets disseminated to a culture poised to mirror and embrace its cynicism and paranoia, the stage is set. And with culture as their audience, cinematic storytellers respond (either consciously or otherwise) by filling our screens with an "American government" that verifies and reflects the current view... or at least the one getting the most sensationalized media attention.
Both shows are bona fide hits so clearly they've struck a chord. Me? I think the trend is wearyingly one-note. I love a good, chewy, malevolent drama filled with characters who could scare the hair off your arms, but even the most extreme of genres typically give us someone to root for; people in jeopardy we want to see saved, good people offering some balance against the evil. To watch two concurrent, high-profile dramas about the presidency and the government (doesn't The West Wing seem charmingly archaic right now?) and have both as fixated on the darkest, most vile, unscrupulous, and cynical versions of that place, those jobs, and most of the people populating them, is to reflect a culture at odds with itself. Certainly its government.
We don't need the delusion of Disneyland, but damn if it wouldn't nice to see at least a few political characters who aren't so handy at speechifying while putting a bullet through someone's head.
And, really, we can say it's Snowden's fault but who are we kidding? Thanks, Obama!