The Binge or the Ballot
House of Cards
by John Demetry
At the 2010 New York Film Critics Circle Award, Tony Kushner presented an award to David Fincher’s The Social Network. Kushner answered NYFCC chairperson Armond White’s challenged to explain why The Social Network matters by claiming the film fulfills Bertoldt Brecht’s call for a dramatic art that addressed its time, with that which is new, in order to snap spectators out of complacency. Bona fides: Kushner, who teaches Brecht in universities, made intellectual romance of Brechtian nostalgia with the AIDS-era play Angels in America.
Kushner got it wrong.
The Social Network combines television narrative--courtesy screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing)--with Fincher’s tv-commercial aesthetic. Nothing could be cornier--more old-fashioned and less Brechtian--than the combination of mawkishness and misanthropy of The Social Network. Now, Fincher’s Netflix streaming series House of Cards makes audiences complacent to power by sentimentalizing political corruption just as The Social Network encourages audiences to accept capitalism’s exploitation of technological change.
Material differences: House of Cards constitutes the first “television” series produced by Internet streaming giant Netflix. As such, rather than restricted to the tv medium’s serial format (and commercial breaks), the full second season of House of Cards dropped on Netflix on Valentine’s Day. It encourages the new social phenomenon of “binging”--watching an entire tv season in one marathon sitting--without opportunity for reflection.
Such social practice threatens Democracy: The Binge or the Ballot.
"One heartbeat from the presidency and not a single vote cast in my name. Democracy is so overrated,” a conspiratorial aside from Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey as Congressional whip appointed to Vice President in the beginning of Season 2). Breaking the fourth wall--a trope compared by reviewers to Shakespeare’s Richard III--also makes for hackneyed Brecht. Television is not theater. Contrast this to the way Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (the 1946 film that recently played at Film Forum) applied delirious, Brechtian film style to Shakespearean character motivation--heightening awareness of the spiritual toll of power and greed. The House of Cards combination of sentimentality and cynicism lulls audiences into a passive resignation to the “ruthless pragmatism” of despotism.
That phrase--the quality Underwood seeks in his allies--uncannily recalls President Obama’s pining for the “ruthlessly efficient” political machinations of House of Cards to be made a reality. In fact, the POTUS twitter account called for “No spoilers” of HoC Season 2. Such cultural norms spoil critical thinking in favor of sensationalist excitation. Spoiler alert: it’s time to resist.