“They say we get the leaders we deserve,” begins Frank Underwood’s Oval Office address to you, his loyal fourth wall, in a recent trailer for House of Cards. Season four of the Netflix show premieres tonight and, frankly, the timing couldn’t be more appropriate. As Underwood claws and scrapes his way to victory, so do our own presidential hopefuls. Soon, all the campaigns will blur. Fiction and reality will become one. If we play our cards wrong, this November we may end up with a fictional character for president.
Years from now, historians will make two proclamations of this era: It produced the best television and the worst politics. The culprit, of course, is no mystery; you’re looking right at it. The internet has changed everything about how we distribute and receive information. With established powerhouses such as HBO and FX now competing against original web content creators including Netflix and Amazon, the demand on writers to deliver high quality has gone up. But as TV content thrives, political content suffers. Debates, once serious forums for political dialogue, are now streamed alongside Twitter scrolls and user analytics, making candidates ever more beholden to trendability. The desire to spike on social media has considerably trumped the demand for quality content.
In a way, politics is filling the void left behind by traditional television. Networks such as ABC and Fox, in an effort to staunch the bleeding of viewers to Netflix, have turned political debates into prime-time entertainment. (Five of the 11 Republican debates so far have taken place on a Thursday evening, the coveted former showcase for Friends and Seinfeld.) Political campaigns are no longer serious operations; they’re episodic soaps. We’re not watching General Hospital; we’re watching General Election.
This comes at a time when serialized dramas are making a huge comeback. But unlike conventional serials, in which complex story arcs gradually build over long (sometimes frustratingly long) periods of time, serials now drop from the sky like whole-season bundles. The recent programs House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, Making a Murderer, Master of None and Love—Net-flicks, one and all—are released wholesale upon fans, practically daring them to consume a season in a single sitting. Not to say, of course, that the conventional form is out of fashion: NPR’s Serial, HBO’s Game of Thrones and AMC’s Breaking Bad (now streaming on FX) still prove we like our slow-building arcs. But traditional serials are airy, spread out, spacious: 10 hours of programming over 10 weeks. Bundled serials are heavy, dense, concentrated: 10 hours of programming over 10 hours on a Sunday.
If Netflix points the way to the future, perhaps politics will follow. Imagine: an entire season of General Election released as a bundle on a Saturday night. Consumed in one sitting, the flaws of political theater will be put into sharp relief. No more drawn-out prime-time debates and public forums. (Nothing worse than a show that takes forever to build.) No more rehearsed sound bite responses. (Nothing more grating than redundant dialogue.) No more policy flip-flops. (Nothing lazier than continuity errors.) The true character of politicians would become evident sooner. And voters wouldn’t struggle to follow months of ever-changing story lines. They could just settle in with their popcorn and ballots and binge.
Photo: David Giesbrecht/©Netflix/Everett Collection