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Saturday, June 3, 2017

House of Cards, It Turns Out, Is Dull And Depressing

After making it through seven episodes, I am finally calling it quits on House of Cards Season 5.

When the latest season of House of Cards was released less than a week ago, I was more than excited at the prospect of live blogging one of my favorite binge-worthy shows for FEE. In fact, though I was working on other articles that would be considered more substantive in nature, I put all other projects on the back burner and dedicated my week to watching the Underwood duo cling to their power by any means necessary.

Have we become so overburdened with choices that we no longer care about quality?

However, as I began getting further and further into the season, I found myself not only bored with the content, but also beginning to doubt the wondrous invention of Netflix. And after making it about seven episodes in, I have determined that I can no longer continue my efforts of live blogging each new episode.  

Is it possible that as a society we have become so obsessed with having “new” material to binge-watch that we have begun accepting lower quality content in order to fill our need for constant variety? Have we become so overburdened with choices that we no longer care about the quality of our choices as long as we have multiple facets to choose from? Or, perhaps, my own disillusionment with the show reflects my growing disillusionment with Washington, D.C. in general?

If I had to take a guess, I would say it is a little of both.

It Started Fine

The first season of House of Cards began right as I relocated from my sheltered upbringing in Provo, Utah, and moved to the political mecca of the world, Washington, D.C.

The more time I spent in DC, the more I realized how completely awful the political world was.

I felt like I was having my Mary Tyler Moore “she’s going to make it after all,” moment. Plunged into a big city and hobnobbing with congressional staffers, I felt for the first time that maybe my political science degree was not a complete waste of time. And to make matters worse, I began feeling more important than everyone else because I had chosen to live in a city where powerful men make decisions for the masses.

Watching the Underwoods galavant around the nation’s capital, wreaking havoc wherever they went was not only entertaining because the plot line was riveting; they were walking around my city! I knew that street Frank had discreetly strolled down late at night and had walked through the park where Claire took her evening run. For me, it was a reflection of how exciting politics is and how lucky I was to be at the center of it.

But the more time I spent in DC, and the more I realized how completely awful the political world was, House of Cards stopped being as interesting because it felt too real. I could take the slow plot lines in season 2 and 3. I could even look the other way when the writers borrowed a little too much from the real world in order to avoid having to come up with an original storyline.

But while I didn’t personally know any staffers who were plotting murders in order to steal the Oval Office, I began to see corruption even among those I considered to be philosophically pure.

From that point on, the show became less of an enjoyable experience. Now, the lengths people were willing to go in order to grab some sort of power was my daily reality. I could no longer turn off my mind and suspend reality for an hour at a time as I viewed each episode. Now it represented the disenchantment I had been feeling with the political world as a whole.  

On Again, Off Again

And then came season 4 and finally I thought the slump had ended. The show had become exciting yet again. Admittedly, the series may have seemed more interesting because after the rollercoaster ride that was the 2016 election, even Frank Underwood’s quest for power seemed tame, allowing Americans to take a much needed mental break from politics.

Social media was filled with praise for the show’s fourth season as viewers declared that it was back on its game. The buildup to season five had been intense, to say the least. But after a real life presidential race that seemed more like a Survivor reality show where you had to sink to low levels just to avoid getting thrown off the island by unholy alliances, the 5th season missed the mark entirely.

Standalone streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime have completely changed the way we digest entertainment. We are bombarded with options and as an advocate of choice and the free market, there is nothing wrong with having a vast variety of entertainment at our fingertips.

But as the trend of binge-watching has caused entire series to be digested in one sitting, consumers now seem obsessed with having something “new” to watch even if the quality is far below what we would normally accept as decent programing. Likewise, streaming services are trying to keep up with the demand of new material, but as the new season of House of Cards has shown, rushing to get products out the door has resulted in a prioritization of quantity over quality.

New Medium, New Formats

In a strange way, the popularity of watching extended shows over so many episodes and seasons reproduces the 19th-century experience with serialized novels. Writers found that consumers actually preferred to read their books in digestible parts, so even the best novelists adapted. Their books became longer and longer,  with cliffhangers from one chapter to the next, as way of boosting sales and subscriptions as the plot became ever more exciting.

Even if House of Cards is doing well for Netflix, it’s not doing it for me anymore

It worked, and everyone benefited: the writer, the publisher, and the consumer. The results look to us, in retrospect, completely absurd. Vast numbers of words in these old books are superfluous to the plot.

When radio and television came along, the serialized novel went away, and we started producing and consuming a new version of the same in a different form. How many seasons of Happy Days or Gilligan’s Island did we really need? As many as the consuming public demanded.

And so it is with Netflix. The appetite to have a show run fully 13 hours, season after season, seems nearly insatiable, even at a time when consumers at movie theaters have low tolerance for anything that runs longer than 2 hours.

The film makers imagine themselves to be creating high art but they cannot but respond to the market demand, whatever it is.

Not My Cup of Tea

Even if House of Cards is doing well for Netflix, it’s not doing it for me anymore.

As absurd as this past election has been, this should have given a show like House of Cards ample opportunity to use hyperbole in its content. But it failed to do so. Instead, it took its plot lines from reality, the same reality our nation has desperately been trying to escape for the last six months.

As someone who usually uses pop culture references to make an economic or philosophical point, I understand the importance of wanting the fictional world to reflect the real world in so far as it helps the viewer gain a personal connection.

That being said, there comes a point, as is painfully demonstrated in season five of House of Cards, when the real world is used so much, it seems obvious that the writing was rushed.

Politics Is Boring

I fervently tried to enjoy this season or at least find some compelling themes to blog about. But everything shown in this season has already occurred in some capacity in real life. None of it was thrilling and I wasn’t left on the edge of my seat. Instead, it felt like deja vu, like a horrible nightmare I had had before not so long ago.

As my social media feeds have reflected, I am not alone in this opinion. Even those who have not resided in Washington, D.C. for the past four years have found this season to be dull and uneventful and this is because as a nation, we are sick of politics and desperate for quality entertainment that we just aren’t getting, at least not when it comes to the latest season of House of Cards.

  • Brittany is a writer for the Pacific Legal Foundation. She is a co-host of “The Way The World Works,” a Tuttle Twins podcast for families.