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Frank Underwood vs. Donald Trump

Is House of Cards ‘a little too tame’ in today’s political climate?

The Netflix original White House thriller House of Cards returns for its fifth season on Tuesday. Netflix has been teasing the premiere with a series of commercials, social media posts, and ads that draw from the current political climate.

Department of Theatre lecturer Dennis Staroselsky, himself a working actor, applauded the show’s marketing team, but noted that creating a show that mirrored U.S. politics wasn’t the original intent. In fact, House of Cards is a take on Shakespeare’s Richard III—a few generations removed, but a variation nonetheless. However, he said, a cutting-edge show like House of Cards “almost can’t avoid the political climate.”

And though many of the show’s central characters are, arguably, morally bankrupt, House of Cards doesn’t occupy the same moral and ethical gray area that several network TV shows—the “McDonald’s of television,” as Staroselsky put it—do. He pointed to shows such as NCIS or CSI as being more morally questionable because their format—dealing with big social issues in only an hour—is, he said, dismissive of those important issues.

We asked Staroselsky to weigh in on the parallels between House of Cards and the current state of affairs in American politics, as well as to what extent TV shapes public opinion—and vice versa.

A lot of parallels have been drawn between certain House of Cards plotlines and the current political state of affairs. Do you think that was intentional?

Any show that has a team of smart people behind it almost can’t avoid the political climate. But whether House of Cards meant to mirror the Trump administration? That was not its intention at the beginning.

Originally, House of Cards was an English show, based on a novel in which a member of Parliament works his way up to become prime minister. And even that is a take on Shakespeare’s Richard III. So, these concepts aren’t that new in terms of plot or dynamic or themes: You have absolute power corrupting absolutely. You can find that elsewhere as well, such as with The Godfather.

House of Cards came out as this Greek theater, in the sense that it was a play about what we shouldn’t be doing. For the audience, there was this feeling of, ‘Can you believe the choices this guy is making? He’s so morally corrupt, there’s no way that could ever happen.’ As is the case with classic Greek theater, when faced with choices, Frank Underwood makes the wrong choices, and the audience should recognize that those were the wrong choices.

This is a thriller set in the West Wing, with themes about power and corruption. If you look at what’s going on now in the political climate, you almost wonder if the show is a little too tame, but I don’t think the intention was to be prophetic in that sense.

What is so great about the people working on TV right now, more so than in the film industry, is that they’re just quicker. They have the resources and the backing to be a lot more reactionary to what they see and what’s going on in the world. Now they’ve had to look at the show through a prism of ‘this is no longer something that’s overdramatized and noir-ish.’ It’s a little closer to home.

To what extent do you think TV shapes public opinion, and to what extent is it the other way around?

Well, to start, there are really two tiers of television. There are network and procedural shows where each episode touches on an issue but resolves it within an hour. There’s an audience for these shows, but they’re what I would call the McDonald’s of television.

Then you have shows on premium cable networks and streaming services, where the real art is happening, and that’s really changed the conversation about TV. Years ago, there were people who didn’t watch television as a point of pride. Now, though, one of the most common questions you hear is, ‘What are you watching right now?’

If you look at studios like Netflix, or HBO, or Starz, you’ll see places where people are willing to take risks and not be beholden to ratings. They’re discovering new artists, new showrunners, new writers who have great visions that have helped inspire pop culture. They’ve tapped into pop culture, but through their own lens, so there is inherently a comment on it.

Given that so many people are watching TV now, do show creators have any obligation to uphold a sort of moral and ethical code? Do you think people are taking cues from the shows they’re watching?

If artists have to start censoring their art in case it might upset people, that’s a dangerous area to me.

But, take for example, a show like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. They really test the boundaries of everything, but the guiding principle behind each decision is, ‘Is it funny? If it works, it’s OK.’ I think that’s a good rule of thumb for any show: Are they staying true to the characters? Are they presenting a world as truthfully as they can, and are they being captivating while doing all that?

It’s not the shows on premium cable or streaming services that concern me, though; it’s more the NCISs and the CSIs that concern me. These are shows that deal with big social issues in only an hour—they’re easily consumed, and then they’re done. That, for me, is a little morally questionable because it lends itself to desensitizing. On NCIS, someone gets murdered in every episode. On Law and Order: SVU, someone gets molested in every episode. From my point of view, that’s being dismissive of murder, of sexual violence. That’s more where I see the moral gray area.