Politics Makes Strange TV Shows


Sometimes I wonder ... wait, make that ofttimes I wonder just how the hell our Congress and government really operates in the nation’s capital as well as how our elected officials and their staff conduct their business. Given just how dysfunctional things are in Washington, DC, it’s food for thought with much to chew on.

Two excellent TV series take very different views of that. In contrast to what we progressives might normally find appealing, one is a comedy that features four Republican senators one can’t help but love, the other is a drama that focuses on a Democratic congressman who embodies pretty much all that we fear among our representatives. Both come to us via streaming services.

Let’s start with the fun: Alpha House, an Amazon.com original series starring John Goodman and Clark Johnson (a favorite of mine from Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire) which in its first two seasons was endearing, humane and deliciously witty. Created by Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau and based on a DC townhouse shared by such Democrats as Chuck Schumer (who makes a cameo appearance), its brilliance is powered by flipping the affiliation to the GOP. Goodman shines as a laconic Southern good ole boy and Johnson plays a canny Black Republican who room with the residence’s owner, a Nevada senator with obvious gay tendencies (portrayed with note perfect tenderness by Matt Malloy) and an ambitious Florida Hispanic (Mark Consuelos).

It’s a crew of mixed nuts indeed playing out their roles in the Senate and the DC power structure in a way that illuminates the inherent absurdity to be found in our nation’s seat of power. At a time when many Republicans on Capitol Hill are scarily partisan and woefully out-of-touch with the real concerns of common people and almost hostile to verifiable facts and truths and the true democratic American spirit, it humanizes the GOP in a way that is sorely needed for those of us on the Left as we pull our hair out at the horrors on an almost daily basis of what too many Republicans say and do.

But we progressives also can never forget that the Democrats are also hardly without sin. And there’s no better current reminder of that House of Cards, a Netflix original that shows the dark power-hungry side of our nation’s capital and pulls no punches about the lengths some will do to in order to gain an advantage and higher office. It centers around Francis Underwood, a South Carolina congressman with ice in his veins and his equally (if a bit more subtly) hard-hearted wife Claire. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, respectively, deliver bravura performances as the show’s central couple in this incredibly cynical yet compelling drama. Underwood’s way is ruthless pragmatism, and the double-dealing, power plays, treachery and high crimes and misdemeanors he commits without pause may seem almost shocking at first yet soon become almost commonplace yet remain compelling as the story unfolds. The razor’s edge the plotting rides along is the contradictions between public image and behavior and the private lives and secrets that are the ugly underbelly of politics and the people that engage in it.

But just like Alpha House, it also humanizes its characters in ways both chilling and at the same time somehow sympathetic. There’s a genuine bond of love between the Underwoods even as ice water courses through their veins. And one almost can’t help, if not root, but in a strange way hope our antiheroes can pull off their schemes. Its third season recently premiered with Underwood having schemed his way to the pinnacle of power. What happens is bound to shock and even outrage; yet like a car crash, one can’t turn away from the show.

The ultimate truth about D.C. may likely be found somewhere between the two shows. Both in their own way ride the current political zeitgeist to television series excellence. And with humor on the one hand and chilling drama on the other show how power is a game both dangerous and absurd.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@prismnet.com.

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2015


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