House of Cards' Netflix Bow is Just Another Way for Pop Culture to Pretend it Unnerves Us

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The Creed of TV?
It's been nice to watch TV--fresh off House of Cards's Netflix premier--deal with the same questions people have been addressing about music since Napster or iTunes or Spotify, depending on which iteration of the issue you remember best. Specifically: Now that Netflix can create programming based on the programming we already like, are we short-circuiting some crucial part of the artistic process? Are we just being told what we want to hear?

Broadly speaking, I don't think there's a very important difference between Netflix's viewer data telling it what we want to hear and Michael Bay's box-office returns; it's easy to overrate that last bit of precision in any model, the difference between "Netflix users like Kevin Spacey" and "Netflix users like Kevin Spacey types." What's really disheartening about House of Cards is something pop music has dealt with for decades: Not that we're being told what we want to hear, but that it lets us act like we're being told something we don't want to hear.

House of Cards is part of a genre that's rapidly taken over cable TV--the amoral HBO sex-and-power fantasy, featuring a guy with a novel job who is despicable but antiheroic. Done well--like any genre--you get art. (Personally I'm a Mad Men guy; feel free to be a Breaking Bad guy, or a Sopranos guy, or a Big Love guy, or whatever.)

Done badly you get something that's more insidious than self-evident junk like whichever CBS sitcom or police procedural you hate the most. You get junk that pretends it's challenging you. House of Cards--which is fun, obviously, since I finished it already--is filled with the easy pleasures of people who watch self-consciously Mature TV: Oh, they said fuck! Oh, I saw part of her breast! Oh, I like this guy, even though he's a bad guy! As if it's difficult, at this point, to make somebody with a pay-TV subscription feel for a hulking adulterer. It's fried dough, you're just buying it inside a Whole Foods.

Music has been dealing with this from the moment rock synthesized rebellion. Each new movement becomes obsessed with its own authenticity, until authenticity--every theoretically important post-grunge tic or hip-hop shoutout--becomes just as easy and important to fake as rebellion. We beat TV to the grunge wars by 20 years; hopefully they'll find the example Creed set a useful one.

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