PARIS – Today’s popular television programs have become the equivalent of the feuilletons that began appearing in newspapers in the nineteenth century. Series like “Game of Thrones” and “Downton Abbey,” like Balzac and Dickens before them, serve as a source of entertainment and fodder for debate. In this sense, our television screenplays have emerged as key tools of social and political analysis.
Such tools can be used to comprehend, for example, the difference between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama. Netanyahu is still stuck in the third season of “Homeland” – that is, obsessed with Iran – whereas Obama, having begun to include the renewed Russian threat in his strategic calculus, has already moved into the third season of “House of Cards.”
Of course, the availability of such comparisons is rooted in what often drives a TV series’ popularity: its ability to hold up a mirror to a society – to reflect its anxieties and longings – and create a window through which outsiders can peer in.
Consider “Downton Abbey,” a British period drama that follows the lives of the Crawley family and its servants in the family’s classic country house, from 1912 to the mid-1920s. Why are millions of people worldwide – from Europe to the United States to Asia – so attracted to these characters? Are they nostalgic for a time long past, which the show reconstitutes with exacting verisimilitude? Or are they fascinated by the social dynamics that the show explores?
For Julian Fellowes, who created the series, the explanation lies elsewhere – in our search for order in a chaotic world. People feel so disoriented nowadays, he believes, that they are drawn to “Downton Abbey’s” tidy realm, in which the setting, clearly delineated in space and time, is governed by strict rules. Just as the Crawley house serves as a kind of refuge for its characters, it may give its viewers a safe, predictable outlet by which to escape the tumultuous present – and avoid the unknown future.
Similarly, the American political drama “House of Cards” reflects a kind of disillusionment – this time, with US politics. Whereas “The West Wing,” a popular political drama that ran from 1999 to 2006, portrays the US presidency – held by a sophisticated, cultivated, and humanistic leader – with a kind of longing, “House of Cards” immerses the viewer in a murky milieu of humanity’s worst impulses. In “House of Cards,” the world is not as viewers believe it should be, but as they fear it is.
This is the opposite of the approach taken by the Danish political drama “Borgen,” which presents an idealized prime minister, Birgitte Nyborg. But the effect is similar. One often hears people saying that the true problem facing Denmark – and, in particular, its political class – is that Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt lacks Nyborg’s strengths.
By exposing the fundamental challenges and anxieties facing a society, a TV series can, at times, almost prefigure the future. In France, “Engrenages” – sold in English under the title “Spiral” – explores the deep malaise of French society. In retrospect, the series seems to have foreshadowed the tragedies that beset the country in January. In particular, the fifth season, which aired in France in late 2014, offered a clinical description of how young people in the Paris suburbs went astray, while portraying the relationship between the police and their political superiors as cynical and even combative. The show’s dialogue could have come straight out of a real-life Parisian “power lunch.”
The TV show that has emerged as the most hotly debated of our time is, without a doubt, “Game of Thrones,” a medieval fantasy epic based (increasingly loosely) on George R.R. Martin’s best-selling book series A Song of Ice and Fire. The series has become known not just for its massive budget or intricate storytelling, but also for its sustained choreography of brutal violence.
Students of international politics, especially in Canada and the US, wonder whether the show, by stressing the role of sheer brutality, encourages a“realist” vision of the world. Could the savagery featured on “Games of Thrones” – including abundant beheadings, rape, and sexual torture – have helped to encourage the tactics of, say, Boko Haram and the Islamic State? Or could the series – in which violence often begets more violence, but does not necessarily get the characters what they want – actually be highlighting the limits of force?
On a more philosophical level, the show’s universe – a combination of ancient mythology and the Middle Ages – seems to capture the mixture of fascination and fear that many people nowadays feel. It is a fantastic, unpredictable, and devastatingly painful world – one that is so complex that even the show’s most loyal viewers often are confused. In this sense, it is much like the world in which we live.
Though the West has no monopoly on the production of TV series, it undoubtedly dominates the field – and thus the worldview that such shows reflect. Given this, one might wonder whether Chinese or Russian leaders are making time in their busy schedules to watch series such as “House of Cards” or “Games of Thrones,” in order to understand their rivals’ mentality.
Leading government advisers, at least, seem to recognize the value of tuning in. A Chinese friend recently told me that “House of Cards” was very popular among China’s political elite. They relish the reminder that politics is just as ruthless in the US as it is at home.