The Magazine

The Netflix Effect

‘The line between politics and entertainment has become more distinct.’

Mar 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 24 • By ELI LEHRER
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All three, however, show a certain cluelessness about the political issues they address. Hemlock Grove is the most forgivable in its portrayal of politics. At heart, it’s a small-town gothic in the spirit of True Blood’s early seasons and Twin Peaks, and it takes dramatic license in converting things that would be national news stories (the brutal murder that opens the first episode, for example) into purely local events. Dozens of other shows do this, and it’s easy enough to overlook. 

The other two series can’t get the same pass. Piper Kerman’s memoir, which serves as the basis for Orange Is the New Black, is an interesting (if sometimes shrill) screed against mass incarceration based on the Smith-graduate-turned-drug-money-courier’s year in federal prison. While she doesn’t claim that our prisons are full of innocent people, she makes a solid political case that the long-term incarceration of nonviolent, or even less-violent, offenders can’t be good for society. The Netflix version centers on one Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), but depicts the same minimum-security prison as a violent place full of people who deserve to be isolated from society. In other words, for the purposes of good TV, the producers contradict the central political message of the book. Since Piper Kerman herself has promoted the show, she must recognize the contradiction. 

If Orange Is the New Black simply contradicts the political message of its source, however, House of Cards, a far more overtly political show, largely ignores real life altogether. On one hand, its production shows that some people with experience in Washington know what they’re doing: Designers perfectly match the visitors’ badges used in the Capitol building and the stickers in taxicab windows, even the look of the Georgetown and Adams Morgan flats occupied by recent college graduates. (All the more impressive, really, since most filming takes place in Baltimore.) 

But the political doings at the heart of House of Cards, the second season of which premiered in February, betray an ignorance of political reality. In the first season, several episodes turned on a national teachers’ strike that caused all public schools in America to close because teachers disliked a bill moving through Congress. This is, of course, plainly impossible: Only a third of public-school teachers in America belong to a union, no single union controls all organized teachers, many states ban teacher strikes, and since the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act nearly 70 years ago, unions haven’t been allowed to engage in political strikes at all. 

Ignorance of the world of politics doesn’t end there. A major plot thread has South Carolina congressman Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) getting himself heavily involved in a Pennsylvania gubernatorial campaign. (In the real world, it’s rare that members of Congress involve themselves in local races in their own states.) In other episodes, editors at a big metropolitan daily give front-page placement to a story based on an unattributed tip, written by a reporter who won’t disclose her sources to her own editors, and the House of Representatives holds a floor roll-call vote on a bill involving a single river’s watershed. While all these things could happen in theory—and may have occurred at some point in the past—they almost certainly wouldn’t take place today. The people behind House of Cards presumably know better, but prefer a good drama to any grounding in political reality. 

Caveat emptor. Anyone who wants to learn about American politics from what’s marketed as pure entertainment programming is almost certain to emerge clueless. And people aren’t relying on Netflix for their news anyway. If Netflix is the future, entertainment and politics will continue to grow apart. 

Eli Lehrer is president of the R Street Institute.

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