Every culture and spirituality has some kind of trance state. Whether it is the meditation of Buddhists and Hindus, the dizzy dose of the divine offered by whirling Sufi dervishes, or the sense of calm, peace and timelessness said to be achieved by many committed Christians in moments of focused and quiet prayer.
And then there’s Netflix.
You sit down, 4000 word essay looming ahead, swearing you’ll watch “just one” episode of Breaking Bad. You look up and the sunny day has transmuted into shadowy night, finding you huddled around the soft campfire glow of your monitor, your eyes glazed over and empty biscuit packets laying scattered around like battlefield debris.
You’ve laughed, you’ve cried, you’ve clutched your fists in rage and experiences the whole gamut of human emotion all without getting out of the warm cocoon of bed. As it induces a state where days will pass unnoticed I suspect that Netflix will soon be confirmed as being the first step by the human species into legitimate time travel.
But can Netflix be more than a time sink? Can hours spent in this trance actually teach you something other than the slim facts about Leopard slug mating dances you can glean from slamming back a few cans and watching Attenborough documentaries when you should be studying?
I would answer that with a swift yes. As someone who spent my teens reading political philosophy when functioning and tolerable human beings were talking to girls, I can safely say that two of my favourite shows on Netflix have taught me as much about politics as Marx, Hobbes and Rousseau ever could.
House of Cards
With culture now a long way from the unified experience of the days when RTE 1, RTE 2 and TG4 were the height of choice in media, our generation has much fewer televisual and cultural events that could be regarded as truly monumental and nearly universal. House of Cards, in my view, is among them.
Its sleek and smooth direction (much of it courtesy of that genius David Fincher), its snappy writing and its narrative full of espionage and momentum caught people right away. What made it most interesting was the fact that it was the first piece of original programming produced by Netflix. House of Cards has ushered in an age where excellent television is less shackled to the tastes and opinions of stuffy executives in bloated major television networks.
But more than the medium, the message caught my eye. Kevin Spacey is manipulative and manoeuvring, yet still charming and Frank Underwood’s character is the politician for the anti-political age. He is not some idealistic hero who we want to see championing educational reform or civil rights.
If Martin Sheen’s level headed and public minded President Josiah Bartlet was the politician for the television age, then surely Frank Underwood is the politician for the Netflix age, the age of political apathy and disgust at the slimy underworld of parliament.
Underwood is a ruthless operator who is without any ideals or grand vision for the future, except for his own grandiose ascent to power. Underwood will do everything from pulling strings to tightening nooses to accelerate his career and he seems to have no particular affections for even the most tenuous of political ideals, from allegiance to his party to regard for his colleagues.
House of Cards has given us a thrilling, sleek and entertaining piece of entertainment that perfectly mirrors how we see our politicians worldwide, while being particularly revealing about the state of politics in the United States. House of Cards has told the world what it has suspected since at least the Iraq war: The politics of ideals and beliefs is dead, long live the politics of spin, suspicion and suffering.
Parks and Rec
Never underestimate what comedies might teach you about profound subjects. Bill Murray always instilled the value of “carpe diem” better than Robin Williams for me and The Big Lebowski taught me most of what I needed to know about the first Gulf War and neoconservative foreign policy. In that tradition, American sitcom Parks and Recreation is a valuable source of information about local government.
The series focuses on the hapless Parks Department of local government in the small town of Pawnee, Indiana, concerned primarily with its Deputy Director, the ever cheerful and enthusiastic Leslie Knope and her gruff, anti-government boss Ron Swanson.
These two characters act both as excellent comic foils for one another and fantastic illustrations of the two attitudes about government that pervade and inform all of American politics. While the show draws much of its humour from the bureaucracy of local government, which functions like a cuckoo clock with chewing gum smeared on the gears, Leslie plays the part of the idealistic, FDR liberal who believes the unwieldy machine can do some good for people.
Ron on the otherhand plays the old school libertarian who believes a government’s duty is primarily to get out of the way and make room for more big game hunting, barbecue and freedom.
This is the most ancient tension in US politics. From the beginning the country was divided into Federalists who thought that a strong, centralised government could provide for the people and keep the country powerful and the Jeffersonian Republicans who wanted to keep government limited in order to ensure people were as free as possible.
The show uses these caricatures to brilliantly illustrate the primary ideological divide of American political history. The fact that television can almost perfectly capture a centuries old ideological tension through a series of sitcom episodes concerned largely with waffles, hunting and an inexplicably popular pony (we love you Li’l Sebastian) illustrates the power of entertainment to teach us about politics without boring us to death.