As far as the debunking of myths and institutions goes, Netflix's "House of Cards" does an exemplary job in delineating the callous nature of institutional politics. Devoid of any progressive pretence, "House of Cards" details in unnerving details the very dark and cynical matter of political intrigues in the corridors of power. An intention perhaps best exemplified by the series' very opening sequence, a speeding SUV running over a dog; a rather powerful allegory of the modern rule of democracy. Though entirely fictional, the series strikes as extremely plausible and realistically accurate. One would be hard pressed to find a similar depiction of power on the pages of the national newspapers or in the news.
Equally hard-pressed one would be to see such a nuanced reflection on the ethical implications of capital punishment as the one Sundance Channel's "Rectify" is delivering. Once again, challenging and surpassing the calculative and mediocre tones of the "public opinion," "Rectify" unflinchingly stages the cruelty of justice without offering readymade sides to conveniently pick. It probes the darkest depths of institutional vengeance by positing crucial ethical questions before and beyond "innocence." Quite a leap forward from the Hollywood tales of god versus evil or the lynching mob antics the mainstream press often joins.
Shows like "Homeland" or "The Americans" instead display an uncommon willingness to take a look at the humanity and possible reasons of America's "enemies." Quality TV in general seems to be reacting to a changing social and political landscape where blind trust in institutions is dissolving, where more and more families are struggling financially. A situation where the American way of life is no longer granting wealth to the middle classes and a cancer can suddenly undermine the very economic and moral sustainability of a family.
When the distinction between work and leisure blurs, so does the one between entertainment and critical thought. The need to serialize, typical of a consumer-industrial society, is met in the new television series by the need to criticize the very effects of that same society. A global, mass cultural phenomenon like "The Wire" represents one of the harshest indictments of American society and its structural injustices. David Simon himself recently observed on his blog that "We have given our democratic birthright over to capital itself. Capital has succeeded in buying the remnants of democracy at wholesale prices, so that profit can always be maximized and any other societal need or priority can be ignored."
That such a radical statement comes from the creator of a commercially successful television drama indicates TV as a potential site for critical elaboration. Cinema too can and does do that, with two crucial differences though. Its resonance among audiences cannot be compared with TV any longer (one of last year's best films, "The Master," did not even break even at the box office...). And, most interestingly, TV series come without the snobby aura that general audiences associate with art cinema. They in fact collapse the contraposition between creativity and commerce, quality and quantity, spirituality and materialism, knowledge and ignorance that have historically parted "high" from "low" cinema.
Pay TV, unlike traditional broadcasters, does not look for the lowest common denominator but provides instead different products for different niches. So instead of levelling down the public sensibility in order to satisfy the larger viewership possible, pay TV cultivates specificities. The characteristics of a standardized and genre-driven cultural product turned out to be incentives rather than limitations for their creators. Engaging, thought-provoking stories with a commercial soul whose creators conceived by merging authorial ambitions with design, ideas with tools, creativity with repetition. TV, not independent cinema, figures undisputedly show, is what is attracting more and more talent at the moment.
If for decades television had constituted a site of cultural homologation, contemporary TV series possess instead a rather penetrating, if not openly confrontational, edge. The healthy DVD and VOD market share that TV series enjoy is proof that spectators feel the need to return and analyze what they've seen already. TV series are similar to books in this respect, something you study in search of new meanings and angles. Thoughtful reflection, amply demonstrated by the amount of discussion TV series generate, calls into question the immediate, neurotic consumption that drives consumerism. The emotional stammering that precludes durable relations, the indeterminacy of an uncertain future requires a rigorous analysis, the kind of long-term planning that TV series exemplify. They offer meaning and direction in the deluge of random information stifling our cultural landscape.
Conformist, passive and disengaged was the traditional spectator -- proactive, inquiring and interventionist is the new spectator. Television series audiences do not want to be merely entertained, they want to be involved. TV came of age when it stopped being a disseminator of news and culture and started producing its own culture, very much like cinema. From a grey box emanating a feeble light swallowing any possible meaning, TV became a public arena where society's subconscious can not only be screened and interpreted but perhaps, also changed.
Celluloid Liberation Front is a multi-use(r) name, an "open reputation" informally adopted and shared by a desiring multitude of insurgent cinephiles, transmedial terrorists, aesthetic dynamyters and random deviants. Read more at the Celluloid Liberation Front blog.