To paraphrase Krusty the Klown:
1923: John Logie Baird invents the television.
1927: Philo Farnsworth invents the television...again.
Then, for a long time, nothing happened. Until 1999.
That's when The Sopranos started airing on HBO, and that's when TV changed forever.
More eloquent men than I have examined how and why this happened, but suffice it to say that television's potential was suddenly unlocked; everyone realized what a perfect medium it was for long-form, intelligent stories.
Suddenly, TV became character-driven. And not just any characters...flawed characters.
Tony Soprano was a sociopathic bear of a man who alternatively raged against, and embraced, the life he was born into. Vic Mackey found himself unable to change his needlessly aggressive ways, even as his friends perished and his family abandoned him. Al Swearengen learned to live within a society and curtail his murderous instincts...or, at least, use them for more productive purposes. Walter White, although his story has yet to be completed, became the worst human being in the world.
But Frank Underwood, the House of Cards protagonist so ably portrayed by Kevin Spacey? He's just a rich powerful politician who hopes to remain both rich and powerful.
Nucky Thompson, the main character on HBO's Boardwalk Empire, lives in constant fear that...he'll lose control of his unofficial post as big boss of Atlantic City? That someone will burst past his half-dozen bodyguards and run up the stairs of his large expensive home to (maybe) shoot him in the head? That he won't get to continue having sex with attractive women?
Will McAvoy, the "hero" of on HBO's The Newsroom, is a rich and famous newscaster who's had it up to here with modern America, and he's gonna tell you all about it. He's got some serious, no-bullshit things to say...about oft-dissected events that occurred several years ago. And if nobody listens, well, life will go on. Because it did, because these events all occurred in the recent past. And did I mention he's also rich, and famous, and pretty much untouchable?
All three roles are played by spectacular actors who I've enjoyed in numerous films, and all three of their shows are varying levels of blah. These particular programs pass themselves off as substantial when, at best, they're relatively entertaining.
House of Cards, The Newsroom and Boardwalk Empire are soap operas. There are no stakes, unless you count the (picture perfect) health and (relatively unassailable) livelihood of some fictional human beings. It does not matter whether the main characters succeed or fail, or even if they struggle in the process. They do not exist to shine a light on society, or as a commentary against a certain type of individual. They're empty pods, filled with subpar attempts to recreate what's made TV so great over the last 14 years without actually trying.
To enjoy these shows is almost voyeuristic: "Watch the rich white people be rich and white," only in varying time periods. Assigning any other value to them is being dishonest. They're not expected to be docudramas, but good art has at least a hint of truth to it. No one involved in the creation of these shows is plumbing for any hidden understandings of life or culture. There are no David Chases or David Milchs at the helm.
I've railed against Boardwalk Empire's flaws in the past, and The Newsroom is such a vessel for Aaron Sorkin's opinions (and neuroses) that it's a waste of time to accuse his show of being anything other than "a way to get all this shit off my chest." He's getting paid to produce his own televised therapy.
But House of Cards, the more recent sensation of the three, continues the trend of existing only as a cheap thrill. It's slickly produced and well acted, but almost in an attempt to confuse those who might otherwise notice that it sucks. It doesn't seem any more consequential than Scandal, except Scandal openly admits what it is and House of Cards puffs its chest out as a Television Event. It's big, bombastic and about an Important Subject like politics. For some, I suppose that's enough.
Ultimately, I'm growing concerned that this is the new direction television is headed. With Netflix, Hulu Plus and countless cable channels, there's an unquenchable demand for content, and only so many ideas (and brilliant minds) available to create what's needed. Isn't it easier to throw a few bucks at some Hollywood stars, slap on a respected name like David Fincher as producer and pump out some flashy, meaningless programming?
Probably. And it's working. Netflix has now made a boatload of bucks on a very ordinary political drama and an even crappier season of the greatest sitcom in modern history. I would not be surprised to look back in 10 years and realize that the era of televised excellence ended around 2013; House of Cards is Jaws. Now that that competent mediocrity has gotten a foothold in television, there may be no going back.