“Start with a charming but morally corrupted protagonist (usually a male) and throw him into a world populated by weak and compromised souls. Mix in explicit sex…Then intersperse those with non-plot-essential asides to give the show a “novelistic” feel, such as aspirational period or fancy dress…”
If you’ve glanced at a television anytime in the last decade, you’ll know what Richard Rushfield of BuzzFeed is describing here: The prestige cable dramas that are said to have displaced film as America’s cultural temple. (Andy Greenwald over at Grantland has a similar line on this: “The period setting — a crutch that, if we’re being honest, has become the Auto-Tune to cable TV’s pop radio…”)
But even as Don, Tony, Walt, and Nucky, captured dozens of Emmy statuettes and the attention of every media critic on the East Coast and beyond, the shows that reveal their souls–Mad Men in particular–are viewed only by a precious few.
In his piece on the media-hyperventilation over Netflix’s new series, House of Cards, Rushfield reminds us that while these respected programs on moral decay are critically praised, their cultural importance is largely overstated.
Sketching a brief history of “important television,” Rushfield contends that networks like HBO and AMC desperately seek the praise of TV taste makers: social media power users, journalists and art critics. And in this cultural chatterbox insulated with echoed hype, it’s easy to forget that these “adult” shows serve a small and select crowd. Rushfield writes, “while buzz is great, in the end it’s no substitute for actual viewers or subscribers, even if those viewers are more “desirable” upscale viewers.”
With Netflix and House Of Cards, critics are taking the logic of post-golden television to the next, absurd level: First, Tony Soprano killed network TV, now streaming will crush cable and Don Draper. (Netflix released all 13 episodes of House Of Cards at once, which is novel. The show is directed by David Fincher: Seven, Fight Club, and The Social Network and stars Kevin Spacey, aka Seven’s John Doe. Netflix’s series follows a cutthroat politician and, also noted on BuzzFeed, is wildly popular with Capitol Hill staffers and journalists – further proving Rushfield’s point: your perceived twitterverse is actually just a tiny solar system.)
“All of this is not to say that networks should not make shows that they consider quality fare, or that journalists shouldn’t write about them,” Rushfield concludes. “But when doing so, they should bear in mind that just because the group it appeals to is an elite niche, that doesn’t make it any less of a niche.”