When Politics get ‘Scandal’-ous

While Duke students were tanning on the beach, skiing in Aspen, or visiting friends this spring break, I was having an adventure of my own: watching two straight seasons of Netflix’s most recent political drama, “House of Cards.” It was like I was still at school: watching was time consuming (almost twenty five hours), stressful (will Kevin Spacey outsmart the Chinese businessmen? Will the congressional candidate cheat on his girlfriend and break his sobriety?), and altogether educational. My limited US Government knowledge was tested as the line to the presidency was manipulated, the majority whip rounded up votes, and legal lines were crossed. I, along with millions of Americans, got the up-close view of the White House; the drama behind the scenes, and the real story of lust, betrayal, and dysfunctionality behind the carefully calculated statements politicians release to the public.

After dedicating hours and hours of my life to these realistic, disturbing, and overwhelmingly captivating political dramas, I’ll remind you all: take it with a grain of salt.

“House of Cards” is just one of dozens of political TV shows created in the past few years. Three of my personal favorites – USA’s “Suits,” Showtime’s “Homeland,” and, of course, ABC’s “Scandal” – capture the ‘real picture’ of the American government while simultaneously throwing viewers more drama, scandal, corruption, and intrigue than all the hospitals of Grey’s Anatomy, Scrubs, and ER combined. Of course, the question must be asked: how much of this is an accurate representation, and how much is just to keep viewers watching?

For me, the plausibility of it all is the most intriguing. Government scandals surface regularly.  Lying in bed over break, “House of Cards” took me down the path of corrupted finances, as government prosecutors traced illegal donations from businessmen straight to the White House. Sitting downstairs eating breakfast an hour later, The Washington Post revealed the corrupt fundraising of DC’s own mayor Vincent Gray, implicating high-ranking DC officials and practically mirroring the fictional drama I hoped to return to soon.

Political dramas take in Americans’ fears, misconceptions, and uncertainties about the inner workings of our government and exploit them, sometimes with strangely prophetic results. Season two of “Scandal” introduced a top-secret NSA surveillance program titled “Thorngate” that could spy on any American under the pretext of “counterterrorism.” Sound familiar? Six months later, Edward Snowden leaked top-secret NSA documents detailing American programs doing exactly that.

Although the personal lives of top government officials have become an unparalleled fascination of the American people, the drama extends past the White House. At the 2013 Oscars, three of the nine movies nominated for Best Picture were political dramas – “Lincoln,” “Argo,” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” All three were based off of real events, two from the recent news.

News reports on the attack on Osama Bin Laden, the recent attacks in Benghazi, the constant question of drone strikes, secret anti-terrorist organizations, and elite soldiers in the Middle East leave Americans with more questions than answers. Reading the newspaper or statements from officials, I get the sense I’m being lied to or manipulated to keep up an image.

Luckily for all us clueless citizens, “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Homeland,” and other political dramas take us off our couches, ellipticals, or library cubicles, and into the heart of the Middle East. We are there as Nicholas Brody suffocates the head of the Revolutionary Guard in Iran, and watch in disgust as the US effectively cuts ties with him, leaving one of our stranded in hostile territory while assuring the American people they have no affiliation.

I have no shame in admitting that I am one of millions who has watched religiously as networks have transformed the messy world of politics into a glamorous, glitzy, and elite universe. The money, the lust, the ease with which stars manipulate those around them tugs on every American’s deepest desires for power and fame. And I love it.

After dedicating hours and hours of my life to these realistic, disturbing, and overwhelmingly captivating political dramas, I’ll remind you all: take it with a grain of salt. The president is not sleeping with his campaign manager, nor are CIA officials with known terrorists. The presidential election was not rigged by teams of conniving strategists and political murders are not covered up daily. The complex “behind the scenes” actions are not as manipulative, scandalous, or intriguing as networks would love for their viewers to believe. Right?


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