It seems as though the television landscape has become increasingly cynical, or at least as far as Washington is concerned. Idealistic shows like The West Wing have been replaced with jaded programming that seeks to paint Capitol Hill in either darker, more sinister colors – as in House of Cards – or lighter, absurd tones, like in Veep.
The commonality is an abiding sense of cynicism, whether it be at the ruthless efficiency of ascendant politicians, or the pervasive incompetence of the entire legislative branch. And taken as a whole, this new generation of television manages to skewer every player climbing up the ladder to Capitol Hill. Amazon’s Alpha House focuses on a group of jockeying Republican Senators; Netflix’s House of Cards centers around the aspirations of the Democratic Whip; HBO’s Veep eponymously lampoons the office of the Vice President, and ABC’s Scandal has no compunctions about salaciously decking down Commander-in-Chief.
For the viewer, then, the result is a feeling that no party, and no office, is truly safe from cynicism. Perhaps the only branch of government left somewhat sacred is that of the Supreme Court, but given the current trend, one might almost think that Night Court may soon return in SCOTUS edition.
It is quite possible that this pessimistic pivot stems from several sources. The public likely feels irritation over a frustrated executive branch and a plodding Congress, who have struggled to enact change in major areas like financial reform, immigration and healthcare. And given the trend of increased governmental transparency – WikiLeaks, recent NSA disclosures, and overall rapidity of traditional and social media – the Oval Office is longer as opaque as it once was, a considerable shift from even President Bartlett’s tour of duty in the early-2000s. Lastly, the trend toward more niche programming has been well-documented; that HBO, Amazon, and Netflix figure prominently in this entertainment calculus speaks to the increasing move away from traditional network TV, and the ability of content producers to develop edgier, and certainly less-reverent programming.
This new cynicism may, arguably, have provided television with some necessary realpolitik, and, perhaps, real politics with some necessary reflection. Ultimately, one can’t help but feel that Mr. Smith has certainly left Washington and returned home. Chances are, he’s a Netflix subscriber.