TV Club

Man in the High Castle, House of Cards, and the value of dystopian TC in a dystopian era.

Man in the High Castle, House of Cards, and the value of dystopian TV in a dystopian era.

Photo illustration by Slate. Stills by Amazon Studios and Netflix.
House of Cards and The Man in the High Castle.

Photo illustration by Slate. Stills by Netflix and Amazon Studios.

Esteemed TV Club crew:

I can’t believe it’s almost over! I’ve been reading Slate’s various clubs since long before I was in the media (and can prove it!), and discussing TV with the three of you has been a huge highlight of a pretty crappy year.

That said, I wanted to pivot a bit off this whole discussion we’re having about TV drama to acknowledge one of the reasons the most political shows in 2016 were often pure allegory: There’s simply no way your average TV drama can compete with the ridiculousness or ruthlessness of reality any more. (Honestly, Veep might struggle with the same whenever it returns as well, though that show may have made the right choice to leave Washington behind entirely.)

As I write this, I’m watching the second season of The Man in the High Castle, and where I liked the show more or less in Season 1—it was often stuck in neutral, but its last three or four episodes were strong and bade well for Season 2—it’s hard to become engaged by a show about an “alternate America where Nazis are in control” when, at the very least, our current America raises concerns about just how susceptible our political system is to authoritarian fascism, something we’re all going to get to find out about together.

One of the most provocative ideas of High Castle in the first season was that its utter lack of broader diversity—the main cast was mostly white or of Asian descent—ended up being part of the point. In a chilling scene, you realize that many other groups of people had been so completely exterminated that they were either in hiding (a handful of black people, for instance, exist at society’s margins) or trying to pass as good, Aryan folks, practicing Judaism in secret. (Native Americans, it would seem, are just gone, now storybook figures.) And that racial tension threatened at several times to boil over into war between Germany and Japan. It was hard to call any of this “fun” in 2015, even, in the way that Amazon’s “The Nazis are in power, get it?!” promotional campaign for the show often tries to promise, but in 2016, the show is downright depressing. “Look what didn’t happen,” the show said in 2015. “Christ, look what’s happening,” it says in 2016.

And yet there’s a weird hope underlying High Castle, in which art can be used to turn back some of fascism’s power and there’s always a chance that the system can be eroded from within. If all systems are broken, then you can exploit those breaks to your advantage. Far worse off was House of Cards, which surely thought it would mount the craziest presidential election of 2016, then saw reality roll up its sleeves, let out a berserker roar, and scream, “LEMME SEE WHAT YOU GOT!”

I’ve never been a huge fan of House of Cards, but its fourth season was probably its best so far, fitfully attaining the operatic heights departing showrunner Beau Willimon had always taken aim at. The show has always played as a kind of fan fiction about what would happen if all of those conspiracy theories about the Clintons were true—they really were killing people, and they really were conspiring to get themselves back into power, and on and on—but it’s hard to embrace this as kicky fiction in a year when it became apparent that lots and lots of people thought House of Cards was a documentary, and its events were filmed in real time.

I gave Season 4 of the show a positive shoulder shrug of a review back when it launched, but I wonder, increasingly, if I will have patience for this kind of show, which insists that politics is a mug’s game, for cynics and despots only, or which invites us to watch as evil men do dark things for no discernible reason except that the audience is supposed to enjoy watching them be awful. Certainly, those sorts of shows have become less and less interesting with every passing year, and certainly, you can still make a good version of that show. But “power belongs to the corrupt” is the sort of theme where it’s not hard to feel as if art and life are swallowing each other’s tails.

I don’t want to suggest that our penchant for dark serialized television created Donald Trump or anything like that. That would be stupid. But we’ve always enjoyed these shows as a kind of break from reality. Should reality become more like them, what sorts of stories might we enjoy instead?

That’s why Halt and Catch Fire ended up in my top spot. It’s a show that’s superficially about an antihero. Lee Pace’s character, Joe, has all the classic hallmarks of one. But the writers very quickly realized, early on, that making the show all about Joe was a losing proposition. They pivoted to more of an ensemble drama around Season 1’s midpoint, then reconfigured their show to focus on its women in Season 2, then found a way to bring Joe back into the fold in Season 3. It was thrilling to watch—seemingly improvised and planned all at once. When I finished watching the third season, I had to get up and walk around my block, because the story felt so full of possibility and danger and hope. I wish the show could run a million years, but I am happy it will get four, before it can wear out its welcome.

If I look at the dramas I love now, they’re the ones that venture back toward the ensemble format that was popular before The Sopranos came along. I’ve made the argument that Orange Is the New Black was a great harbinger of this trend (and the trend toward greater TV diversity), but the dramas on my list are all, to varying degrees, what I call “empathy dramas,” or shows that push so far beyond the old workplace drama model of the ’80s and ’90s that they feel, at times, as if they’re about whole communities and whole worlds. On The Americans, for instance, you get the sense that the show could suddenly pivot and be about any random guest character Philip and Elizabeth are trying to work to their advantage that week, because the show understands the moral weight of doing evil things. In the 2000s, America wanted to act with impunity; in the 2010s, we’re sick to our stomachs about it. Even if these stories take place in the past, we’re dealing with a long hangover we can’t quite shake. Shows like Halt and Catch Fire and The Americans couldn’t be more timely, even when they’re set in the ’80s.

This is why I believe poor, beleaguered Mr. Robot, as much as Season 2 struggled, is still the show of the moment. While the first half of Season 2 was messy, it did something necessary—it got Elliot out of the way so the series could develop its supporting cast in a way Season 1 never did. The show needed a character like Grace Gummer’s Dom, a whip-smart adversary who, nevertheless, isn’t so sure about her own life and goals or the agency she works for (the FBI).

What I like about the show, still, is that it presumes that all of the conspiracy theories you believe are true (like House of Cards!), but it says that this doesn’t matter, that even if the global economic system is designed specifically to crush you, your greatest responsibility is to the person sitting next to you on the subway. The season’s strongest hour featured no Elliot at all but, instead, a bunch of characters who had had their own perspectives shattered and fractured by being swayed by his worldview, and at its center was this incredibly compelling idea: The world works to dehumanize you already. Why would you dehumanize someone else?

Yet we do, each and every single day. As we head into a new world, I want to circle back to something Willa brought up on day one: How does television respond to that new world? It could retreat into escapism, or it could tackle the new politics head on, or it could do both or neither. Ideally, it will do all of these things, sometimes within the same show.

What we need, most of all, at this moment, is for television to continue doing what it does best: reflecting the America we all know and still believe is possible, while acknowledging that ideal is vastly different for many, many people. I’m not going to say that art is more vital than ever (though Man in the High Castle would love if I did), but it would be really nice if it stepped up to the plate in 2017 and 2018 and every year thereafter.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got the entire second season of The Path to watch, and I have a feeling it’s going to become a superhero show. Fingers crossed. Best to you all.

Really sad I didn’t get around to John Turturro’s eczema, too,

Todd