Political reality trumps House of Cards

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/15 21:08:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Some friends in China asked me about House of Cards season 5. Sorry, I said, I have nothing to say. In my view, the show has lost its appeal because its plots are no longer as crazy and outlandish as reality.

Sure, in the early part of season 2 when Frank Underwood, who was then vice president, killed a reporter he had slept with by pushing her in front of a train to protect his dirty secrets, I thought things had gone pretty far. This was after season 1 when Underwood killed another congressman. Not possible, I thought.

But now that Donald Trump is in the White House, I am beginning to wonder if it is easier to suspend disbelief watching real events in Washington, D.C. rather than a fictional series.

After Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee (DNC) staffer, was killed in what the police said was a botched robbery last summer, some conspiracy theorists claimed his death was not an accident but related to alleged leaks of DNC emails to Wikipedia. At least to these people, such murders in the US do not only occur in TV series.

But what completely turned me off was season 3 when Claire, the first lady of the US, went to Russia to rescue a jailed gay activist. She spent a night in jail with him, and told the Russian president "shame on you" at a press conference after the activist committed suicide. Impossible, I thought. I stopped following the show after that.

I know the ending of season 5 only because of a spoiler in the New York Post that discussed whether there was still space to make a sixth season given the ending in season 5. It asked, "Do we even need another season of House of Cards?" My answer was no, but for a different reason - when you have a much more thrilling reality show unfolding in Washington, who needs a fictional show to learn how dramatic politics can be?

The real drama has seen new episodes rolling out unceasingly since Trump took over the White House. But the high point so far was former FBI director James Comey's testimony in Congress on June 8 regarding his firing by the president. The episode, by all criteria for show biz hits, was a huge success.

The plot includes the three key elements required to make a good political thriller - there were lies, only we don't know if they were told by Trump, Comey or both; there were calls for the White House to release the videotape of the last private meeting between the president and Comey, if it exists; and when Comey was questioned over his failure to react to inappropriate requests from Trump regarding the FBI's investigation into Russia's alleged involvement in the presidential election, some commentators defended Comey by comparing his situation to women facing sexual harassment at the hands of their boss.

The audience was enthusiastic. The bars in Washington carrying live broadcasts were packed, with people forming queues to get in as early as 6 am, four hours before kick-off. Nationwide 19.5 million people watched the live broadcast of Comey's testimony, almost four times the estimated number of viewers of House of Cards season 4. Those who took time off work to watch the live show cost America $3.3 billion in lost productivity.

As the leading actor, Comey has seen his popularity soar. According to media reports, he can now make $75,000 to $100,000 for a speech and if he wanted to write a book he could earn $10 million. There is also big potential for sequels - though the leading actors in the next two episodes may be Jared Kushner, Trump's senior advisor and son-in-law, and Jeff Sessions, the US Attorney General.

There is, though, one thing I don't like about watching the current reality show - it reminds me of the verbal test for the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), the admissions requirement for most graduate schools in the US, which can destroy your confidence in your English language comprehension in a second.

For example, what does "hope" mean when Trump allegedly told Comey "I hope you can let this go" in reference to the FBI's investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn and his connections with Russian government officials. Was it an order, a suggestion or simply a wish?

What does "loyalty" mean when the president allegedly demanded it from Comey? Was he simply asking his employee to be faithful to his boss or was he asking his employee to do whatever he wanted him to do?

What does "leak" mean when Comey was blamed for giving the content of his memo about his private conversations with the president to a Columbia University professor and directing him to offer it to the media? Does "leak" have to concern classified information, and was this classified information - especially once Comey had been fired?

How you score on these questions depends on whether the test is evaluated by the Republicans or the Democrats. 

And then, for a bonus question, which I am sure no one can answer correctly other than the president himself: What does "covfefe" mean?

The author is a New York-based journalist. rong_xiaoqing@hotmail.com


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