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Asking If the House of Cards Is Realistic Is the Wrong Question

Sunday Night on Virtually Speaking Digby and I talked about the Leonard Nimoy’s passing and how fiction and fictional characters can shape people’s attitudes.  (podcast link here.)

Today some friends who work in the world of politics were discussing House of Cards. Some loved it, some hated it.  I don’t really move in those specific circles so before the discussion I wanted to know, “Is it realistic?”
A professional musician friend asked,

Does anyone really expect a TV show about politics to be a more realistic representation of that life and that process than the Monkees represented a life of trying to make it as a young band in theirs?

This seems like such an obvious point I realized that I was NOT asking the question that the producers and writers of the show were asking themselves, which is, “Is it entertaining?

Last night I watched a movie called “Harmontown” about the creator of Community, Dan Harmon. He talked about his deep desire to entertain people. He craved the satisfaction he got knowing his writing made people laugh, smile or feel better.

I watch a lot of fiction on tv. I also read a lot of fiction. I sometimes forget that my attitudes are shaped by people whose goal is to entertain.

If people think that it’s a “message movie” it will often turn them off. “I don’t want people to ram their message down my throat!” they say, even if they might agree with the message. When the question, “Is it entertaining?” is answered first, any message it might also have slides in more subtly and perhaps more effectively.

A message that writers of TV and movies have been sending for a long time is torture is effective. On tv and movies they show it is effective in getting non-false, new information in a short time.  They show the threat of torture is effective. It has become so ingrained in our thinking that when confronted with the reality of torture, reality is questioned, not the fiction.

The fiction that we see in our movies and TV shows are designed to be entertaining. Torture, and the threat of torture, serve the needs of the writers in these cases. It can make the story more dramatic, horrifying, gruesome, sexy and even funny. Its use serves a major goal of fiction, entertainment.

Torture’s use can move the story forward, show character traits, tap into viewer or readers empathy or fear.

When the Senate report on torture came out showing that actionable intelligence was not obtained by torture, it seemed to go against what we knew from fiction or what we read and heard about from the “real” world and “the dark side” that Cheney talked about.

This “non-fiction” about torture is coming from a media that gets their info from an entire group of people in the CIA whose job it was to push the lie that torture got them intel.

Interestingly for some media, torture not working goes against their “common sense.” A sense based on school yard experience and low tolerance for pain.

“I would totally spill the beans if I was tortured!” They might say. This assumes they knew about the beans in the first place.

“I would torture if we needed that bomb location.” They would say on their TV show. This assumes the person they are torturing knows the bomb location, is just like us and not someone who would rather die than “spill the beans.”

So the question is, if fiction better mirrored the reality of torture, would it still be entertaining? I don’t mean fun or likable, but entertaining in its broadest sense.

I haven’t seen American Sniper, but I understand that it is an entertaining movie. I think about another entertaining film from Clint Eastwood, one that had a killer as a lead character. A movie that helped change attitudes toward a fictional character we believed we knew.

The Schofield Kid: [after killing a man for the first time] It don’t seem real… how he ain’t gonna never breathe again, ever… how he’s dead. And the other one too. All on account of pulling a trigger.

Will Munny: It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.

The Schofield Kid: Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming.

Will Munny: We all got it coming, kid.

The fictional movies and TV shows that flip the idea of a “heroic torturer” and effectiveness of torture on its head might be out there, but they aren’t coming through with the same power as other fictions.

If these ideas do start showing up in our fiction, I believe the writers can make them as useful to their stories as their previous ideas on torture, and just as entertaining.

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spocko

spocko

A brain in a box.

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