PARIS — Some say that television shows are to our time what serials were to 19th century literature, an inexhaustible source of entertainment and conversations. During "urbane dinners," it has become obligatory to demonstrate knowledge of this new cultural front.
"Tell me which shows you watch and I'll tell you who you are." Besides the irony, if not snobbery, the genre has long achieved recognition of the highest level. We could venture as far as to say that TV shows have become indispensable keys to understanding the world we live in, from domestic politics to geopolitics.
For instance, to understand the policy differences between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama on the Iran nuclear issue, referring to television dramas proves to be the most useful of shortcuts. Suffice to say that "Bibi" is still in the third season of Homeland while Obama has already moved on to the third season of House of Cards and has therefore integrated the Russian threat in his strategical schemes.
In reality, television shows are as much an indicator of the debates brewing in our societies as a mirror that reminds us of our fears and hopes. These shows can be a premonition of our future as much as an often idealized reconstruction of our past. Julian Fellowes, the writer of what is perhaps today's most popular series, Downton Abbey, was recently pondering the reasons behind his creation's success. Why are millions of viewers in Europe, the U.S. and even Asia so passionate about the adventures of the Crawley family and their servants? Is it the longing for a bygone past or just a fascination about the social relationships that could exist inside an English castle?
Fellowes believes there is a nostalgia for order in our chaotic world, and in particular an unconscious need for stricter rules. This is what Downton Abbey offers to a disoriented, if not distraught, public. The TV show serves as an exotic shelter, in space — an English castle — and time — from 1912 to the mid 1920s. Like its characters, we are also caught between two worlds, unaware of the profound changes that are about to take place and hungry for a shelter to protect us from the present, not to mention the future.
Good vs. evil
The contrast between The West Wing and House of Cards is probably the best possible introduction to the current dysfunction in American politics. The West Wing describes with nostalgia the presidency as it should be, under the leadership of a cultivated and humanist man. With House of Cards, we leave the world of ideals for one where the doom and gloom is barely exaggerated. We've left Pierre Corneille for Jean Racine.
Showtime's Homeland — Photo: Facebook page
In France, the investigation drama Engrenages (the English version is called Spiral) prepared its viewers for the terror attacks of January 2015. In its fifth season in particular, the show presented viewers with the growing unease inside French society, the clinical description of the drift in the suburbs. It portrayed the absolute cynicism and verbal violence between the judicial system and the police, and dialogues that could almost have come directly from the corridors of power in Paris.
In Denmark, meanwhile, it has become common to hear that the country's current prime minister is far from possessing the qualities of Birgitte Nyborg, the main character and idealized prime minister in the very popular series Borgen, featuring a woman in power.
But there's one TV show in particular that is the subject of very serious debates inside international relations departments within the entire English-speaking world, the medieval fantasy series Game of Thrones. Does it encourage us to adopt a more realistic view of the world by focusing on the role played by force in its most brutal manifestation?
Could it even have encouraged jihadists in their barbaric beheading methods? Or, on the contrary, does this show make us reflect on the limits of force? As a matter of fact, Game of Thrones manages to reflect rather faithfully a mixture of fascination and fear towards today's international landscape.
TV shows are not an American monopoly, and yet, isn't the mirror they present to the world distorted by the unquestionable Anglo-Saxon domination in that area?
I don't know whether Chinese or Russian leaders take the time to watch shows such as House of Cards or Game of Thrones to understand the evolution of their opponent's mind-sets. But I do know that their close advisers definitely do. Many of them are very much aware of the twists and turns in these series, and hide their quest for entertainment behind their "professional" interests (unless it's the other way around). But, TV series have become one of the ways to interpret and understand geopolitics in a globalized world.