Will The Public’s Desire For Alternate Reality Bring About Change?

The recent Global Financial Crisis left millions of people around the world with a sour taste in their mouths after they suffered financially and socially. Subsequently many people have held the government and the rich, otherwise known as the one percent, responsible. Since then a number of US television productions have invested in this trend, each with one key aim in their storyline, to hold the one percent accountable for their actions in an alternative reality. House of Cards and Revenge are two examples of programs that use this theme to give their audience a sense of justice in respects to politics and social hierarchy. Therefore, do these programs prove that not all mass media is conservative, whereby audiences are invited to experience an alternative reality that doesn’t benefit the one percent?

Firstly, House of Cards follows the story of Francis Underwood, a determined Democratic congressman who is left disgruntled after President Garrett Walker backs out on their agreement to place Underwood in the Secretary of State position. This leads Underwood and his wife, Claire, to make a pact to take down the President and gain presidential power. The character of Francis, portrayed by Kevin Spacey, is a complex and malicious one. Ultimately though Francis becomes an anti-hero, regardless of the fact that he has a lack of moral compass for those who stand in the way of his hidden agenda.

This program has captivated Americans and the world by reinvigorating the recently “stagnating” American political landscape. Kevin Spacey, who is also an executive producer, told Alastair Campbell in an interview with GQ that House of Cards is successful because “even though it is fictional, and the guy has Machiavellian traits, he is getting things done.” Furthermore, the series has received much critical acclaim with the most recent accolade being Robin Wright’s Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV Series, Drama for her portrayal as Claire Underwood.

Robin Wright (left) as Claire Underwood, First Lady of the United States and former US Ambassador to the United Nations, alongside Kevin Spacey (right) as Francis Underwood, President of the United States.
Robin Wright (left) as Claire Underwood, First Lady of the United States and former US Ambassador to the United Nations, alongside Kevin Spacey (right) as Francis Underwood, President of the United States.

On the other hand, Revenge is based on Emily Thorne’s mission to clear her father’s name after the wealthy Grayson family framed him for a terrorist act. Essentially this act of malice causes Emily to change her identify, undertake grueling training and move back to the Hamptons years later to seek revenge. Each episode Emily and her allies take down a person who played a role in the framing of her father, all of which have a high social standing. Like House of Cards there are many political elements present throughout, although the key element in this program is that of social structure.

Revenge has also seen a great deal of success. In 2011 Neilsen’s ranked it as the seventh most engaging primetime television program of the year. This category looked at the degree of information viewers retained after watching the program, this could perhaps be because  the program’s messages provoked genuine thought within the audience concerning the world around them.

Emily VanCamp (left) as Emily Thorne, who is seeking revenge on Madeleine Stowe's character Victoria Grayson
Emily VanCamp (left) as Emily Thorne, who is seeking revenge on Madeleine Stowe’s character Victoria Grayson (right).

Similarly, George Meyer, writer and producer of The Simpsons, believes that the purpose of The Simpsons is “to get people to re-examine their world, and specifically, the authority figures in their world.” This purpose is clearly compatible with those that House of Cards and Revenge represent. The ideology of political and social alternatives that benefits the greater good, from the viewpoint of within, allows the audiences to reevaluate their view of the world. Jonathon Gray, of Fordham University, reiterates this and concludes his case study with the idea that programs such as The Simpsons and The Daily Show, although humorous, are important voices in mass media and do assist to construct the public sphere.

All of these programs craft a message that allows people to rethink how their world is shaped and to escape to an alternative reality. In regards to House of Cards, Alastair Campbell asked Kevin Spacey a candid question: “What does it say about the public that they would hate Francis Underwood if he was a real politician but they love him as a fictional one?” This is exactly what George Meyer was referring to. House of Cards portrays the idea that the values of contemporary politics need to be modified to ensure that America becomes progressive once again, even if that means making sacrifices.

Ultimately programs like House of Cards, Revenge and The Simpsons allow the audience to experience an alternative reality and to rethink the society that they live in from a political and social point of view. The belief that meaningful change is being countered by a political environment that is not productive and that the social elite are a product of our own consumption need to be openly discussed. For it is us, the people, who ultimately set the agenda and influence culture with the assistance of conservative and alternative mass media.


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