Inside the News with Peter Mansbridge

Last Updated: Aug 8, 2013 11:16 AM ET

You think real politicians are bad?

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Kevin Spacey as U.S. congressman Frank Underwood in the Netflix series, House of Cards. (Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix/Associated Press)

By Mark Bulgutch and Peter Mansbridge

The mayor of a big city has a major problem with illegal drugs. A member of his family has connections to people who can supply those drugs. Does that sound like a story ripped from the headlines? Well, it's not.

It's from a TV series called Boss. Kelsey Grammer plays Tom Kane, the mayor of Chicago. His drug addiction is linked to a fatal brain disease. His daughter is a more typical drug addict and the mayor uses her to score his pharmaceuticals.

It's fiction. I understand. But Boss is just one of the shows on TV that makes politics look dirtier than an open sewer. Tom Kane is so ruthless and cold-blooded, he makes Machiavelli look like Santa Claus. He has the ears cut off a political opponent. He strong-arms his doctor to disappear, lest someone find out from her that he's sick. He has his daughter arrested. He sends hit men to kill a nurse, his personal assistant, and a city alderman. And that's just in the first season.

What's going on here? The program is so over-the-top you might think it would be laughed off the air. But no, instead it was nominated for a Golden Globe as best drama.

And critics like a couple of other programs that purport to show us how politics really works.

House of Cards is set in Washington. Its larger than life protagonist is Francis Underwood, the House Majority Whip (played by Kevin Spacey). He's a master of manipulation. He's a man who uses power without even once consulting a moral guidebook. And did I mention he murders a congressman? He doesn't just arrange it, or order it. He commits the act with his own hands. Yet by the end of season one, he's been asked to be Vice-President of the United States.

Finally, there's Scandal, the number one 10 p.m. drama in the United States among adults 18-49. It's also one of the few shows that true fans watch live so they can participate in social media chats. The New York Times reports there are 190,000 tweets about the show every episode. The good guys on this program have used a power drill to torture someone, stolen a presidential election by rigging voting machines in Ohio, and falsely accused the director of the CIA of treason, leading to his suicide. I say again - the good guys did all that. The President is another good guy. Okay, he murdered someone, a Supreme Court justice no less, but he was having a bad day at the time.

I'm no drama critic, but even I can see that all of this realpolitik programming is beautifully produced. Well-shot. Well-edited. Well-acted. And no one is pretending these are documentaries. But because they're so highly regarded, I worry about what average viewers take away. They're entertained, which is fine. But the mayor has a hitman. The vice president and the president are murderers. And that's packaged as business as usual.

I wonder if it's possible that watching all this hyper-sleaze will desensitize us to the real thing. Right now we're easily upset when we find that a politician has a hand in the cookie jar. But a little bribery, a little fiddling with an expense account, a little kickback on a contract, they all seem like juvenile hijinks compared to murder. Is that how we'll be thinking in a few years? That may seem like an alarmist position, but popular and critically acclaimed television programs have a large influence on how we think.

There's plenty of evidence that exposure to media violence makes a person more willing to accept it. Maybe someone should study the effects of murderous politicians on TV.



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