I’d say Netflix’s House of Cards was a guilty pleasure (not that Hollywood produces guiltless pleasures anymore), but that would be underselling how deeply disturbing its success has been. On the surface, its appeal is readily understood: its sleazy shock factor conducts an electric new energy and lurid vibrancy to a tired old narrative. It’s Shakespearean tragedy fully modernized with graphic sex, violence and profanity: Iago Unchained. The result is intoxicating, addictive – I plowed through the first two seasons in the space of a few weeks – but with the hangover comes a chilling realization. This story is not set in some Machiavellian medieval state where murder and coups d’état were routine, but in America, land of the free and home of the brave. Nor does Frank Underwood fit into the tragic anti-hero archetype: this is Palpatine, not Vader. Here he comes, the Evil Emperor, marching through our most revered and cherished political institutions, corrupting and subverting all he touches, trampling all who resist, and at times I catch myself rooting for him!
Let’s assume that I’m not a lonely deviant and other viewers feel similarly. How were we so easily seduced to forsake the red, white and blue for the dark side? It was only a few generations ago that Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart made us believe that one good man could foil a corrupt D.C. establishment in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. So how did we go from Mr. Smith to Mr. Sith? Thankfully, a greater mind than mine has already tackled these questions in exhaustive or at least exhausting fashion. In case my excessive Star Wars references hadn't already tipped you off, I am speaking of George Lucas and his prequel trilogy.
Moving away from the elegant moral simplicity of his original trilogy, Lucas set out to answer a pair of dilemmas with obvious parallels to my own: how could a peaceful republic give rise to an evil empire and how could a righteous defender of said republic transform into a minion of its destroyer? Like Queen Amidala in the third film, the resulting movies are stiff, overwrought (if occasionally pretty) and mostly incomprehensible, but pregnant with valuable insights that can be rescued from their moribund host.
Our first clue comes from the glaring absence of a crucial element of the original trilogy: likable good guys. The qualities that made Luke, Leia and Han likable are the same that made them successful in defeating the Empire: infectious enthusiasm for their cause and a powerful combination of moral clarity and courage. These were the same type of qualities that made Jimmy Stewart so powerful a figurehead for American optimism in Mr. Smith and similar roles in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and It’s a Wonderful Life (heck, we can even throw in Fievel Goes West). They were also the qualities that got Ronald Reagan elected – it’s no coincidence that Reagan felt so comfortable co-opting Star Wars terminology for his policies. And it is the utter lack of these qualities that doom the prequels’ Anakin, Amidala and their Jedi friends to failure.
The prequel heroes are so fundamentally dislikable that I’ve almost convinced myself that it was intentional – that this was Lucas’ version of Idiocracy (no one hates on Mike Judge for populating his worlds with irritating morons). Amidala is one of the most flagrant examples. Lucas has surgically removed any organs producing charm, character or feeling. Under the pretext of shielding her from assassination, he has surrounded her with look-alikes and rendered her indistinguishable from them under metric tons of make-up and fabric. The same pretext prompts her to affect a mind-numbing monotone when pleading to the Senate for justice; imagine Ben Stein as Mr. Smith in the famous filibuster scene and you’ll get the idea. Or just watch C-SPAN. Of course Amidala isn’t the only offender. Anakin’s a pouty psychopath with all the charisma and sex appeal of Elliot Rodger. Obi-Wan and his Jedi confreres squint and squirm their way through moral dilemmas in a constant state of mystic constipation.
Perhaps the best case for the prequels as Lucas’ Idiocracy is Jar Jar Binks, the alien rube who gets set-up in the exact same role as Mr. Smith – as a patsy Senator for a nefarious conspiracy. If it were Mike Judge instead of George Lucas, Jar Jar would win the Chancellorship and run the galaxy into the ground a la President Hector Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho. But Lucas, uninhibited by the comedian’s tendency to prophesy the most ridiculous outcome, offers a soberer outcome: Jar Jar makes the decisive motion to confer dictatorial powers to the evil Palpatine.
Can it be a coincidence that it is the failure of Jar Jar – the most blatantly idiotic and universally reviled character in the prequels – to live up to the example of Mr. Smith that paves the way for the rise of the Sith Lord? Or that Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine is the only character with anything approaching gravitas in the entire trilogy? Whether coincidentally or intentionally made, the argument is the same: that a dearth of likable heroes leads to increasing appeal for even the most despicable tyrants. Given the choice of benign mediocrity and malignant excellence, the majority will choose the latter.
The absence of a credible champion like Mr. Smith or Luke Skywalker to validate our belief in the Republic is felt as keenly across the culture as it is in the Star Wars microcosm. In the years since the close of the first trilogy and the end of Reagan’s presidency, our on- and off-screen political heroes have fallen precipitously in the public graces, drifting into irrelevance or stumbling into ridicule. Harrison Ford was the heir apparent – part John Wayne, part Jimmy Stewart, all American – but his various American heroes were always too busy saving their own families to serve any public interests. Kevin Costner had the earnest idealism and the common man bona fides but deep-sixed his career on post-apocalyptic bombs. Independence Day’s idea of a neo-Stewart to restore a fallen America was Prince Valium from Spaceballs. Dennis Haysbert and Morgan Freeman both got turns as soothingly deep voiced statesmen, but their generic appeals to the American people are now almost indistinguishable from their ubiquitous commercials. Aaron Sorkin made perhaps the most serious effort, attempting to recreate the Kennedy urbane crusader persona in American President and West Wing as an alternative to the Stewart archetype. It failed to catch on, overwhelmed by the torrent of anti-Presidential snark unleashed by 16 consecutive years of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, interspersed with Bob Dole’s Viagra ads.
With such competitors for public affection, it’s no wonder that Frank Underwood’s bloody march to the highest office in our Republic should elicit more cheers than tears (or even fears, to keep the poetry flowing). Our pride in our political institutions has eroded under a succession of buffoons and mediocrities to the point that we can’t help but celebrate strength and competence in whatever form it arrives. When we've run out of real American heroes, we run into real American villains.