Trump is more Netflix drama than reality TV

It’s startling how closely the Story of Trump is like a binge-worthy TV drama

Yesterday, Netflix released 13 new episodes of House of Cards, a serial drama starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright which portrays the US president (Spacey) as a narcissistic sociopath bent on destroying all democratic norms. Cue tired jokes all round.

The new season does include perjury, leaking, fights with the FBI, sarin gas attacks in Syria and secret back channels to Russia. Despite all that zeitgeist-chasing, though, House of Cards lost its way several years ago, long before Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy. However, like every other product of its sort (here's looking at you, Homeland) it will be parsed for what it supposedly says about the weird historical moment in which we find ourselves. Very little, as it happens.

It’s more interesting to reverse the lens and observe how the Trump carnival has increasingly assumed the contours and texture of a high-end TV drama.

Now generally regarded as the quintessential quality cultural products of our era, TV dramas at their best combine mass popular appeal with real intellectual and storytelling heft. We may now be at the peak of their influence following their remarkable 20-year rise to respectability.


Darker themes

The story is familiar by now. Towards the end of the last century, American TV drama – previously dominated by plodding police procedurals and soapy melodramas – began to get notions. Shows such as Hill Street Blues and ER begat The West Wing, which in turn led to The Sopranos and The Wire. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and others followed. Cable television channels such as HBO, unconstrained by the shackles imposed by advertisers and regulators, produced multilayered narratives with darker themes and morally ambiguous characters.

Such material had previously been been reserved for the better sort of feature film, but the new form had the space, time and – with the arrival of streaming services such as Netflix – money to entice the best writing, acting and directing talent to the previously despised small screen.

It’s not surprising that the dominant storytelling form of our time should influence the way we see the world. What’s startling is how closely the “Story of Trump” now follows the TV serial drama template.

Republican senator Ben Sasse told Politico this week that Donald Trump "comes out of a reality TV world", and that he was anxious about "whether or not that kind of world is really what we want for our kids".

But those who describe this as the first reality TV presidency are doing the administration a disservice. This is an altogether grander and more ambitious production than the badly scripted tat of The Apprentice or Survivor.

If the production values are a little gaudy, that’s purely in the service of plot and character development. Sasse is right: parental guidance is advisable but who knows what kids are watching these days?


As many have noted, the “Trump Show” is both gripping and addictive. But is it sustainable? So far, the omens are good. The best TV shows achieve a satisfying narrative arc over the course of 10 or more hours per season. Outbreaks of high drama are followed by moments of reflection or comic relief. Characters swirl in and out of view, clues are dropped about future plot twists and minor personal flaws become massive turning points. Meanwhile, the central storyline moves inexorably onwards towards (pick your preference) dénouement, resolution, revelation or catastrophe.

Thus the breathless drama of the firing of the head of the FBI (episode title: “High Crimes and Misdemeanours”) is followed by the twisted black comedy of the first presidential foreign trip (“The Glowing Orb”). Various sub-plots – “The Humiliation of Sean Spicer”, “Melania’s Revenge” – simmer along nicely, their potential to explode as yet unexplored. The white-knuckle Macron handshake foreshadows a recurring theme of age and decrepitude in season two.

From Steve Bannon scowling among the sheikhs to vengeful giant James Comey stalking the corridors of Congress, has any drama ever assembled such a supporting cast? Melania Trump may be more Betty Draper from Mad Men than Carmela Soprano, but Jared Kushner is a figure recognisable to anyone who made the acquaintance of Tony Soprano's nephew, Chris. Ivanka Trump is surely primed for her own spin-off.

"I take reality, then I water it down," said Michael Dobbs, creator of the original British-made House of Cards series. "I have to, in order to make it believable." Not any more you don't, but Dobbs does have a point. As the Netflix House of Cards series demonstrated, if you choose to break the bounds of credulity in your first season, you may face difficulties sustaining your conceit further down the line. Thank goodness it's only entertainment.

Hugh Linehan is culture editor