Obama’s drawn to doom and gloom on TV


Actor Kevin Spacey’s character is ruthless in ‘House of Cards.’
Actor Kevin Spacey’s character is ruthless in ‘House of Cards.’

Bloomberg News

After Christmas dinner, I intended to begin a holiday-season television binge. As I often do with things that could be entirely recreational, I made my watching into work: Given how hard it is to get into President Obama’s head, I decided to get into his viewing habits. I tuned into programs he says he watches.

I hit limits. I couldn’t get beyond the point in Breaking Bad where the high school teacher turned meth dealer begins to take pleasure in selling drugs and killing rivals. Game of Thrones was too period-costumey and gory. Mad Men is so yesterday, though the president struck a chord with his observation that it was a reminder of how hard it must have been for his grandmother to work at a bank in the Don Draper era.

There were still plenty of shows to choose from. I dipped back into House of Cards, in preparation for the new season in February, and devoured Homeland. Both are dark and twisted tales in which the knife is hidden but will be used. Why doesn’t the president take a break from the real-world snake pit he’s in with, say, The Voice?

Obama hearted Cards just a few weeks ago when he took aside Netflix Chief Executive Officer Reed Hastings at a White House meeting of technology gurus to discuss problems with Obama said he wished he could be “ruthlessly efficient” like Kevin Spacey’s Machiavellian character, Frank Underwood, who is “getting a lot of stuff done.” His skill set includes killing, sleeping with a reporter who prints his every word and conspiring with his wife to do in the politicians who deprived him of his appointment to be secretary of state.

The chilliest pair since the Macbeths, the Underwoods have no counterpart in the real Capitol, where the denizens are more like Henry Higgins (“oozing charm from every pore, he oils his way across the floor”). Whatever you think of House Speaker John Boehner, it isn’t his style to strangle a dog with his bare hands as Underwood so breezily did, but to kick back with a merlot and a pack of Camel Ultra Lights.

Before Obama poured his charm on Hastings, he made awfully nice with the cast of Showtime’s Homeland. Its two stars — Claire Danes, who plays the beautiful, bipolar Central Intelligence Agency officer, and Damian Lewis, who plays Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody — have scored invitations to the White House. Lewis, who is British, was seated at the president’s table last year at a state dinner for U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron. Obama famously guards his privacy, but he told Lewis that he keeps current with the show on Saturday afternoons when the first lady takes their daughters to play tennis.

Those kids must play a lot of tennis. I’m behind on Homeland, but the leader of the free world isn’t. I dipped into the first two seasons to get in the mood and then found I wanted to fast forward through the third. The plot is repeating itself and the hacks (Sen. Andrew Lockhart, the CIA critic) are more interesting than the crazed heroes, including the agency’s acting director Saul Berenson (whose wife has let a lover into his bedroom and a spy into his computer), and Danes’ Carrie Mathison, who is out to clear Brody, the father of her child, of charges that he bombed CIA headquarters.

Still, it’s easy to see why the president got hooked: Is Brody a loyal Marine, happily back with his family after a long captivity, or is he a terrorist, radicalized by a U.S. drone strike that killed a child he had been tutoring?

That plot got at the complexities of Obama’s world as the president grappled with killing Osama bin Laden and trying to figure out who is friend and who is foe in the Middle East, and who might turn from one to the other, in Iran, Libya, Russia and Syria.

I didn’t get to the final episode. But without reading too much into the president’s TV viewing, isn’t sticking with a show gone bad like keeping those who bungled Obamacare on staff? Move on, turn the channel, already. There’s a new Washington show, CBS’ Hostages, in which the president’s doctor is being pushed to kill him during surgery. And no, not because of Obamacare.

Obama told People magazine that the family watches Parks and Recreation and Modern Family but that his tastes run darker. That’s an understatement. His favorites are among the gloomiest shows on TV, if you leave out Scandal, which takes its major plotline from the incident that got Bill Clinton impeached amid the black holes and casual homicides from 24.

Instead, the president’s list should include HBO’s Veep, which captures Washington’s tragi-comic side and whose cast has visited the real vice president. The running joke is Vice President Selina Meyer’s first question upon returning to her office: Has the president called? He never has. Spot on is Jonah, a supercilious, low-level aide in the West Wing who becomes king of all he surveys upon entering the lowly VP’s suite. Ask most cabinet officials how close that is to their lot in life.

Things could be worse for the president. He might have had to climb the greasy pole of politics with a stop as vice president. Being No. 2? That’s dark.

© 2014, Bloomberg News

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