Streaming Everything but Humanity

There’s a scene in the latest episode of Showtime’s Billions where the Paul Giamatti character (U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades) revels in the fact that his understudy (Bryan Connerty) is as corruptible and ruthless as he is. Only then can he delegate the awesome responsibility of bringing to his knees hedge-fund billionaire Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis). It’s all overwhelmingly depressing, but my wife and I watch it because the characters themselves are interesting and the dialogue is crisp. Last night the word quisling was used. I like when the viewer is not treated like an imbecile.

Not so House of Cards. I get the “smartest man/woman in the room theme” but the “everybody else is an idiot” concept is wearing a little thin. In the past Frank Underhill has outsmarted the former president, killed a young woman by shoving her in front of a subway, and fooled every senator and congressman with whom he has had contact. He has done everything except beat the computer at the game of Go…which will probably happen next season. Throughout, however, his achievements rank a distant second to those of his sociopath wife Claire.

Yes, there are people in the world like the Underwoods and the characters in Billions, but I’m not sure how much longer I can watch their antics without showering at the end.

When these two shows ended last night, I watched The Walking Dead which I had recorded. There was more humanity evident in the first ten minutes of that episode than there has been in a whole season of House of Cards. More questions of right and wrong evolve in this apocalyptic series than are ever dreamt of in Billions. You can root for these survivors—and even for their human enemies—without feeling a bit despicable yourself afterwards.

Frank Underwood isn’t new to the world: Macbeth predates him by a thousand years; but Shakespeare, when he wrote his play based on the historical figure, had the good sense to kill off that particular sociopath before he became a caricature of himself…and after killing off his equally deranged but weaker wife. House of Cards lacks that option—kill off Frank and there’s no series: kill off Claire and that particular executive producer may take her money and go home.

No one can deny that the streaming House of Cards forever changed the way we watched television. Around here it’s about to do it again.

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