The year 2016 was quite a full year for television series, with something for all tastes. From comedies to thrillers, science fiction to cop shows viewers had a varied menu, including greatly anticipated comebacks such as X-Files. New seasons of Gomorra and House of Cards drew big audiences, while novelty shows like Billions, Vinyl and Outcast were also very popular.
The stories and characters differ, but for the most part they share a common theme: at the centre of each story lies a villain upon whom the entire series revolves. This phenomenon, which plays to the baser instincts of adults and can only have a negative influence on susceptible youths, is seen particularly in House of Cards and Gomorra.
House of Cards: When the villain wins
In March 2011 Netflix, the US distribution platform for online streaming, started producing original content for viewers. The choice fell to House of Cards, a story that tells the tricks and power games of the White House. Production was entrusted to Oscar winner Kevin Spacey, who doubled as the main actor and the executive producer.
The main character, Frank Underwood, is a democratic political majority leader in Congress, consumed by ambition for fame and power. At his side is his wife, Claire Underwood, a cold and calculating woman. An aspiring queen, rather than first lady, she’s an accomplice to ruthless conspiracies for her husband’s rise to power. Love it or hate it, Frank Underwood quickly became an icon for followers, a symbol of the complete absence of scruples that characterizes modern politics. (He was quoted by President Obama.)
Underwood is a man with a lot of charisma, and at the same time a definite anti-hero, whose only objective is to gain power by becoming the President of the United States. His sharp, disdainful remarks clearly reveal him as cynical, opportunistic, underhanded and merciless: “A lion does not ask permission before he eats a zebra”, or, “There are two types of vice-presidents, doormats and matadors; which do you think I intend to be?” Again, “If you have to hurt him, do it in an excessive and unsupportable way so that he understands that you can cause him much more pain than he can cause you.”
But perhaps the phrase that best represents the nature of Frank Underwood and his insatiable thirst for power is the following: “Money is the Mc-mansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who doesn’t see the difference.” He’s a black shark that knows how to navigate dark waters full of other sharks like himself. And the public likes this model! The more politically incorrect House of Cards becomes and the more Frank Underwood stabs and buries his opponents, the more the viewer roots for him and puts him up on a pedestal, rejoicing in the successes of his plots, almost to the point of admiring his devious and opportunistic model.
The success of House of Cards, primarily in Season One, was global and unanimous. Both critics and the public praised this television series. The fourth season, broadcast last northern spring, showed no waning of its popularity. Surely the timing – in the run-up to the November elections — contributed to the show’s success and perhaps drew in new viewers.
The great novelty of House of Cards (and maybe the real reason behind its commercial success) is the complete absence of a hero. The story lacks a good protagonist with positive values (and despite defects and weaknesses) with whom the viewer can identify. The classic good versus bad pattern is missing. There is only the anti-hero, Frank Underwood, who dominates the scene, fighting his political battles against other equally negative characters. In the end, he always wins.
The series presents us with a paradox: the exaltation of the villain, a distressing scenario where there are no references to positive role models, neither political, nor social, nor familial.
Gomorra: Another series with no good guys
Produced in Italy, Gomorra is based on the famous book by the author Roberto Saviano. The second season aired last spring and the series’ success has been huge, not only in Italy, but in 170 other countries. It was distributed by Sky in the UK, HBO in Latin America, and The Weinstein Company in the US. It is considered the most successful Italian product in history, being the only one to receive acclaim from critics and public in the US and beyond.
The plot is simple. It focuses on the Camorra war between two rival groups: the clan of Savastano and the secessionists, who are continually fighting for control of Scampia, a suburb of Naples, and for control of drug and weapon trafficking. Betrayals, reprisals, violence, and plot twists abound, in classic gangster-mafia film fashion. There are no good characters. You don’t see cops or officials who fight the criminal world as their mission, or out of duty. There is no villain who repents and is redeemed, perhaps at the point of death, like Al Pacino in The Godfather.
Here, just as in House of Cards, evil never fights the good. It is only and always a fight among the bad. There is no story of bloodshed that intersects with a love story. The dialogue about the eternal conflict between the good redeemer and the irredeemable villain — or the bad guy who is eventually redeemed — is missing completely from the storyline. The authors seem to assume the challenge of narrating Hell from its bowels, of descending into the darkest and most degrading depths of society where only the devils are capable of dwelling and speaking to that dark and desolate world.
The risk of this approach, however, is to paint completely negative characters — capable of killing innocent children on command, fearlessly and without remorse — in an attractive, charming, and seductive light. If there is no clear condemnation of these crimes and vices, it is easy to (unconsciously) generate empathy and identifiation, or even worse, emulation, in the hearts of young viewers. You can see how this is possible among unemployeed youth, without a future, who swarm like insects under dead leaves in the same suburbs represented by these television series.
In Gomorra, as Robert Saviano himself recently declared, salvation does not exist for anyone. It is a damned world of the damned, where the state, institutions, police, law, civil society, and even mercy, are deliberately and altogether absent. It is a television series that screeches like nails on a chalkboard, empty of dignity and above all, empty of the hope that another world, beyond that of violence and revenge, is really possible.
Both Gomorrah and House of Cards are slated for further seasons in 2017. Perhaps we will see people marching in the streets against such vicious social models.
Fabrizio Piciarelli is the web editor of Rome-based Family and Media, where an earlier version of this article was published.