“House of Turds,” said the history-making, howl-inspiring front page of the New York Daily News in response to last week’s government shutdown. Pictured was a Photoshopped image of House Speaker John Boehner sitting on the huge marble throne of the magnificent Lincoln Memorial.
It was the sudden front page use of schoolyard language to describe the actions of one house of Congress that had people doubling over in laughter and waggling their heads. Not since the New York Post’s “Headless Man in Topless Bar” have the New York tabloids given journalists and readers a more outrageous front page to bust their guts over.
But the next thing I registered upon hearing about it was the complete dissolution of what we have all come to call “the old business model” of American television. I’d be willing to bet other critics thought the same thing.
What New York’s big tabloid was telling its subway readers was a play on the title of Kevin Spacey’s show “House of Cards,” as well as a Photoshopped parody of the already-Photoshopped logo of the show, which shows a smug and superior Spacey looking down at the photographer from his perch on the marble Abraham Lincoln’s sculpted throne.
That front page was conclusive proof of the show’s impact. It is now, clearly, a widely familiar American reference on the street.
Now consider the implications of that.
“House of Cards” was created by Netflix from the original British series to be distributed directly to viewers, with no messy middlemen like networks, broadcast or cable. The show bypassed all of the usual armed gates of America’s Entertainment Industrial Complex. What it amounted to was a bunch of brilliantly creative Hollywood people saying, “We don’t need your stinking networks anymore. We’ve got great people eager to make great television. And an audience eager to watch it. And now we’ve got our own new delivery system to bring the two together.”
It’s not television. It’s not HBO either. It’s Netflix, something else entirely. Roll over, cable, and tell the networks the news.
And references to its premier show are so comprehensible to a large general public that they can be featured on the slashing satirical front pages of New York tabloids. (Not to mention the opening of the Emmy broadcast which BEGAN with Spacey in character from the show, introducing it as if “House of Cards” were as much of an American living room fixture as “NCIS” or “Modern Family.”)
It doesn’t mean that what all of us would-be MBAs out here routinely call the “business model” of American television is irretrievably broken. But it is certainly cracked. And like the Liberty Bell, no one’s ever going to fix it. The crack itself is too inspirational.
History will tell us how much the crack widens – and at what speed.
Netflix is among the many companies that have decided, in this new digital era, that sufficient money can be recouped outside the old network models, and that there’s no longer a need to be cowed by ancient shibboleths, terrors and misgivings. Hollywood’s creative classes and America’s smarter consuming classes can be joined in couch potato matrimony any bloody time they want, without all those middle layers of nay-saying executives and those paid to wonder “do you think we really should?”
There’s the rub, of course.
For every freelance revolutionary trained by the Internet to see the joys of constant digital upheaval and overthrow in every overgrown institution, there was bound to be a class of veteran observers who raise their hands in the back of the hall and wonder if the digital elimination of everyone in America’s class of those wondering “Do you think we really should?” is completely desirable.
What the Internet has given us is a world where people can, as yippie hypocrite Jerry Rubin used to advise before crass Yuppiehood claimed him forever, just “do it!” – and consider the fallout later.
I admit to being more than a little drawn to a Brave New Digital World thronged with people who are obeying their inner imperative to just “do it.”
If, for instance, we get TV shows as demonstrably good as the American version of “House of Cards,” why would anyone argue? Or if it gives us tabloid front pages as outrageous and memorable as the New York Daily News’ last week, for that matter? Count me in, even if it means journalists have to review a couple of centuries of journalistic history to remember what was always possible.
If we’re all on the road to hell, it seems to be a lot more fun than anyone ever imagined.
But then, fun isn’t the whole point of civilization, either.
It seems to me, as long as there are genuinely thoughtful critics and other cultural observers trying to wend their way through the wilderness and separate the spit from shinola – a class we’re going to need more than ever – we’re going to be fine, I swear.