First published in Malay Mail Online

By Tunku Abidin Muhriz , (c) 2016, Malay Mail Online (c) 2016

I am watching more television since the rise of HD streaming services in Malaysia, but season four of House of Cards was the latest test in keeping to my calendar.

In Malaysia, HyppTV has the rights to the latest season, but some people apparently use VPN to access the US version of Netflix.

Because of the way seasons are now delivered — in one batch rather than being drip-fed over weeks — it requires great willpower to not call in sick, order pizza and binge.

Right from the title sequence with its eerily unpeopled postcard scenes of Washington DC, accompanied by the commensurately sinister theme tune with its musical contradictions (there is a delicious major-over-minor resolution), the latest season did not disappoint in its depictions of manipulation, deceit, backstabbing and other heinous criminality.

The show’s popularity has led to many analyses of political processes, political philosophy and psychology: we want this evil man to succeed in overcoming the many obstacles he encounters, because our curiosity about what he will do next trumps our moral considerations of him.

Of course, because we know it is fiction, we need not concern ourselves with his morality.

Yet, House of Cards’ chilling genius is in presenting as plausible what might otherwise seem implausible. Friends in the United States report how the timing of the show — amidst the campaigns for presidential nominations in both main political parties — has contributed to the discourse (certainly the use of real news anchors can be momentarily bewildering if you’ve been watching the actual coverage of the campaigns).

The central premise — that one man and his wife can simply bend people and institutions to their will in the pursuit of power for its own sake – makes viewers think harder of the motives of real-life politicians.

For Frank Underwood, ignoring election pledges is second nature, imprisoning any opposition is a small matter, and killing people is sometimes worth it.

After enjoying each dose of the drama, reflection often turns to how to prevent such individuals possessing political power in real life.

Although obviously the base circumstances and institutions will be different from country to country (for example, although many constitutional bodies are distorted in the fictional dystopian Washington DC, the press there is still resilient to interference, which won’t be the case in many countries), we are continually reminded of the importance of checks and balances, the separation and decentralisation of powers.

Every time the Underwoods team up to manipulate officeholders to achieve a certain objective, you can visualise the democratic foundations of the constitution being chipped away.

I can imagine though, that for viewers of a different bent — the politically ambitious, the morally bankrupt, the cold-blooded mercenary — the show is a useful educational tool.

Either they want to be a Frank Underwood, or they desire serving for one — for some people life is easier by serving a master and being rewarded for it, without having to make weighty reflections on whether the master is right or wrong.

Yet, what is already going on in the US presidential race is now almost universally analysed as indicating a rejection of the traditional political establishment.

On the Republican side, Donald Trump — whose plans to build a wall separating the United States and Mexico (to be paid by the latter) and banning Muslims from the country are well known — is in the process of slaying his rivals one by one, and it will take quite an upset to prevent him from getting the requisite delegates in the Republican National Convention in July.  Indeed, Trump has said there will be riots if he does not get the nomination.

On the Democratic side, for the first time in generations a self-described socialist, Bernie Sanders, might yet overcome Hillary Clinton to become his party’s presidential candidate.

In both parties, one popular line of attack against the outsiders (that is, outside the traditional political establishment) is that they are too extreme and will not win across the country when it comes to the presidential election; that they will divide the country even more.

When the so-called moderates have to use the politics of fear to entice followers, you really wonder whether House of Cards is so far from the truth.

In this column last year I did envisage a hypothetical Malaysian Dewan Kad depicting politicians manipulating prejudices, subverting institutions, exploiting tragedies and defending inept masters.  I said such a show would only be possible if it could be convincingly argued that the real life version was more purposeful, virtuous and honourable than fiction.

So I doubt there will be a Malaysian version soon.

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