'Embrace the crazy,' Sepinwall says of TV political dramas

SHARE 'Embrace the crazy,' Sepinwall says of TV political dramas

“Just embrace the crazy sometimes.”

That’s Alan Sepinwall’s advice for too-serious TV political dramas like the Netflix series “House of Cards.”

“What happens on ‘House of Cards’ is about as ridiculous as what’s happening ‘Scandal,’” Sepinwall said. “That’s a show that understands this is just cuckoo-bananas.”

The renowned TV critic answered questions Thursday about TV shows from the comedy “Veep” and the soap opera-esque “Scandal” to the meant-to-be-taken-seriously “House of Cards” and less-obviously-political “Game of Thrones.” All were part of a 90-minute discussion on politics in pop culture during (full disclosure) the official launch of the Chicago Sun-Times’ political website Early & Often that night at the University Club.

More people than ever now are watching what would be considered “television” shows on some kind of device, noted Sun-Times Publisher and Editor in Chief Jim Kirk, who moderated the discussion. That includes series carried exclusively by digital subscription services like Netflix.

And, Kirk said, “Politics happens to be the theme of choice.”

The reason for that is simple, according to Sepinwall: “stakes.”

“You can do a show about a guy who owns a hardware store. You can do a show about a small-town sheriff in rural Georgia. You can do a show about a math teacher or whatever, but it’s much harder to make those interesting; whereas, if you’re doing a show about the most powerful man in the world — or, in the case of ‘Veep,’ the most famous ineffectual woman in the world — that’s much easier,” he said.

But the theme of politics in TV isn’t new, according to the critic. He pointed to “Benson,” which ran from 1979 to 1986 on ABC. Its title character was “the governor, and wacky hijinks happen at the governor’s mansion,” he summarized.

TV always was “the little brother of the movies,” he said, dumbed-down and easy to follow. The three networks could put basically anything on air and get ratings so substantial that today they would “make people cry.”

Cable and Internet changed that in the 1990s, Sepinwall said. Audiences began to shrink, and people began to experiment.

When “The West Wing” debuted in 1999, taking sides and making speeches, people thought its creator Aaron Sorkin was crazy for alienating half the audience, he said. Now shows like “House of Cards” are much more specific about their characters’ political affiliations, and even “Veep” has touched on issues like abortion and immigration without the same fear of pushing audiences away.

And digital subscription services like Netflix are changing not only what we watch, but also how we watch it, the critic said. In particular, he said, “House of Cards,” which released its entire second season at once to its subscribers on Feb. 14, has taught him how to binge-watch TV.

“It is a new way of viewing, and sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s not so great,” he said.

“You lose the conversation because if I watch nine episodes of ‘House of Cards,’ and you watch two, we can’t talk about it; whereas, if it’s airing on AMC weekly, we can have that discussion.”

Now, he said, his readers come to him with the mentality anything on network TV can’t be very good, he said, and that leaves those networks’ futures uncertain.

“They’re either going to have to reinvent themselves, or at some point, maybe in five years or 10 years, they’re going to go away,” he said.

During the wide-ranging interview, Sepinwall also declared “Deadwood,” which ran from 2004 to 2006 on HBO, “one of the best shows that has ever been made.” He also took questions from the standing room-only audience, entertaining the idea of a show based on the Obama administration in the future and agreeing “Game of Thrones” is a political show, even if it includes dragons and zombies, because it touches on the question of who is fit to lead.

And he drew a consensus of groans when he brought up the Chicago-set CBS drama “The Good Wife.”

“As Chicagoans, does it bother you watching this very Chicago show that is blatantly filmed in New York?”

Here’s our live blog of the event:

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