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Through the Looking Glass - House of Cards and Baron Noir: When Reality Outruns Fiction

Through the Looking Glass - House of Cards and Baron Noir: When Reality Outruns Fiction
 Thibaud Grenez
Former Director of Marketing and Corporate Membership

Warning, this article may contain spoilers. 

The West Wing, Veep, Les Hommes de l'ombre, Borgen: political TV series are nothing new. The underbelly and the behind-the-scenes of power are recurring themes on the small screen. Between the realism of power games and the cynicism of political practices, what do House of Cards and the French series Baron Noir say about today's world? 

In some respects, these two series seem to have anticipated many elements of our political life: the rise of political outsiders, the increase of social tensions, the proliferation of disinformation, the destabilization of institutions, not to mention citizens’ mistrust towards their representatives. They seem to be holding up a mirror to our present-day society, and the image is unflattering to say the least. 

They also reflect the breakdown of the current political system, its institutions and the way they function. We are no longer given an idealized version of what politics should be. Instead, we get a dark and cynical vision of what it sometimes actually is. They seem to warn us viewers: "Abandon all principles ye who enter here (if you still have any)."

Baron Noir: portrait of a society in reconstruction 

"If you put in your show what I have witnessed in some of the French Republicans’ offices, your viewers wouldn't believe you", says Xavier Bertrand, president of the Hauts-de-France region. If we take his word, the series written by Eric Benzekri - a former adviser to far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon - does not come close enough to reality. However, over the seasons, Baron Noir has come to increasingly reflect the desacralization of politics, the rise of violence, social tensions and the trivialization of outrageous and demagogic speeches.

This increasingly visible attachment to real life gradually lifts Baron Noir from the realm of fiction to echo the political vicissitudes of 2020.

Baron Noir follows the evolution of Philippe Rickwaert, political advisor and deputy mayor of Dunkirk. He is accompanied by a variety of characters operating behind the scenes and in key positions of power. The first season tells a fairly classic French political story: Left vs. Right confrontation, infighting within the Socialist Party, tensions with the unions and ego battles. This story seemed almost detached from reality when it was broadcast in 2016, at a time when the future President of the Republic was creating a new political party from scratch, bypassing the classic Left-Right paradigm, and setting out to seize power. But Baron Noir was able to quickly catch up with the winds of change

Through the second and third seasons, broadcast in 2018 and 2020, the series really starts to follow the turmoils of French politics. Amélie Dorendeu’s arrival to power in the show follows the thunderstorm that was the real presidential election of 2017. She is young, a socialist, little known, holds centrist views and stands as a bulwark against the National Front. Gender aside, the parallel with Emmanuel Macron is obvious.

Season three sees a direct influence from reality, with Christophe Mercier’s scheming and demagogic character setting in motion a political game. This teacher and YouTuber is a mix between Beppe Grillo and Etienne Chouard (French blogger and controversial activist). Mercier embodies mistrust of politics, made a reality just a few months later through the Yellow Vests movement. In the same vein, Jean-Marie Bigard, a French comedian, decided to hop into politics earlier this year, by running for the municipal elections, and even expressing interest in the 2022 presidential elections. This intrusion is ephemeral, yet telling. 

This increasingly visible attachment to real life gradually lifts Baron Noir from the realm of fiction to echo the political vicissitudes of 2020. The show speaks about our daily lives, the prevalence of communication, citizens’ mistrust towards elected officials, the thriving role of social media, conspiracies and anti-system struggles.

On a more positive note, the show also manages to illustrate the social intelligence of certain political leaders. Rickwaert's character, although highly controversial, is a true "political animal", strongly in touch with the realities of local life and unions, and with the "flair" that’s needed to blow the wind of change. 

House of Cards, no holds barred 

"99% of what you do on that show is real. The 1% you get wrong is you could never get an education bill passed that fast," is what Bill Clinton, former President of the United States, said of the show. 

House of Cards tells the story of Frank Underwood, a Democratic representative of the US Congress, who is trying to become President of the United States. For him, all moves are allowed: betrayal, lies, manipulation...even murder. His wife Claire assists him up the ladder, as she climbs it with him, until she turns all the spotlights on her in the final season. 

Any and all manipulations are allowed in House of Cards. Cyber-attacks, diatribes against the media, the exploitation of an attack for electoral purposes, attempts at diversion and blackmail, personal aggressions and so on: the methods are savage, the protagonists unscrupulous.

The methods are savage, the protagonists unscrupulous.

But reality eventually caught up with fiction. With Donald Trump's arrival in the White House, the mirror held up by House of Cards became less and less distorted - at least in some respects. How can the Machiavellian Underwood couple compete with a megalomaniacal billionaire, a slayer of the Fake News media and a master in the art of political diversion? Fiction became less interesting and less absurd than the real world. Robin Wright, who plays Claire Underwood, even said "Trump stole all our ideas for season six!".

"Democracy is so overrated", Frank Underwood said to the camera in the first season, in 2013. Was that meant to be a premonition, for the Atlantic and beyond? 

Collateral damage?

Both series were praised for their realism by political staff. In view of the cynicism, electoral shenanigans and orchestrated coups de théâtre they exposed, the compliments must have a bitter taste. Can politics stay unscathed by such stories?

If citizens' mistrust of their elected representatives is not new, fiction can reinforce it. What was unimaginable became possible with Donald Trump. Similarly, the rise and success of a figure like Christophe Mercier in Baron Noir is a scenario that has obviously been taken seriously at the Elysée for the French 2022 presidential election. Whether this is a mirror of our society, or a self-fulfilling prophecy, the future will tell. 

What do these two shows say of our democracies? They are a clear warning sign of wilting politics. It is revealing that they do not feature any innovative program proposals, or any revolutionary political ideas. These series present us with a fait accompli: we have collectively (politicians included) abandoned big ideas and opted for the excessive personalization of power. We have chosen to believe in the omnipotence of a providential man, more than in negotiation, reflection and dialogue. Where are the compromises? The negotiations? The institutional obstacles? The social balance of power? 

The Leviathan still has strength against Machiavelli, the power of the President is still somewhat overdramatized in these shows after all. But let’s keep in mind that, when there’s a will, there isn’t always a way. 

These two series do not show the world as it should be, but the world as it is. They are a lesson for those who govern us, but also for us as citizens. At the very least, they do show that there is a strong political awareness and involvement within our societies that is waiting to express itself at the ballot box.


Copyright : David Giesbrecht Netflix & FR_tmdb

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