The other night, my 15-year-old daughter and I were wandering through Netflix when I saw the icon for “House of Cards.”
I loved it; she knows it’s not for her.
But I finally relented and told her she could watch just five minutes of it, and that we would watch it together.
Not such a good move on my part. We were instantly transported to a prison cell, where a character from the first season — whom Frank Underwood had wrongly incarcerated — was engaging in explicit talk with another inmate about a sex act.
That was the end of that.
“House of Cards” is one of the most innovative programs to appear in years, in my opinion. Like millions of other Americans, I eagerly binged on the first three seasons. So here’s my problem with the prison cell cold opening to season four.
When you have to resort to shock value to keep an audience engaged, you’re in trouble. It’s a sign the creative ecosystem in which the show is written is wasting away.
When you don’t have a great story to tell, what’s left but to shock?
The pity is that the creators of “House of Cards” had a wonderful Washington story to tell. At some point, though, they just started chasing down rabbit holes that had nothing to do with the real reason for the show’s attractiveness — the insider nature of hardball politics that it displayed with so much brilliance and charm.
Now, the creators have clearly lost their way, which raises an interesting question: What does it mean when pretty much everything on TV or in the movies is engaged in a society-wide moral or ethical race to the bottom?
Let’s take a look at the real meaning of the words obscenity and pornography for clues.
Both are Greek words. Obscene is a combination of the Greek prefix ob-, which means off, or away from, and the word skene, which means scene, or stage. Anything that the ancient Greeks believed could not be presented on a stage — and they were comfortable with killings, blindings and mayhem of all kinds — was, by definition, obscene.
So what’s pornography? Again, we look to ancient Greek for clarity.
Puerne is the ancient Greek word for prostitute. Graphein means “to write.” Therefore, writing about prostitutes or illicit sex is pornography, in the classical definition of the term.
What exactly constitutes obscenity or pornography is a moving target, different in every generation and society, and different in every era.
In decades past, American screenwriters had to function within a society that actually had a concept of obscenity — there were certain things you simply couldn’t put onstage, or in a movie. As a result, movies were frequently much better, simply because the restraints in which writers worked forced them to be more creative.
For example, there’s a scene in “Some Like it Hot,” the great Marilyn Monroe vehicle, where the tough bandleader of the all-woman ensemble tells her nebbishy assistant, “All my girls are virtuosi, and it’s your job to make sure they remain that way.”
MORE NEWS: Going Woke Means Going Broke
Now, that’s good writing.
Today, when there are no limits, writers aren’t forced to be creative. They can just throw anything up there and hope to shock. But shocking people isn’t the same thing as entertaining them.
Unfortunately, as a society, we’ve become so inured to shocking material that sometimes we don’t even notice when something comes along that’s just plain beyond the pale. But parents need to — in order to protect their children.
I empathize with the writers of “House of Cards,” because the new season of the show is appearing in a political season, which itself is stranger than truth.
Is “House of Cards” obscene? The trouble is that almost nothing is off limits anymore. And when there are no standards, we all pay the price — making it tougher than ever for good parents who care about raising their children well.