As a university English professor, I am always on the lookout for laboratory experiments to conduct to rival my science and math colleagues. So recently I engaged in a binge-watching experiment across a few days, to analyze two jarringly different TV narratives of American virtue: The fifth season of “House of Cards” (2017), and a string of episodes from the ninth season of “Gunsmoke” (1964). The comparison revealed something of how the stories we Americans tell about ourselves and America changed across half a century.
“Gunsmoke” on CBS claims to be the world’s longest-running prime-time TV drama series with the same star and setting, from 1955 to 1975. One TV critic memorialized its Western mythology as “the Iliad and the Odyssey” of America. In its first years a top-rated show, it kept a solid loyal following. John Wayne, who had once long before been anointed by the real Wyatt Earp, gave his blessing to its opening. Its star James Arness was a decorated World War II hero.
“House of Cards” on Netflix superseded an older British send-up of parliamentary democracy to become in its own right a mythic American TV story for the 2010s, focused on an imperial presidency and decadent American leadership class. They, in the words of one character, lack any “North Star” of ideals, values, or even ideology. One of its stars, Kevin Spacey, did become a real-life hero of the old White House Correspondents Dinner during President Obama’s administration.
Both Sets of Leads Are Childless, Yet Different
On “House of Cards” this season, Spacey’s President Francis Underwood puts out a cigarette in an American flag as he prepares to resign in the wake of scandals involving murders and electoral manipulations that make Watergate look like a vaudeville skit, not to mention sexual relations that would make Arness’ Matt Dillon in “Gunsmoke” blush. The current-day political drama ends with the murderous first spouse Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) becoming president while exclaiming in an Evita-like pose: “Now it’s my turn.”
That turn of events would be unthinkable in a “Gunsmoke” universe, where traditional gender roles are well-prescribed, despite Amanda Blake’s admirable strong female lead, Miss Kitty, whose ambiguous relation with Matt is matched by her ambiguous business at the Long Branch.
This leads us to one of few commonalities between the two series: A lack of focus on intergenerational community values, or what the Iroquois called “the seventh generation” ethos, in postwar American pop culture. There is zero concern at the terminus of the sexual revolution in “House of Cards” about children and family. They are strongly implicit in “Gunsmoke,” yet the main characters remain single and, like the Underwoods, childless.
Different Views of Virtue’s Restraint
But although the TV “Gunsmoke” was billed from Wayne’s introduction onward as an “adult” Western, presenting in weekly dramas many of life’s complexities and tragedies along with the humor of character actors, it was never morally ambiguous.
For example, while its treatment of racial issues in early episodes emphasized Native Americans, and can seem stereotyped today, it did so pretty seriously in looking for fairness. A rough frontier sense of natural law and integrity girds Dillon’s loins: Life is a cycle of tragedy, and requires heroic self-discipline, good humor, and an ensemble of friendship in many hangout scenes. Sexual infidelity and a materialistic or greedy lifestyle are to be mourned and warned against for feeding passions leading easily to violence.
Uncelebrated by “Gunsmoke” is the back-stabbing blind ambition and infidelity that transfix viewers of “House of Cards,” except as moral lessons that nonetheless are surprisingly contextualized in the complexities of human nature for the earlier TV drama.
In line with American secularism, neither series is explicitly religious, although “Gunsmoke” finds implicit grounding in the misty Judeo-Christian American civil religion of its day, with one of the regulars Festus (the singing cowboy Ken Curtis) belting out the hymn “Shall We Gather by the River” at a frontier funeral in a pious scene. “House of Cards” remains “One Nation Underwood.” “Gunsmoke” steered past the upheavals of the 1960s in a meta-time of perhaps oblivious mythos. But American studies scholar Nicolaus Mills wrote in a memorial tribute that, “In his role as a lawman who fired his gun only reluctantly and as a last resort, Arness embodied the best values of America’s cold war culture.”
Older and wiser to the ways of the world, “House of Cards” offers us few pretensions to restraint, virtue, or faith in the search for power by aged baby boomers facing mortality and anxious millennials jockeying to replace them. It raises the question of whether Plato or Aristotle were right about the cathartic or mimetic effects of art. Does art help remove our baser instincts through affective release, or reinforce them through imitation, or both?
What Terror and Isolation Presage
Regardless, if we were more concerned as a culture with the “seventh generation” we would be considering more the narratives on which to nurse a country, and their impact on young people, one of whom recently told me that this Native American ethos is outdated as it is hateful “to people who choose not to reproduce.”
“House of Cards” feeds the dominant narrative of fragmentation and divided hate in American polity today, in hellish visions as if from Edward Gibbons’ “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” nonetheless all too accepted now. It may remind us that a national culture of terror and isolation were for Hannah Arendt precursors of totalitarianism.
Despite a blasé attitude toward violence, “Gunsmoke” offers a different vision, that of U.S. Marshall Dillon as a trusted and affable authority figure, embodying the self-discipline needed to run and keep a commonwealth-republic. Even if the civil religion it fed upon is mostly a felt absence, Dillon’s Dodge City still affords a surprising refuge of humanistic community from the real-life stress of Underwood’s posthuman Washington today.