The Presidential Boob Tube

As much as we’d like to be snobbish about it, honesty compels us to admit we rarely watch television for reasons that are not all high-minded. We’re too much the cheapskates to shell out the exorbitant prices for cable television, our nocturnal schedule is out of sync with the networks, and most of our spare time is spent listening to antique honky-tonk music or reading English comic novels or brooding about the sorry state of the world. Not watching television no longer has the intellectual cachet it had back in the days when the high-brows lamented a “vast wasteland,” anyway, and except for the classics we occasionally find on Netflix what little television viewing we do is mostly devoted to such low-brow fare as the “Green Acres” and “Sea Hunt” re-runs that come over-the-air as we fall to sleep.
Even so, we can’t help feeling a wee bit superior to the President of the United States. We have been apprised of the President Barack Obama’s viewing habits by no less an authority than The New York Times’ television critic, and what he reports is alarming.
Which is not the reaction that The Times intended, of course. Ever eager to flatter the president, and without anything flattering to plausibly say about Obamacare or the deteriorating situation in the Middle East or any of the other consequences of the administration’s policies, The Times has apparently been reduced to bolstering the president’s reputation as an intellectual by lauding his exquisite taste in television programs. Headlined “Obama’s TV Picks: Anything Edgy, With Hints of Reality,” the story gushes over the president’s masterful command of the White House channel changer. After noting the weighty responsibilities of Obama’s office, the writer notes with unmistakable approval that “in his quiet moments, this president seeks not to escape to the delicious back-stabbing of the ‘Real Housewives’ or the frivolity of the singing teenagers on ‘Glee.’ By his own accounts, Mr. Obama is drawn in his spare time to shows like HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ the kind of heavy, darkly rendered television that echoes the sadness and strife that make up so much of his workday.” Similar admiration shines through as the writer notes that Obama is watching a box set of “Breaking Bad” discs, is eager for the next season of the Netflix series “House of Cards,” and is also a regular viewer of “The Wire,” “Mad Men,” “Homeland,” and “Downton Abbey.” The Times believes these choices provide a hopeful insight on the president’s political philosophy, and quotes the creator of “The Wire” saying that his show represents “the America that Mr. Obama is keen to transcend.”
We’ve seen either little or nothing of most of the shows mentioned, and thus cannot render judgment on the president’s tastes, but we doubt that his preferences reveal an unusual profundity or justify his presidency. Each of the shows are famous enough that we are aware of their acclaim by the likes of The New York Times’ television critic, which is effusive enough that one needn’t be embarrassed in sophisticated circles to admit to watching them rather reading Thucydides or Noam Chomsky or the Dodd-Frank Act or similarly weighty fare, but we are not at all amazed that president’s taste align so neatly with the consensus of pseudo-intellectual opinion. We’ve seen enough of “Glee” to be slightly surprised that the president isn’t susceptible to both its teenaged frivolity and its relentless propagandizing for homosexuality, and after enthusiastically watching every episode of the terrific “The Wire” we’d have expected the president to be a bit put off by its frank depiction of a thoroughly corrupt African-American political machine and the dysfunctions of a fatherless urban underclass, neither of which he seems at all interested in transcending, but otherwise it’s much as we’d have assumed.
Perhaps it is heartening that the president isn’t indulging in “Green Acres” and “Sea Hunt” through the old rabbit ears in the early morning hours, but we can’t help being worried by what a dedicated couch potato they president seems to be. Each of the president’s favorite programs are sprawling epics that require considerable time, and we’ve binge-watched just enough of them to know how they can cut deeply into a working day. Dishes have gone unwashed and floors unswept around here as a result of old premium cable series on Netflix, and it is therefore worrisome to think that the far more consequential chores of a president might go undone as a result of a television addiction. Elsewhere in The Times we are told that the president’s unprecedented presidential golf habit is “Carrying On a Presidential Tradition, One Leisurely Round at a Time,” as if Obama’s time on the links somehow makes him another Eisenhower, but it cannot dispel a nagging suspicion that Obama isn’t quite the workaholic one might want in the Oval Office.
On the other hand, given what the president has done during intermittent time on the job, we might grateful for any distractions he might encounter. A while back we became hooked on Netflix’ always-available episodes of the “The Tudors,” an obviously expensive multi-season tale about a megalomaniacal monarch’s treacherous intrigues, to the point we got almost nothing else done, and we’d highly recommend the series to the president.

— Bud Norman

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