The advice site wikiHow.com offers several helpful tips for making conversation with someone you’ve just met. These include: “Try a bit of small talk,” “Be funny if you can,” “Ask the person what they do for a living,” and “Ask about their hobbies.”
This is good advice. “Ask about their hobbies,” however, might at this point be rephrased to address a specific hobby, a hobby that many contemporary conversation-havers will have in common: TV-watching. And not just TV-watching, but passionate TV-watching. Binge-watching. In a climate when even that most failsafe of in-a-pinch conversational topics—the weather—has become politicized (“Don’t talk about the weather, whatever you do,” wikiHow advises), TV offers a safe space for finding common ground. As a result, “What are you watching right now?” or some version of that question will almost always achieve the unspoken goal of the introductory conversation: Even if one is unable, alas, to “be funny,” conversations about television will at least help one to be likable.
Which is probably why, on her appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert on Tuesday, Hillary Clinton took full advantage of television watching’s lubricative banality. Deep into her humanization tour (“Fun is something I often have when amongst a group of people”), Clinton confided that she’d celebrated her birthday over the weekend by sleeping in, hanging out with her extremely humanizing baby granddaughter, Charlotte, and otherwise doing “as little as I could get away with.” And on the big day itself—Monday—she told Colbert, “I just sort of hung around. Bill and I just watched bad TV ... a little binge-watching, here and there.” Clinton went on to list some of her favorite shows for that watching: House of Cards, Madam Secretary, and The Good Wife.
This was not, strictly, news. Clinton has shared, many times before, her preference for those shows. She has also confessed, on previous occasions, to being a fan of HGTV’s Love It or List It. (“I find it very calming,” she told The New York Times.) She is also, according to emails obtained from that infamous private server, a fan of Parks and Recreation.
But that Clinton, last night, made a point of mentioning the delight she takes in “binge-watching, here and there” wasn’t (just) about the presidential candidate wikiHow-ing her way through her conversation with Colbert. She was also wikiHow-ing her way through contemporary campaigning, with all its demands of performative authenticity. Politicians’ various strategies for Spontaneity—campaign managers tend not to recognize the contradiction—have long included demonstrations of relatable humanity, among them singing on The View, dancing with Ellen, gnawing on stick-meat at the Iowa State Fair, etc. They have also included the divulging of candidates’ pop-cultural preferences, including favorite books and favorite movies and favorite music.
As television has gained cultural cachet as a medium, though—and as options for shows have expanded far beyond what traditional networks could offer—TV shows have been included more and more often in those lists. The conversational reliability of TV Talk has made its way from everyday life to the life of the campaign trail. “What are you watching?” has become a default question not just within dinner parties, but within political ones.
And so: We know that Barack Obama watches Homeland, The Wire, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, and Sports Center. (And also that his favorite show is M*A*S*H.) And that Bill Clinton likes Scandal and 24. And that Nancy Pelosi likes Person of Interest. And that Kevin McCarthy likes House of Cards. And that Debbie Wasserman Schultz likes Scandal and HGTV’s Flea Market Flip. And on and on.
Do any of those preferences have any bearing at all on these leaders’ ability to do their leading? Not really. But, of course, the divulgence of those preferences isn’t about leadership, per se. It is simply meant to show what can be hard to highlight within the highly orchestrated settings of the campaign trail: that politicians are humble and relatable and just as likely as the rest of us to have a moment of existential anxiety when Netflix’s “Continue Playing” button pops onto the screen. It’s humanity by way of Homeland.
And yet. Even if these people really are binge-watching Game of Thrones in the company of Papa John and Ben and Jerry, just like the rest of us, politicians are not, in the end, just like the rest of us. And not just because of their chauffeured cars and marble-laden offices. Their power is political, sure, but it’s also cultural. These people don’t just watch TV shows; they also, occasionally, inform them. Take Kevin McCarthy, who isn’t just a fan of House of Cards, but also an adviser to it. (“I start watching this show and after the first couple of shows, his office starts to look like my office,” the House majority leader told The Sacramento Bee.)
And take, as well, Hillary Clinton, whose conversation with Colbert ignored the obvious irony in her binge-watching proclivities: Madam Secretary is, on some level, based on the experiences of one Hillary Clinton. So is, on some level, The Good Wife. So is, on some level, Parks and Rec. (So is, on some level—according to the Hillary haters—House of Cards.) For Clinton, even television—one of the few common denominators we have left as monoculture gives way to more fractured and atomized experiences—is fraught. She may well binge-watch TV after a hard day at work, just like the rest of us. The key difference is that, while she is watching television, she is also watching, in some sense, herself.