During the long wait between Seasons 1 and 2 of House Of Cards on Netflix, I was inspired to watch the entire seven-year run of The West Wing, which I had never seen before. Watching the two shows back to back gives you an interesting perspective on how differently the same political system can be portrayed in fiction. (Note from 2017: I was too optimistic about poor Rachel’s future, unfortunately. House Of Cards has only gotten uglier since this was written.)
First, The West Wing. I had caught a few more recent Aaron Sorkin shows in various classes here at SF State; BECA professors love Sorkin, probably because both Studio 60 and The Newsroom do such a thorough job of showing the inner workings of television production. There are certain tics in every Sorkin show, though, that both charm and annoy me: cynical/neurotic/idealistic heroes with an endless supply of wit riding from crisis to crisis; Very Special Episodes pointing the finger at Big Important Controversies; and the inevitable Epic Rant That Hits The Nail On The Head, Shames All The Right People And Convinces Everyone.
What made West Wing work most of the time was a) Sorkin’s shtick seemed a lot fresher at the turn of the century (the mostly great ensemble cast didn’t hurt either) and b) the historical context was palpable. It must have been a tonic during the Bush-Cheney era to tune in to Martin Sheen’s goofy-yet-righteous President Bartlet or Alan Alda as a decent, avuncular ideal of reasonable Republican opposition. The message was “all of us are good (and sexy, and funny) people at heart, working hard to do the right thing for our country. The news may drive you to despair, but this system will work if you put power in the hands of honest, responsible people.” The tone helped you overlook some of that alternate-universe government’s more questionable acts (a rather creepy “education reform” bill and a constant series of military interventions in every corner of the globe are two that come to mind) and root for the heroes. It was as effective as it was corny.
House Of Cards turns that whole world upside down. With few exceptions, these are vile people. I don’t just mean our protagonists, the scheming Machiavellian Underwoods. Washington DC is a world of predators, jockeying for power, gaming the system, and cultivating their images for a gullible press and public. The characters scheme, con, and shift alliances like the nihilistic aristocrats they are. Star/producer Kevin Spacey loves to break the fourth wall and mug for the camera with sly asides for our benefit, the most of telling of which is, “democracy is sooooo overrated”, delivered in a honey-sweet Southern drawl. Spacey’s deadpan scenery-chewing is entertaining as hell, and the show, with its convoluted royal intrigues, is a thrill to immerse yourself in. But unlike other great recent TV antiheroes like Walter White or Don Draper, you never get a sense of inner conflict or twisted humanity; Frank Underwood remains nothing more or less than a hyper-intelligent shark.
What is House Of Cards’ version of American civics? Spacey loves to boast in interviews about how his character, unlike real-life politicians, knows how to “get things done.” But what does Frank Underwood accomplish? So far, his two major legislative achievements in the show are yet another dodgy “education reform” bill in Season 1 (both shows present an alternate-universe America where teachers’ unions have as much power as the oil industry, and it takes a truly bold politician to defy their formidable might) and this season’s “entitlement reform” bill. Frank is a “center-right” Democrat who makes Joe Lieberman look like Elizabeth Warren in comparison, and that crashing sound you hear is the Overton Window hurtling off a cliff. If West Wing was a mirror of earnest progressive idealism growing in the midst of a neoconservative decade, House Of Cards is the apathetic reaction to five years of thwarted hope and change. At its worst, it tells us, “Stop caring about politics; they’re all equally corrupt!”
Oddly, the show is at its most perceptive when it comes to feminist issues. Claire Underwood, like her husband, is a monster in many ways, none of which have anything to do with why she becomes a target of national hatred. Why does Claire receive death threats? Because she went public about having an abortion, campaigns actively against rape in the military, and is accused of having an extramarital affair. The fact that these, not any of the truly awful acts we watch her commit, are what make her a target speaks volumes about the misogyny that pervades our politics. Other women who lack Claire’s cold expediency fare less well, like the traumatized rape survivor she enrolls in her cause, then abandons when it’s politically convenient. One character who may be more than a victim in the end is Rachel, the ex-prostitute who spends the entire season under virtual house arrest because she knows too much, until she takes control of her destiny with a shocking, decisive act in the final episode. I really hope she turns out not to be another mere speedbump in the Underwoods’ unstoppable path, but the player who finally knocks down the house of cards that has been meticulously assembled for the first two seasons. We shall see.