This Valentine’s Day, thanks to Netflix, you can settle in for a double date with Washington’s leading (fictional) power couple, Frank and Claire Underwood of “House of Cards.” Friday brings a whole new season of the streaming service’s flagship drama, which depicts a murderous congressman’s rise to power.
Warning: The Underwoods can be pretty rough company — and they’re a tad dramatic. “There is but one rule,” Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood says in the trailer, “hunt or be hunted.”
“I am willing to let your child wither and die inside you,” Robin Wright’s Claire tells a pregnant employee who’s suing her: “Am I really the sort of enemy you want to make?” Whew!
It’s hardly a flattering portrait of the political animal — so why are D.C.‘s political animals so crazy about the show?
It can’t be HoC’s devotion to cinematic realism. The show gets so many things wrong about politics that at times it’s like watching a police procedural written by somebody who didn’t bother talking to any cops. At the start of Season One, Frank Underwood is a contender for secretary of state; by Season Two, he’s maneuvered himself “a heartbeat away” from the presidency.
Who knew House majority whip was pole position for rocketing to the top of the executive branch? What’s more, the idea of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R‑Calif., or Jim Clyburn, D‑S.C., current and former majority whips, murdering an inconvenient former ally in a parking garage, like Underwood does in Season One — is adorably stupid.
Still, the show has some plausible elements, like Wright’s character. It’s entirely believable that a few decades in D.C. would turn the lovely Buttercup from “The Princess Bride” into a ruthless social X‑ray running a phony environmental think tank.
Scrolling through negative viewer reviews of HoC, showrunner/screenwriter Beau Willimon noticed that many people “find the characters unsympathetic” and the show “overly cynical.”
It’s not the cynicism that irks me, it’s the competence. As Ezra Klein notes, the show’s vision of D.C. power brokers “efficiently and ruthlessly carrying out complicated plans” is at odds with the “fractious and bumbling” reality. The people actually running the show can’t set up a functional healthcare website or prevent a 29‐year‐old contractor from walking off with the NSA’s “family jewels.” Schemes with a lot of moving parts are generally beyond their capability.
That may be why D.C. pols enjoy the show so much. It’s a Beltway power fantasy, an embodiment of Washington’s id. “I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient,” President Obama has said of the show: “It’s like Kevin Spacey, man, this guy’s getting a lot of stuff done.” I see what he means, though I’d feel more comfortable if he hadn’t added that last bit.
Actually, the cynicism and the unsympathetic characters are the best thing about “House of Cards.” Those qualities alone make it a major improvement over the last Beltway drama that official Washington fell in love with, Aaron Sorkin’s execrable “West Wing.” Hoping to inspire a new generation of idealists, Sorkin built that show around the concept of an incorruptible president devoted to good works: President Bartlet, a theologian‐cum‐Nobel laureate in economics, so unbearably decent that even his scandals were noble, no thong‐snapping involved.
Fantastical though it is, I’ll take Frank Underwood’s telenovela version of D.C. over Sorkin’s cartoon Camelot every time. At least HoC is willing to entertain the idea that political animals aren’t angels and that “public service” often deserves the scare quotes. Let the binge‐viewing begin.