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House of Cards: Government, Politics, & Optimism in America

Arts & Culture | February 18, 2014

Clinton’s Washington had The West Wing. Bush’s Washington had 24. Obama’s Washington has House of Cards, Homeland, and Scandal. The varied and telling ways in which American political culture is portrayed in television has evolved from the first televised presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960 to contemporary dystopic dramas of corruption and murder on Capitol Hill. While The West Wing managed to captivate viewers for seven seasons, it is significant that shows like House of Cards are now revealing the darker parts of Washington. This shift coincides with falling congressional approval ratings, which hovered consistently around 50% during the broadcast of The West Wing but have recently dropped to as low as 9%.

As Americans have lost faith in Congress’ ability to move past partisan division, it seems they have also lost interest in the idyllic version of our government that The West Wing presented. In this new era, House of Cards is not alone; shows like VEEP, Scandal, and Homeland also have dramatized an edgier, more dystopian take on the realm of politics. What does it say about American society that these are the dramatic interpretations of politics that sell?

Since its release almost exactly one year ago, Netflix’s original series House of Cards, a political drama set in Washington, DC, has established a groundbreaking new paradigm in American television. Diverging from the traditional format of televised weekly releases, all episodes were released at once and could be streamed by Netflix subscribers at any time, ad-free. Despite this unconventional move, the show has been quite popular, and fans are greatly anticipating the release of the second season on February 14th.

House of Cards follows fictional South Carolina House Representative Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, as he works to manipulate Congress and the White House after being denied a bid as Secretary of State. Often using subversive, illegal, and even violent methods, Underwood is painted as a ruthless yet compelling character. Part of the character’s appeal results from pauses in his scenes as he breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience. Through this method, viewers are drawn into the story and feel like co-conspirators in his scheming. As Micah Agnoli, a Tufts senior majoring in Political Science, puts it, “A lot of the allure comes from the fact that such a patently evil character is someone we’re rooting for.”

While the plot and style of House of Cards are enticing, its cynical disposition towards politics seems to be particularly popular in light of current frustrations with the American government. This is not the first Washington-based drama to capture the nation’s attention, and while most have had entertaining and suspenseful plots, there can be little question that a major attraction of these shows is their discussion of government and the way in which our country is run. There is something deeply intriguing about diving behind-the-scenes into our political system, especially one as sinister and dark as Underwood’s.

However, every show has had its own take on what those interactions actually look like. In fact, House of Cards comes in the wake of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing—a show famous for its idealistic representation of the executive branch, and tied for most Emmys of all time for a TV drama. The show was broadcast from 1999 to 2006 and portrayed several members of the White House staff, including the president, as they argued over decisions and swayed people with eloquent and impassioned speeches.

Despite the innovative intrigue of Underwood, House of Cards was not the first show that found a way to make politics entertaining. In its time, The West Wing utilized a concept called the “walk and talk,” where cameras followed the characters as they stormed through the White House, maintaining long-shot conversations. Jacob Wessel, a senior studying Political Science and an avid viewer of the show, says,  “[The technique] added movement to what might have normally been conversations that happened in bland offices at a stand-still. It added to the world of politics where, especially in law making, it doesn’t move as fast as the characters in The West Wing talked.”

It appears that many viewers have been craving characters like Underwood, who are effective lawmakers, albeit by alternative methods. President Barack Obama, an avid fan of the show, recently commented, “I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient.”

President Obama’s comment illustrates the realism that House of Cards lacks. Would Underwood’s fictional political games and calculating efficiency be as popular in Washington as on Netflix? Lizzy Robinson, a junior majoring in International Relations, thinks not. She said, “On the contrary, behavior that even begins to approach that of Underwood’s draws intense criticism from the public. Think of Christie’s ‘Bridgegate,’ for example. It’s the job of TV show producers to understand their audience and put on shows that people will watch. To that extent, it’s likely that the producers of these shows may have based their story lines and characters on the general sentiments of the American public toward politics. On the other hand, people watch TV in order to be entertained, and a large part of that entertainment comes from being absorbed by something that is dramatized and is an escape from reality.”

With only one season out so far, it’s hard to know whether House of Cards will sustain its popularity, or what impact it may have in the long-term. But for the moment at least, Robinson reminds us that, “For better or worse, I think most politicians in DC fall somewhere in the middle—not quite as moral as President Bartlett in The West Wing, but far less selfish than Underwood in House of Cards.” So while Underwood’s methods may make for good TV, there may still be hope for the idyllic vision of The West Wing, both in the minds of the American people and in the real workings of American government.