The Netflix original House of Cards is excellent television (if you can call it that given that it exists on a medium that isn’t strictly limited to TV screens any more). It’s also one of the best politically-themed shows I’ve seen in some time, and what makes it better than some of the other political shows of recent memory is how it is an equal opportunity offender when it comes to skewering Washington DC.
I binged on the second season over the holiday weekend. If you haven’t watched the whole series yet, beware that mild spoilers are below.
Yes, in Frank Underwood’s world, Republicans and tea partiers are made to look a bit silly. Socially conservative protesters are depicted as engaging in nearly riotous protest when Underwood’s wife admits to getting an abortion during a nationally-televised interview. A tea party leader in the Senate is shown to be rigid and intractable, breaking a compromise deal on entitlement reform. But the fact that entitlement reform is depicted in a generally positive light, something that’s needed and inevitable, is surprising given how real-world liberals react to even the most modest of proposed reforms (like the 1% reduction in food stamps benefits included in the Farm Bill which Democrats would have us believe is some sort of policy-driven armageddon).
Underwood, himself a Democrat, is a murderous manipulator, and other members of his party don’t come off as much better. They’re portrayed as calculating and ruthless, which is a big change from the idealistic, smarter-than-though liberals who star in Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing.
Or, say, Garry Trudeau’s Alpha House, which is a fantastic premise (the antics of a group of Senators who share a Washington DC home) that could be hilarious except that Trudeau can’t seem to find anything funny about Democrats. Just, you know, Republicans. Because we all know Democrats never, ever do anything funny or absurd.
(The best thing I can say about Alpha House is that Trudeau is apparently taking a break from Doonesbury to focus on the show.)
The media, far from the paragons of virtue portrayed in another Sorkin vehicle The Newsroom, are portrayed as unethical opportunists.
House of Cards succeeds where these other shows fail, I think, because it is unflinching in its commentary on everyone in America’s political power structure, not just those of a certain ideology.
Yes, it’s fiction. And some of the depictions of how Congress and the federal government work are far from accurate. But the show strikes the right cynical tone for a country that regularly gives Congress single-digit approval numbers, and weaves it into a fictional plot that is hard to pry your eyeballs away from.