House of Cards: TV Politics vs Reality
More often than not political dramas on TV aim to distance themselves from addressing any contemporary real-world issues head on. However, upon finally getting round to finishing Season 2 of House of Cards I couldn’t help but notice the creators of this particular series very firmly set the otherwise ambiguous context for their characters in an interesting and subtle manner. So subtle, in fact, that it might have gone unnoticed. I’m talking about in the final episode of the series when [BY THE WAY THIS IS A HUGE SPOILER ALERT FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T REALISED IT’S COMING. LIKE, REALLY HUGE] Garrett turns to Underwood and says: “Shall we go introduce the 46th President of the United States.”
This is interesting because it’s the producers not only parodying the contemporary issues of the real-world such as tense US relations with China over the Senkaku Islands and the Sexual Assault reform bill currently being pushed through senate as we speak, but this is them saying that this is the future America are heading towards. Of course, other Netflix aficionado Aaron Sorkin has long been setting this trend in political drama with shows like The West Wing and the more recent HBO hit The Newsroom. Sorkin’s Jed Bartlet dealt with a variety of real-world issues which mirrored the Bush Administration, albeit from a Democratic point-of-view.
For example, the Bartlet Administration tackled the issue of scandal within the Oval Office through the President’s concealed MS diagnosis, which has been likened to the Monica Lewinski scandal of Clinton’s administration. More directly, following the September 11 attacks, the writers of the show quickly put together a special episode which directly dealt with the War on Terrorism in the US. With contributors such as political analyst and former Press Secretary to the White House Dee Dee Myers and political analyst Lawrence O’Donell linked with the show, it’s easy to see why The West Wing was so gripping and realistic.
However, unlike the new series of House of Cards, both The West Wing and The Newsroom take real-life political stories and look back on them, commenting on those stories which have already broken. What I find so interesting about Fincher, Willimon et al’s approach to this their programme is that it instead takes current affairs and projects them out in to the future. Coupled with its dark and pessimistic representation of the inner-workings of the White House, this speculative approach to political drama is perhaps more forceful and more reformative with regards to the current state of political affairs than its predecessors.
As Evangeline Morphos states in this article on Speakeasy, more comedic shows such as Alpha House and Veep “hint at a Washington in which politicians, while not above the fray, can still work together—or, at least, appear in cameo together.” However, Morphos concludes that whether it be a cut-throat political drama predicting the bleak future of US politics or a comedy set within the current administration, it is true that: “Right now, television’s fictional politicians—even those who commit blunders or murders– are either more relatable or masterful than their real counterparts.” This is somewhat depressingly punctuated by the president himself Barack Obama who said: “I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient…It’s true. I was looking at Kevin Spacey thinking, ‘this guy’s getting a lot of stuff done.'”
I think perhaps it is this forward-facing approach to politics and its ability to scrutinize the current administration in a fairly unabashed manner that makes the Washington of House of Cards a corrupt, toxic and immoral place which is equal parts shocking, alien and yet totally, terrifyingly familiar. However, do not get me wrong – I am certainly not implying that House of Cards is a true nor accurate representation of Washington and the political system. One needs only to read Barney Frank’s article in the Portland Press Herald to get a true idea of the political plot-holes which exist in the show. BUT, what I am saying is that House of Cards was not built for the purpose of being utterly true to political proceedings as they stand, but rather for the purpose of showing the absolute worst features of the current political system, in order to make a point about where the US and we as a world may be heading with regards to the current political climate. It’s called a political drama for a reason, but perhaps in the age of political turmoil and media power we are living through one must shout louder to be heard. As Frank himself said: “There’s no better way to over power a trickle of doubt then with a flood of naked truth.”