Two articles in The Washington Post, published within a few days of each other, capture the irony of some of the current critical backlash against Netflix’s House of Cards: A March 8 article by Seth Masket stated boldly, “House of Cards is the worst show about American politics. Ever”—just days after the paper’s Emily Yahr asked the rhetorical question, “Should you be embarrassed that you already finished House of Cards?”
Her answer was a qualified no—the weather was terrible, Netflix’s Tina Fey series hadn’t dropped yet, and though she listed the most common complaint about the third season of the Beltway drama (boring), hers was more of an etiquette piece. James Wolcott had said in his VF blog that people bragging about binge-watching anything is tacky (“It’s like expecting congratulations or an amiable nod of confirmation after someone announces they just ate an entire 18-piece bucket of KFC without slipping into a complete coma”) while Vulture’s Daniel Engber, not talking about HOC directly said, “Your TV small-talk is ruining dinner parties.”
Can’t have our dinner parties ruined! To Engber, or anyone else with this problem, I might suggest you ban TV talk the way some hosts ban cellphones (and for the record, what drives me nuts are those who assert that watching a series with multiple characters and plot lines is the same as reading a novel). But taken together, the two Post pieces form a complaint closer to Wolcott’s analogy: I couldn’t stop watching this show and now I feel bad. As with the compulsive eater or serial killer, my sympathies only go so far.
The real problem (and this should be where I state that I am only four episodes into the third season of HOC, and liked the first two generally) was summed up by my friend Jim Perry, a painter in Manhattan. He called me out of the blue to complain about the weather—and this season of HOC. “It’s too much about real politics, like the West Wing,” he said. “I keep waiting for Frank Underwood to shove someone in front of a train.”
Hopefully that last gag was not a spoiler—the killing in question came at the beginning of last season and blew up on social media—but twinning Jim’s complaint about Frank, the conniving politician played by Kevin Spacey, who went from House majority whip to president in three short years, with Aaron Sorkin’s old White House fantasy makes the picture even clearer. Liberals loved West Wing because it presented a good thoughtful president whose staff was always talking (while walking) about the more elevated aspects of governance; it was the opposite of the reality they perceived in the White House during the terms of George W. Bush (the show almost exactly mirrored the length of the W show). It was pure escapism, the kind an unhappy child indulges in when they imagine their real parents are princes or movie stars, or at least someone who would let them eat ice cream for breakfast.
Whereas the Machiavellian Frank probably played as well as he did because of the way critics and supporters alike perceived Barack Obama. The show, based on a British miniseries of the same name, debuted February 1, 2013, just a few weeks after Obama’s second inauguration, and though the fictional Frank was not yet president, his ambition rivaled that of the fisherman’s wife in the Grimm’s fairy tale who would not rest until she became God. Americans may have been hankering for a president who was not above a little dirty pool, or in Frank’s case, chicanery and homicide, in order to get what he wants.
Or maybe now that he’s president, what Frank Underwood wants—universal employment, at the cost of restructuring entitlements like Social Security—is so divorced from political reality as to seem unhinged. (Masket’s criticism focused on the implausibility of this season’s plot points—party leadership does not handpick the presidential candidate, a solicitor general would not run for president etc.) People want to escape from reality, even in a political fantasy, not be forced to return to the LaBrea Tar Pits of D.C. today.
I thought HOC hit a few potholes in season two, like the episode in which Frank threw Freddy, the kindly old black man who made ribs for him, under the bus for reasons of political expediency. Not that his betrayal was unrealistic; sacrificing friends and even family is what we expect from Frank. It was that the actor playing Freddy, Reg E. Cathey, was born in 1958 and yet the show had him listening to ancient Delta blues of the Charley Patton sort, where it’s far more likely that if he were nostalgic for music it would be something along the lines of Funkadelic. They opted for the TV-movie cliché.
In the end (and I will get to the end of this season, as soon as I catch up on Better Call Saul and before the final half-season of Mad Men begins) House of Cards probably suffered from being too close to reality early on. Frank was nastier than most politicians (or so we hoped) but his actions were within the realm of plausible behavior. As with Homeland, people mistook it for reality—until all that batshit stuff with Brody in Iran. And Carrie going to find him.… ABC’s rival political drama, Scandal, seems a little wobblier this season—there’s only so much of Olivia Pope’s torn-between-two-lovers crisis that we can endure, or am I just speaking for men?
But Scandal never presented itself as realistic. As gory as some of the torture scenes got, few of that show’s fans think of it as anything more than a diversion, a glossy network version of a Brenda Starr comic. House of Cards has danced too close to the platform’s edge—and as Zoe Barnes can testify, you’ve got to stay behind that yellow line.