Since this got me thinking about it again…

What’s bizarre about House of Cards is that it’s theoretically a drama, but it’s not very dramatic. There aren’t any “edge of your seat” moments in the series, because there isn’t really any suspense. After a few episodes you know that Frank Underwood is going to want something, he’s going to do whatever it takes to get it, and he’ll be completely successful doing it. There will be no ramifications or unintended side effects. He’s always going to win. Inevitability doesn’t make for good drama, quite the opposite. Underwood is clearly the creators’ version of a ruthless politician, but he’s somehow less than that. Applying “ruthless” to a politician implies further attributes and characterization. Like Mitch McConnell, who aptly deserves the term as an palpable source of incredible and inexplicable anger and bitterness. Or Lyndon Johnson, whose climb out of desperate poverty created a character so restless, so corrosive and clinging, that he just couldn’t stop himself from making the mistakes that tanked his presidency. You could also toss in Richard Nixon, another poor child driven to a large extent by hatred of condescending swells who looked down on him. The sorts of men this term is applied to help shape the connotations of the word, make it suggest a broader theme of character, of darkness and negativity manifest.

In the case of House of Cards, it doesn’t. He’s “just” ruthless, in that he doesn’t care about how his decisions affect people other than himself, and he has no scruples. This is more like full-on psychopath territory than standard Tony Soprano-inspired antihero stuff. Tony was selfish and inconsiderate, and a violent killer besides, but he wasn’t identifiable as a genuine psychopath until the tail end of the series. Underwood more or less starts out that way. Where else can you go with this character if that’s the start point? You have to give the audience some reason to root for the protagonist. With Tony Soprano, the major reason is because all of his rivals were far worse than he was, and also that he tried to be a good father as well as his version of a good husband (which did not include sexual fidelity, of course). And he had other intriguing attributes as well: he was genuinely curious about certain things, like history and animals, for example. He had depth. If The Sopranos had begun with the version of Tony we saw in the last season, it would have tanked. And yet, this is precisely what House of Cards does with Underwood. Having him be the final iteration of this character would have been inspired. The initial version, eh, not so much.

Of course, his predecessor was very different from all that. Francis Urquhart rocked the UK series for a number of reasons. He was a master of the political game, cheerful and cynical. But he was also an arrogant man with an impulsive streak, which often got him into trouble. Sometimes he’d underestimate his opponents and pay a price. Sometimes he’d overreact to a threat and get into trouble from that. The basic story of the UK series is a man trying to hold his conscience together while maintaining power, but the drama often revolved around his matching wits with opponents with different philosophies than his own, but of the same political caliber as he. So he had to resort to desperate measures to secure victory. These things had the effect of creating something called suspense. On one level, you know that Urquhart is most likely going to win, because he is the show. But on the other hand, because of well-managed stakes and strong characterization, how this happens is a mystery, and it always comes with a cost to Urquhart. Urquhart isn’t an antihero, he’s really just a decent guy who keeps trying to make his values fit with his desire for power, often fails to do so, and slips ever further into melancholy, self-hatred and grief. Meanwhile, you have Frank Underwood just winning all the time and flashing a smile. Why we should care is unclear.

Ultimately, House of Cards just depresses me, and makes me worry we’ll never get a great US politics television series (though I do have high hopes for Veep). The instinct to pander to the audience is simply too extreme in US political shows, it would appear, to really tell the truth about what the problems with our politics are. And it’s time we called out the backstabbing politician who is only looking out for himself for what it is: a Hollywood cliche without much basis in reality. Even the shallowest knowledge of politics makes a person realize that this is almost a complete fiction, that getting such a reputation is a career killer because nobody will want to have anything to do with you, and getting elected Speaker of the House, let alone President of the United States, requires the support of lots and lots of people. The real work of officeholders is about building relationships, doing favors, continually accomplishing gradual progress. Politicians are self-interested and ambitious as a group, but there’s only very little one person can do alone out of 435. It’s depressing to see such cliches just thrown around, especially since I think the public largely has this image of politicians too. It’s the equivalent of the evil businessman in movies, though it has less of a basis in truth as there are some businessman who do such things (though usually more in bullshit and denial than in movielike gleeful self-awareness). But both mislead as to where the real dangers in those professions lie.

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  1. Matmos says:

    1) Your thought on the go-to Hollywood politician stereotype sounded like a rumination on the power of the stories we tell ourselves: how our little entertainments can really result in the erosion of our institutions through derision & through discouragement of competent people to accept the passage of the reins of government.

    2) From Terry Pratchett in re: the banalness and non-otherness of the folks that do evil things: “[Y]ou might have to face the fact that bad things happened because ordinary people, the kind who brushed the dog and told their children bedtime stories, were capable of then going out and doing horrible things to other ordinary people. It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was Us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No-one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things.”

    Cf recent “Bush is a swell guy” article via BalloonJuice on #2.

    • that’s a fantastic quote and piece. all the more reason to emphasize how wonderful it is for us trendy cynics to be soooooo much more removed and elevated from those who would otherwise be considered “US”. if we consider our own compatriots to also be “THEM”, then everyone becomes THEM and we are therefore able to at least somewhat dispassionately opine on the foibles of all of the THEM; rather than just the subset of THEM that happen to live outside of the borders of our artificially constructed habitation designed to house our particular version of THEM.

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