House of Cards Isn’t The West Wing’s Polar Opposite — It’s Its Younger Cousin

Been working on this Think Piece-y essay for awhile. I got a late start watching Season 2 of House of Cards, but after watching it and mulling it over, I think the similarities with West Wing are more striking than many people realize.

Also, thanks to the Twitter-er who pointed out that this needs a SPOILER ALERT for HoC.

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House of Cards has already earned its place in history. Even if the series itself were an artistic disaster, the fact that it’s Netflix’s first original series, available for streaming and binging on the viewer’s own terms, signals an important shift in the way we watch and analyze TV. But what’s not new about the show is the way it creates a hermetically sealed D.C. Fantasyland for viewers to lose themselves in. Everything about the show furthers the impression that you’ve stepped into a different universe. The show is heavily stylized, brilliantly paced, relentlessly addictive, and makes life in the nation’s capital seem almost seductive. Everyone walks fast, talks fast, and thinks fast. And if all this sounds familiar, it’s probably because a show like this has been done before. The first time around, it was called The West Wing.

Of course, no one would mistake the soap-opera cynicism of House of Cards for The West Wing’s cheery, inspired outlook. But the shows are more alike than partisans of either would admit. The West Wing has a lot of things that House of Cards doesn’t: A president who is one of television’s greatest role models; a cast of characters whose integrity is beyond question; an essentially benign view of the U.S. political system. But ultimately, The West Wing provided viewers with an equally seductive D.C. Fantasyland 15 years before House of Cards did. What House of Cards does is re-imagine this fantasyland so that it speaks to the perceptions of Millennials. The divide between the two shows isn’t ideological; it’s generational.

HOUSE OF CARDS

“Ideological,” in this case, doesn’t refer to a specific political agenda. (It can’t, since House, as a number of writers have noted, decided early in the second season that policy is for losers.) Instead, the ideology of the show is the claim it tries to make about “how politics really works,” from the kind of people who populate D.C. to the way in which things get done. But while both shows — one about a city brimming with idealistic do-gooders, and one about a city filled with treacherous hypocrites — play on common stereotypes about Washington, neither one was designed to give viewers a real-life understanding of politics. Aaron Sorkin has always been up front about this, saying, “The West Wing isn’t meant to be good for you … Our responsibility is to captivate you for however long we’ve asked for your attention.”

Not everyone has listened, of course. Enough young liberals inspired by The West Wing came to D.C. with Barack Obama, that Vanity Fair ran an article on the phenomenon. Meanwhile, House of Cards has become a hit not just in the U.S., but among the Chinese political elite, largely for its ostensible insight into the workings of American politics. I suspect that most people who live in the capital, as I did for three years, know at heart that it’s a complicated place, and that reality doesn’t conform to the expectations of either show. But damn if it isn’t fun to pretend.

It’s in this sense that House of Cards is the Millennial Generation’s response to The West Wing — it’s our generation’s idea of what it would look like to be seduced by the glamour and power of Washington, D.C. For despite all the hope that accompanied Barack Obama’s ascent in national politics, the last decade has not been a good one when it comes to reinforcing young people’s faith in our institutions. In his book Twilight of the Elites, Christopher Hayes calls the period between 2000 and 2010 “the Fail Decade,” a 10-year span in which every major pillar of American life, from the federal government and banking system to the Catholic Church and Major League Baseball, betrayed our trust.

House of Cards should be seen in this context, and its bleak cynicism about politics is borne out by Millennials’ attitudes. In August, National Journal’s Ron Fournier wrote a long piece for The Atlantic on how Millennials may be civic-minded, but hold government in very low regard. He cites a 2013 survey by the Harvard Institute of Politics revealing revealing across-the-board disgust with politics. One-third of respondents agreed that “political involvement rarely has any tangible results.” Nearly 60 percent believed that politicians acted for mostly selfish reasons, regardless of party. And Fournier quoted a student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who said, “Results are important to us, and sadly, politics isn’t a place for results.”

The uncritical use of the phrase “results” raises what should be an obvious question: What good are results if they aren’t good results? The answer House of Cards gives is quite clear: We are meant to admire Frank Underwood’s skill at passing legislation, or as he would say, “whipping the damn vote.” As for considering whether or not he’s passing useful legislation? This is a luxury we can’t afford. The parallels to the Obama era are striking — liberals are desperate to pass a bill, any bill, just to prove they can. The awfulness of government has now gotten so bad that organizations like Run For America are springing up to encourage millennials to run for office, because so few are choosing to do so of their own volition.

Meanwhile, the moments of The West Wing that are meant to tug at our patriotic heartstrings — Sam Seaborn’s “last full measure of devotion” speech, or the military funeral in “In Excelsis Deo” — exhibit a level of sincerity that seems delusional in today’s political climate. By Sorkin’s own admission, he laid on the schmaltz partially because The West Wing was designed as an idealized retelling of the Clinton administration. It’s a world where viewers can have it both ways: a principled liberal administration, presiding over a booming economy and digital revolution. In the House of Cards era, the myth of endless abundance is over. Every resource we have — not just money, but time, column inches, political capital — is suddenly scarcer and more valuable, and even people with good intentions must turn to evil means to get their way.

Capitalizing on this heightened level of conflict, House of Cards takes many of The West Wing’s most memorable tropes and updates them for a darker time. Laurie, the call girl who Sam Seaborn befriends in The West Wing’s first season, quickly becomes fodder for jokes (“Knock knock. Who’s there? Sam and his prostitute friend.”). Laurie’s equivalent in House of Cards, Rachel Posner, becomes the target of Douglas Stamper’s creepy obsessions before turning to Christianity in a Dostoevsky-style conversion, and then killing her tormentor in an act of self-defense.

Likewise, in The West Wing, lobbyists are a secondary concern at best. They’re either blithely amoral (Bruno Giannelli), people who share the president’s views but want things done on a faster schedule (Amy Gardner), or comic relief (Cartographers for Social Equality). Meanwhile, the main lobbyist in House of Cards, Remy Danton, is all-knowing, all-seeing, and totally devoid of any policy goals — a one-man embodiment of the Revolving Door between K Street and Capitol Hill. (Political patronage is decades old, of course, but you could be forgiven for thinking it’s more intractable than ever.) And as for journalism? Both shows feature reporters who get romantically entangled with a source, but one romance ends with a baby and a house in Santa Monica, while the other ends with a dead body on the Metro tracks. (And this is to say nothing of the actual journalism in House of Cards, which, as a number of writers have noted, leaves much to be desired.)

The truth is that despite each show creating a convincing universe in its own way, no single television show is ever going to capture “the real D.C.,” because D.C. is a city with over 600,000 people that sits at the heart of a metro area of more than five million. It’s the nation’s political capital, yes, but it’s also a rapidly gentrifying tech hub, a magnet for immigration, the birthplace of hardcore punk, and home to one of the country’s largest black middle classes. And Beau Willimon and Aaron Sorkin are both smart enough to know this, which renders “Which show is more true to life?” a moot question. House of Cards revels in its emptiness so unabashedly that the only possible defense of Frank Underwood is, as Nicole Hemmer wrote in U.S. News, that he “gets things done.” Toby Ziegler would read a phrase like that and go berserk: “Yes, but what exactly is he getting done?” And Zoe Barnes would shrug and reply, “Does it matter?”

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52 comments
  1. Andrew Bolden said:

    Curious whether you think VEEP has a place in this discussion. While it might not enjoy the same sort of widespread cultural buzz, IMHO, it’s got DC culture nailed.

    • jordanfraade said:

      I haven’t seen it, honestly. But I have heard that it nails the Comedy of Errors part of D.C. quite well. Would definitely like to watch it one day.

  2. joe s said:

    Is there some reason Lilyhammer does not qualify as Netflix first streaming series?

  3. Eva said:

    Definitely have to get back to the second season. Great piece.

  4. Nate said:

    Veep is great but it has the same kind of cynical viewpoint as House of Cards, just in a comedic fashion rather than the bleak drama of HoC. Really interesting insight here.

  5. Reblogged this on Hemmingplay and commented:
    Watching it right now, as a matter of fact. I liked West Wing, and like HoC, although the darker, cynical spirit of it does go against my idealistic sensibilities.

  6. Haven’t seen House of Cards yet and still loved this post. Well written and gripping. -t

  7. Although the shows are similar in many ways (as you deftly pointed out), HoC season one (haven’t seen two yet) is full of cynicism and revenge at levels not seen on the West Wing. HoC also benefits from the additional freedom of not being on a broadcast network.

    They are both excellent shows with fantastic writing and acting talent.

  8. Regenerating Nations said:

    I adored West Wing. The pace and the flow of how they worked had me hooked as well as the cast just working so well. I haven’t seen HoC yet but, your post has made me think about giving it a go

  9. Throw everything together and mix it with the large spoon and you have the political climate at the moment. It has always been chaotic and nasty and rude and in your face. Look at history. People love each other they just can not get along.

  10. no1lftbhd said:

    Reblogged this on .

  11. James Holden said:

    Surely House of Cards is the older cousin to West Wing as the books and original tv series predate West Wing?

    • I was going to say the same thing – Sir Francis has entered our cultural consciousness and his catchphrase “you might think so, but I couldn’t possibly comment” is still bandies about many a workplace – especially in the civil service

  12. It is a little odd to reference West Wing and make absolutely no reference to the UK version of House of Cards after which the Netflix remake is closely patterned. The UK House of Cards preceded West Wing, so there is no real evidence that West Wing inspired any aspect of the Netflix House of Cards. West Wing is a redundant intermediary term.

  13. Reblogged this on prantikghosh and commented:
    Couldn’t have written it better. Phenomenal articulation of thoughts.

  14. marthakeimstlouis said:

    Reblogged this on Marthakeimstlouis’s Blog and commented:
    interesting article, great shows, both. And I am not a millennial. Where does 68 put me? oh yeah, aginghippie

  15. Nice post! Like it! BTW, tv-series which IMHO really grasps what does politics is about is rather underestimated BOSS. I also strongly reccomend Danish BORGEN however a bit claustrophobic political landscape presented in story about female Prime Minister a little bit spoils whole fun.

  16. Great post! I loved both West Wing & House of Cards. I just recently finished HoC Season 2. In my opinion, there are some similarities but Hoc seems to be more edgy & raw. I plan to watch the British version of HoC soon! I watch Scandal too – very different feel!

  17. Jane said:

    Interesting post. One question though… are we sure Stamper is dead?

  18. Did you watch the original BBC series first? If you mentioned it in your post I apologize for missing it… I saw a piece on an MSNBC program that recommended watching it before watching the American version so it’s next on my netflix hit list…

  19. Reblogged this on Nichole2000 and commented:
    DC is the center of the universe. Where else can so many opinions convene to answer nothing while commanding the world’s attention? Great essay!

  20. Nice post……but as said above: pity you didn’t reference the UK series from 20 years ago. Urquhart has certainly entered the British psyche Kevin Spacey probably watched it on BBC first!

  21. Is the BBC version of the same name? is that on Netflix as well?

  22. Really enjoyed this piece. Totally devoted to both West Wing and HoC. As a South African who finds US politics fascinating, the shows are like the two sides of the same coin- the light and shade of a city and a political system that I would love to explore.

  23. sugarmuzzle said:

    This show is one of my favs but stop killing ppl off!!

  24. Great analysis – I love “House of Cards” (but have yet to watch one episode of “The West Wing”) – it is excellently done, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are incredible in their roles and all the characters seem to have depth and dimension – which is sadly lacking in most commercial TV programming . Like you said – neither show will be able to fully realize what DC is – but I can not find it hard to imagine that some of what goes on in “House of Cards” is not realistic to a certain extent. For Frank, the ends justify the means – and the question is will his past actions ever catch up with him?

    I am sad that Stamper is dead – he was my favorite –

  25. M.C. said:

    As a fan of both shows, I’ve often looked for connections myself. This is better than any attempt I’ve made. Very fun read, thanx.

  26. So how do you feel about Kevin McCarthy being the guy that Frank Underwood was modeled after?

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