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.
“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 Wingisn’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 Cardshas 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 Atlanticon 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 arespringing 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 inHouse 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?”