I’d been hearing people talk up House of Cards for some time before a friend finally pressured me into getting my scene together and watching it, and I was glad that he did. It’s a fantastic show demonstrating not just the flexibility and formidability of the cast, but also the strengths of online-only original programming. We are living in an age of television experimentation and it’s leading us in some truly fascinating and delightful directions, as evidenced by the fact that shows like this exist and become hits in their own right, recognised with Emmy nominations and critical acclaim rather than being ignored because they’re made for the internet.
For those who haven’t watched the series, it follows the machinations of Congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), who’s determined to worm his way deep into the halls of power to his ultimate position. He’s a manipulator, a crafty man, a man who has many people in his pockets and knows how to find his way to control over others. And he’s extremely ruthless, as evidenced in the very first episode; we’re introduced to Underwood in a scene where he and his wife are leaving their home for a night at the symphony and they witness a hit and run involving the neighbours’ dog.
Underwood tells his wife to run and get the neighbours while approaching the dog, who is whining in agony. Spacey looks right at the camera and gives us a cold monologue about not having the patience for pointless suffering; all we can see is his face, but we know that Underwood’s hands below are suffocating the dog, as the whining is muffled and then peters out altogether. There’s an almost tender, loving expression on Underwood’s face as he finishes.
Bam. Title card.
This is House of Cards in a nutshell—a ruthless man determined to stop at nothing who doesn’t really seem to have any checks, but does have his own odd code of honour. He thinks of himself as doing the dog a favour, arguing to the audience that there’s no reason to prolong the poor animal’s agony by forcing it to wait while the neighbours find an emergency vet who will most likely recommend euthanisation anyway, given the nature of the dog’s injuries. It doesn’t occur to him that he doesn’t have the right to make this decision.
Frank thinks of himself as ruling the lives and deaths of those around him, and he’s a deeply sinister, hateful, horrific character. One of the most common comments I encounter about the show from fellow fans is that in a way, it’s a hatewatch: everyone on the show is kind of awful, driven by greed and personal agendas, and yet, it’s still a compelling and driven drama. It has something The West Wing, widely regarded as the compelling political drama of the last decade, lacked. It’s harder, sharper, darker, meaner, crueller.
There’s something very innocent and naive about The West Wing in many ways, even as it evokes complex emotions and the people on the show are sometimes forced to make difficult and even awful choices. At its heart, the show is about people who are trying to good things with their work in Washington and their politics; ‘let’s get to work,’ says Bartlet, and everyone accepts this, along with his Big Block of Cheese Day. The White House and the people who inhabit it are earnest and driven by love for their country and a desire to make a difference.
Not so on House of Cards, which is bluntly about power and who holds the cards, so to speak, in Washington. It’s a more honest look at the political system in the United States, which almost everyone understands is really driven by money and power, not goodhearted people who are just so enthusiastic about their country and fellow citizens that they’re willing to selflessly serve in Washington. This is The Wire to any number of cheery upbeat cop shows where good guys and bad guys are easy to identify and all the cases get solved at the end of the episode.
Simply, it’s better television than The West Wing, and I speak seriously here, because there’s a lot I like about Sorkin’s entry into the genre, despite its Sorkinness. The West Wing played with some novel things, like the live broadcast of the debate episode, and it explored some serious and complex issues—illness in office, women in power, making compromises for legislation, drug and alcohol addiction, and, of course, the unbearable pain of being Aaron Sorkin. But at its root, the show followed tradition and formula, and was made for an era in which people seemed to want some hope and redemption from their political television.
Contrast with now, where people seem to want their television dark, and the darker, the better. Which is where House of Cards excels, along with programming like Breaking Bad. Viewers don’t want to see the earnest heart at the core of humanity right now; they want to see people in dark places, driven to desperation. They want to see lobbyists and politicians exposed for what they are. They want to revel and roll in the darkness, rather than whistling in it.
This is a show with some brilliant potential, and I’m beyond excited that Netflix has ordered a second season. My fingers are crossed for many more, because even as I hate these characters and often find them despicable, I also love them, and I love this show more deeply than I can even begin to convey. It’s dark dirty, messy, ugly. It demands my attention and it feeds my passion for television that kicks you in the teeth with reality, rather than glossing over it and dressing it up with some nice flowers.
Bring us more darkness, because we live in dark times.