‘House of Cards’ and the Spectacle of Modern American Politics

When House of Cards first premiered on Netflix in 2013, it electrified the entertainment industry. It was the first foray into the new, exciting world of shows via online streaming platforms, and begat the influx of original material produced by Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and other sites. The show quickly earned critical acclaim and a large audience of people who couldn’t wait to see what Claire and Frank Underwood would (attempt) to get away with next.

House of Cards succeeded so dramatically in large part because its first season was pretty great. It was delightfully dark, with entertaining Shakespearean asides and near-perfect performances by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. In successive seasons, however, the show has been bogged down by its own ambition, depending on increasingly ridiculous plot twists as opposed to actual storytelling. The campy underdog show of the first seasons has, by season four, transformed into a bloated, yet still mildly entertaining, melodrama.

Yet there’s a sense of uneasiness that accompanies watching the newest season, which aired on March 4. In previous seasons, House of Cards was fun partially because it was so unrealistic. Similar to The West Wing, House of Cards exists in an alternate reality in which politicians are able to actually get things done. Sure, The West Wing believes that policymaking is achieved through actual negotiation and House of Cards promotes killing people as a method of political accomplishment, but the baseline is the same: Washington, D.C. is a place in which actual governing occurs. This version of reality is pretty far from the truth; as even President Obama has noted, Frank Underwood is impressive because he’s able to actually get stuff done.

The current presidential election has proven the ineptitude of politicians and the insanity of the American political system. Reality is now even crazier than House of Cards. Mild spoiler alert: In the newest season, Frank’s father having ties to the Ku Klux Klan is considered a major scandal. In actuality, Donald Trump refusing to immediately disavow a former Klan leader has largely blown over with little fuss.

As actual American politics devolves into a funhouse mirror version of its former self, the insanity of House of Cards has turned into a haven from the nonsense of real life. The heady drama has become the escape, and there’s something deeply disturbing about House of Cards seeming less bonkers than the real world.

My other favorite political show, the HBO comedy Veep, has always been very enjoyable because of its ridiculous political farce. The politics of Veep are defined by gridlock, gaffes, and a lot of cursing. The show manages to be funny yet still vaguely unsettling, because in the inadequacy of Selina Meyer’s government we see echoes of our own: here are a bunch of people supposed to be governing the free world, yet they refuse to do so for a variety of petty and personal reasons.

I’m not sure if I can stomach watching any political TV shows right now. The West Wing is so idealistic, it would just hurt my poor liberal heart. House of Cards has lost its sharp edge and seems tame compared to the circus that is the 2016 presidential election. Veep, with its inept politicians, just hits a little too close to home right now. Besides, everyone knows that the real entertainment is in the current race. Where else can you see a man running for president make a reference to his penis in a in a nationally televised debate?

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