Magazine article The American Prospect

It's All in the Game: House of Cards Is Irresistible, but by Insisting That Corruption, Not Fanaticism, Is Poisoning Washington, the Series Feels Dated

Magazine article The American Prospect

It's All in the Game: House of Cards Is Irresistible, but by Insisting That Corruption, Not Fanaticism, Is Poisoning Washington, the Series Feels Dated

Article excerpt

It's possible that people who live in Washington and work in a cottage industry that includes writing and reading this magazine feel about Netflix's series of political intrigue, House of Cards, the way a resident of Los Angeles (me, say) feels about the guys on Entourage: I'm surrounded by assholes like these every time I walk into a coffee shop on Wilshire Boulevard, so why would I want to watch them on TV? Nonetheless my guess is that power couples like Francis and Claire Underwood don't frequent the bars on the U Street corridor. Frank is the majority whip of the House of Representatives, and Claire is an activist, and together they consolidate their power in the shadows of each other, smoking at the back window of their townhouse in the wee hours; these moments of nocturnal rendezvous, right down to the cigarettes themselves, are post-coital except the coitus, which Frank and Claire have with other people but not each other. They divulge virtually everything when they talk, and on the rare occasion when they don't, things unravel. Their relationship is so symbiotic that when one does conceal something from the other, not only their relationship but their individual fortunes plummet--a nosedive they can pull out of only when they become a team again. The Underwoods are Bill and Hil crossed with the Macbeths, with power apparently an end unto itself since the vice presidency that Frank schemes for seems unworthy of all the plotting and is, as he should know better than anyone, an unreliable stepping-stone to the White House.

Stendhal said that politics in art is like a gunshot at the opera, though some translations have implied that the outburst to which he referred was more anatomical. In any case the disruption, whether gunshot or gas, is offensive but impossible to ignore. In House of Cards the shot and the opera are interchangeable; whereas the more high-minded West Wing or Lincoln is driven as much by ideas as personalities, in House of Cards the issues--whether a shipyard closing in this episode or an education bill that Frank is trying to shepherd through Congress in that--are props to advance the series. While we shouldn't kid ourselves that the goings-on in House of Cards aren't irresistible, and while no one doubts, especially these days, that Washington warrants our cynicism, the jaundiced scorn of the series leaves it earthbound, not just because cynicism is cheap no matter how earned it is but because it shortchanges the dramas potential complexities. Whatever anyone thought of Bill Clinton or Dick Cheney, amid their debased fantasies of comely interns or Middle Eastern wars, each surely had his convictions and thereby the constituencies that accounted for and sustained his power.

The 1990 British series of the same name on which House of Cards is based had more of a partisan subtext, and not a particularly subtle one. In England the show was a commentary on the social indifference of the Conservative Party that just had seen the departure of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; the London of this earlier House of Cards was overrun with rats scurrying across city streets. The Frank Underwood of the American version, developed by David Fincher and directed by estimable directors like Carl Franklin and James Foley, is a Democrat so nobody can make the typical claims of media bias, I guess, though we have no sense of what Underwood's party means to him. Importing from the British show certain tropes, among them an imperious catchphrase that became notorious in the U.K. ("You might very well think that, but I couldn't possibly comment"), the template of Fincher's version seems closer to Allen Drury's 1959 blockbuster novel Advise and Consent, adapted to the screen with pulpy panache by Otto Preminger. If the writing of House of Cards is wildly uneven to the point of shameless, making so little effort to cover up the dialogue's expositional intent that often Underwood just faces the camera and tells us point-blank what's going on, that conceit (borrowed from the U. …

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