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'House of Cards' Should Stop Trying to Be 'The West Wing'

David Giesbrecht for Netflix

“House of Cards” has always taken place in a dream world: Its facade of political realism has always been utterly unsustainable and totally superficial. This hasn’t been a flaw in the show. This has been its charm. The “Washington, D.C.” that we see on the show is much more like superficial stage dressing, the Styrofoam marble columns and scene paintings that make a stage play look just enough like Ancient Greece (in dim light). The campy fun of the show was that you didn’t have to believe it was real. You just watched and enjoyed the show.

For a big part of season three, this changes. Once Frank becomes president, the show starts to take itself strangely seriously, and as a result it is much less interesting to watch. Pin it on the “West Wing”-ification of Frank and Claire Underwood. 

This might have worked. It would have been interesting to see the show really commit to serial political drama—to see Remy and Seth and Doug and all the no-names on Claire’s staff jockeying for position, moving pawns across a vast board and vying for the favor of the King and Queen. But expanding the show’s frame like that would have taken the spotlight off of the two principals, and this has always been a show, first and foremost, about a marriage. If Remy and Seth look bored for most of the season—and they do—it’s because Frank is apparently able to govern the country all by himself (and still drink scotch and play video games all night). If the charm of “The West Wing” was the frenetic, ever-simmering machinations that kept the executive branch operational, there’s none of this on “House of Cards.” Remy and Seth don’t suck up airtime the way Leo and CJ did, because if "House of Cards" flirts with becoming a serial, it never quite commits. Everything feels superficial, because it is. 

As a result, the soft middle section of the current season mainly sucks. It is impossible to care about “America Works”—Frank’s economic plan, which creates jobs for people by paying businesses to give them jobs—or to get invested in whether Russian troops stay in the Jordan Valley (or is it leave? I forget). Policy fights are just props. Anyone who cares about the issues they are vaguely imitating will see them as hilariously bad imitations; anyone who doesn’t care about these things will continue not to care about them. It’s a pity the show didn’t hire Frank Underwood’s ghostwriter to write its screenplay, since at least he seems to understand how completely un-compelling “America Works” actually is.

“The West Wing”wasn’t a realistic portrayal of government, either, but its much more realistic facade had a purpose: the willed suspension of disbelief. You didn’t have to really believe that Washington was like that—or could be like that—but Aaron Sorkin gave you permission to pretend that you did believe. It doesn’t work like that, but wouldn’t it be great if it did? To allow us to enjoy that fantasy, a different level of pseudo-realism was required and was delivered, and watching the day-to-day minutia of the fantasy West Wing bureaucracy could be boringly enjoyable as a workplace drama. Moreover, we were being given permission to pretend that politics could be driven by brilliant idealism and passion. Wouldn’t it be great if it could? We know better, most likely, but the pleasure of “The West Wing” was that it enabled you to pretend otherwise.

“House of Cards” has always been a cartoon—or maybe, given how beautifully stylized and mise-en-scened it is, we should call it a graphic novel—but for too much of the current season, it forgets to not take itself seriously. Frank Underwood as president could have worked: President Frank would have made an amazing Caligula, and he should have. He should have been murdering journalists and having lots of weird sex. He should have burned Washington, D.C., to the ground. Raymond Tusk’s body should have been found on the steps of the White House and some sort of emergency law should have been declared giving him absolute power in perpetuity.

Instead, Frank Underwood gets caught up in being president and seems to actually want peace in the Middle East, or something. He seems to want “America Works” to work because then America will love him and elect him, or something. I got too bored to care, because this is not the Frank Underwood of season one. Frank Underwood does not care about democracy because he knows it to be a sham. Frank Underwood does not believe that being a good president gets you elected. Frank Underwood should be running on a platform of fear and intimidation, stomping on his enemies and double-crossing his friends. Frank Underwood would stay in power by blowing up the World Trade Center and declaring war on everybody; he would do everything that our most paranoid fantasies suggest that a truly evil president might do.

As the rise to power of a totally unscrupulous, murderous, and also hideously attractive Lucifer of a politician, “House of Cards” was a compelling nightmare. It was a warning sign, like the inverted American flag that is the show’s marquee, but a nightmare that was sustained by the reassuring feeling that this show was just a dream. Precisely because you didn’t have to take it seriously—because Frank would break the fourth wall and remind you that it was a play—the show gave you permission to indulge the terror of its paranoid suspicion. You could shiver at the horror, feeling all the more comfortable in your stable democracy precisely because the possibility of an Underwood presidency stayed locked in your unconsciousness.

But President Underwood upsets this balance. You could take the show seriously just as long as you didn’t have to take it seriously, as long as it only took place in the dream world of imaginary fantasy politics. But when a cartoon becomes president, it starts to look too fake to be real, but too real to be a cartoon. Frank plays the role of President Bartlett, a cartoon president doing things that would actually, in reality, be kind of great. But Bartlett was too good to be true, and the old Frank was too evil to be true. President Underwood is just too dull to be a fantasy, and so the props take center stage.

I suspect the problem, ultimately, is that President Frank Underwood is a little too close to the world we actually live in. The idea that a totally unscrupulous and power-hungry manipulator would occupy the White House—that “democracy” might have nothing to do with what actually happens—well, I wonder if that might hit a little too close to home. We’d like to believe that it can’t happen here; we’d like to be shown that it’s something that could only occur in a stylized graphic novel, and then enjoy being convinced that such a nightmare could only occur at night. Deep down, we believe in things of which it’s the function of a cartoon like “House of Cards” to distract us from. “The West Wing” offered idealism to cynical viewers. Today, we are filled with a passionate intensity, and for a while, at least, “House of Cards”offered a cartoon-ish diversion.

But for all its apparent cynicism, this season seems to think it takes place in a democracy: The people may be stupid and easily manipulated, but they have real power, and so Frank plays to them, carefully. He needs their votes, so he pretends to care about “America Works” and the peace process (and he pretends so hard that he seems to convince even himself). The real Frank Underwood would know better than to think that America works. The real Frank Underwood would rule through fear, terror, and hate. I knew Frank Underwood; Frank Underwood was a friend of mine. Mr. President, you’re no Frank Underwood.