Why We Watch House of Cards

in Issues/SAIS Life

SELIM KORU
FACULTY EXPERTS SECTION EDITOR AT SAIS WASHINGTON

More than a few SAISers binge-watched the second season of House of Cards over its Feb. 14th release weekend. You all know who you are. Those who didn’t were summarily pestered about it by their sleep-deprived peers.

Needless to say, the show doesn’t paint a fair picture of Washington. Politicians bully, bribe, cheat and, if necessary, kill their way up the food chain. In the lead role, Kevin Spacey plays congressman Francis “Frank” Underwood, the ruthless House majority whip trying to make his way into high office. Some episodes are worth watching just to admire Spacey’s performance. His anti-hero role is oddly charming and flourishes his conversation with slow, deliberate movements of his hands. Every now and then Frank turns to the camera for a soliloquy, telling us why a lobbyist resisting him is making a mistake, or how glad he is that a congressman is taking a bribe. If we were not as intimately acquainted with Frank, he would appear as a purely evil man.

Given the subject matter, one can’t help but compare the show to reality. Spacey himself likes to quote a politician who apparently said that the show was “99 percent accurate.” The one percent that wasn’t? Apparently in reality, “You could not pass an education bill that fast.”

Some take those remarks a little too seriously. I have heard people in DC make strangely unqualified statements on the show’s accuracy. Sure, they say, politicians aren’t likely to get their hands quite as dirty as Frank, but he is not far off the mark. People in politics cheat, lie and, guess what, if you are active in that world, then so do you. Or you are prepared to, once you have finished your degree. The alternative is being the clueless idealist who gets his education bill gutted and becomes cannon fodder for the media.

That strand of thought runs strongly through American political discourse. Tune into any news channel and you will likely hear about people talking about the political horse race rather than policy. Is Hillary going to burn out before 2016? Will the bridge scandal hurt Chris Christie’s chances in the Republican primary? There is now an industry of news outlets like POLITICO that lubricate this town with salacious political gossip. Of course you will occasionally catch someone talk about ideas and policies, but never for long and never in depth. If you have to do that sort of thing, you do so on your own time—quietly, preferably with like-minded people.

So what do people mean when they say that the show is realistic? To state the obvious, the characters are far more attractive than their real-world counterparts, their jobs more eventful, and their habits, despite what anyone will tell you, more homicidal. But the show really departs from reality when it stretches the boundaries of duplicity. In the show, Frank’s lies seldom catch up with him. Most of his playthings eventually find out what he is up to, but it is usually too late by then. The President especially seems devoid of free will. And when he needs those duped companions again, Frank has no trouble charming his way back into their good graces.

That is alright though. It is a drama, not a documentary, and as such it should not have to be any more realistic a depiction of Congress than a cubist painting is of a barn. At their best, these shows take an aspect of life and blow it out of proportion.

What then, do international audiences think of the show? I have anecdotal evidence that few foreigners enjoyed more ideological predecessors, like The West Wing. One might argue that House of Cards is just as particular to Washington. Its roots, after all, go back to the city’s political ancestors. The show is a remake of the 1990s BBC series of the same name, which in turn can be traced back to Shakespeare’s Henry III.

Data on this sort of thing is hard to come by, but House of Cards seems to have broken that West Wing barrier. Netflix is already airing it in 40 countries and I am sure the rest have gotten their hands on it through appropriately dubious means.

So far, it seems that non-Americans take the show’s portrayal of politics more seriously. A member of the Chinese Politburo reportedly brought up the show with other party officials. His country features very unfavorably in the show, but the Politburo might be tempted to incorporate it in their study of their rival-to-be.

Many in my home country of Turkey are watching the show amidst a political civil war between the ruling Prime Minister and a clandestine religious organization. The resulting corruption scandals have rocked the foundations of the decade-long government. A veteran Turkish columnist still took some time off recently to write about House of Cards. Though its creators might think of the show as fiction, he argued, “countries like ours live through much worse, so we have no reason to question the show’s credibility.”