In 1939, Jimmy Stewart turned in an acting performance that, for many Americans, still serves as the “everyman” understanding of politics. To the modern viewer, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington might come across as clunky and naïve, but it nevertheless allows us to indulge in a time-honored narrative fantasy: an outsider can, through a combination of earnest idealism and principled resistance, affect the political process. This meme is so pervasive that even the current president and his team bought into it. (Conventional wisdom has it that Obama has subsequently become more grounded in the actual realities of Washington, for better or worse.)
The latest in DC-centric mythmaking is “House of Cards.” An experiment in delivering an original drama exclusively to Netflix viewers, HOC is available in a binge-worthy season block on the streaming service. Like so many political dramas before it, the show is packed with power dynamics and palace intrigue. Add to that some excellent acting talent (Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, etc.) and behind-the-camera muscle (David Fincher, Beau Willimon), and you’ve got a recipe for a strong program, regardless of the means of transmission.
I’m a sucker for both political entertainment and innovative content delivery models, so this one looked like a winner right out of the gate. So why is my reaction to “House of Cards” somewhere between aversion and infatuation? The answer likely has more to do with my own experiences in DC than the show itself. Still, the all-encompassing cynicism on display should be apparent to any viewer, not just exhausted Beltway types. Mr. Smith is nowhere to be found in the narcissistic, influence-poisoned culture of HOC. Pretty much every character is reprehensible on any number of levels. Even those with altruistic motives are doomed to soul-sapping compromises. If there are angels, they are long since fallen.
Compare HOC to the “The West Wing.” If any show had business being cynical, it’s this one. Yet it was anything but. Airing during the darkest days of the George W. Bush administration, TWW served as an escapist fantasy for the approximately half the country despondent over losing the presidency unfairly, narrowly and twice. President Bartlett and his team of quick-talking, fast-walking wonks are not so far removed from Mr. Smith. They came to Washington as idealists, faced tremendous opposition, encountered institutional resistance, but nonetheless remained resolute in their conviction that governance is an opportunity to do right by the governed. Other depictions of leadership follow a similar theme, from Aaron Sorkin’s first executive drama, the American President, to “Commander In Chief” and even comedic depictions like “Veep.” Each of these programs depicts cynicism on some level, but beneath all the conniving beats the indefatigable heart of Mr. Smith.
“House of Cards” does not follow this narrative tradition. Instead, it revels in the worst Machiavellian impulses of its characters. Never does the viewer assume that the scheming is for the benefit of the American people; if that’s an outcome, it’s purely coincidence.
There are earlier depictions of political cynicism, such as is All the President’s Men, which took place during a particularly cheerless period for America. Nevertheless, the film gave us heroes to root for in Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. These two real-life journos — played on screen by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, respectively — laid bare the Watergate cover-up and went toe-to-toe with a hostile administration that was not only responsible for dirty political tricks, but also the perpetuation of a pointless war in Southeast Asia. The movie radiates ennui, but still manages to give us a reason to believe. If the system can be challenged, it can be reformed.
“House of Cards” scoffs at either proposition.
For me, there’s an “uncanny valley” aspect to HOC. If you work in the policy sphere in Washington, you probably encounter versions of these characters (and supporting characters) every day. Without getting into all of the specific reasons, I can say that the show stresses me out. (I’m sure that members of the NYFD that experienced 9/11 might feel something similar about “Rescue Me.”) It’s therefore impossible for me to experience the show as a real estate broker in Toledo might.
Escapist or not, “The West Wing,” All the President’s Men, or even Zero Dark Thirty each provide a window into various political processes. “House of Cards” does, too, but those processes aren’t in service of anything noble. Nobody is shepherding liberty, exposing criminality or defending against terror. They’re all scheming for themselves, and if not, they’re merely cogs in a vast machine the scope of which they are ultimately incapable of comprehending, much less subverting. Seeing fine actors exhibit these qualities is discomfiting. It’s not reality, but it’s too real to be enjoyable.
In 2008, America elected a president on the Mr. Smith rationale. We reelected him under a different set of presumptions. “House of Cards” is a product of the post-hope-and-change era, in which even pragmatism is met with weary indifference. Does this mean that Mr. Smith is gone for good? I doubt it. America needs its myths, which is why an actor from Hollywood managed to lead the free world for the better part of a decade. Even the disenfranchised America of the 21st century prefers not to believe that our politics are wholly pernicious. (This could be the point behind Lincoln — a movie less about idealism than principled policymaking.) Political opportunism and bureaucratic gridlock are real. So is our belief that dedicated individuals can sometimes inspire change — incremental, perhaps, but also profound. “House of Cards” does not feature a single one of these characters. But that doesn’t mean we still don’t need them.