The main appeal of most entertainment is simply to escape from the humdrum of regular life. High school film students will often make the mistake of driving around town with a camera, filming the people and places they would regularly see, thinking that their regular life would be interesting to others. It isn’t. Real life typically lacks the condensed story-telling and dramatic arc that good film-making or theater requires. Of course, the thing that makes theater and film interesting also make it artificial. Drama may capture some essential aspect of life, but it is not life itself. If it were, it would be boring.
House of Cards is about as far from real life as one can imagine. It’s characters are so sinister, so clever, and so competent in their sinister cleverness that the series bears no resemblance whatsoever to real political life. Real politics is the dullest thing in the universe.
I have met a great many politicians and no more than a handful could be described as clever and none as sinister. For the most part, politicians are bland, weak-egoed, moderately bright folks who are eager to do nothing daring, exciting, or controversial in their entire lives.
So, House of Cards is an escapist fantasy of what politics would look like if it weren’t so dull. The show is so cynical and the characters so diabolical that it is sometimes hard to suspend disblelief. But like watching Itchy and Scratchy, it is so ridiculously unreal that it is fairly entertaining. And yes, it is very, very dark. But again, the darkness is so cartoonish that it is hardly menacing. The darkness of Breaking Bad was more true to real life, but that is precisely what made it so much harder to stomach.
American movies and TV have had a very hard time making compelling political dramas. Too often they are either hyper-cynical, like House of Cards, or they’re saccharinely idealistic, like West Wing. The reality of politics is closer to high school kids filming while they drive around town… boring as crap.
Perhaps the best political movies are not dramas, but absurdist comedies. Notice that of the Washington Post’s list of best political movies, a large number are actually absurdist comedies, including Being There, Bob Roberts, Dr. Strangelove, Duck Soup, Election, O Brother, Where Art Thou, and Thank you for Smoking.
That’s the way you should watch House of Cards. It’s actually a very dark comedy.
(corrected for typos)