Pass the Clicker: The Escapism of House of Cards

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 ThereBob RobertsDr. StrangeloveDuck SoupElectionO 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)


11 Responses to Pass the Clicker: The Escapism of House of Cards

  1. Greg Forster says:

    *ITCHY and Scratchy

    And shouldn’t this be a Pass the Clicker?

  2. George Mitchell says:

    “The main appeal of most entertainment is simply to escape from the humdrum of regular life…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.”

    These perplexing observations stun me. I saw “Luna Gale” and “Gypsy” last weekend in Chicago. While neither was “life itself” (in the literal sense),my reactions to both are at odds with virtually everything Jay says here.

    “Luna Gale” involves the role of a child protective services agent and agency. I had trepidations as to whether that would make for compelling drama. It turned out to be one of the most engaging and absorbing plays I have seen in years. To me it “capture[d] some essential aspect[s] of life” and was not “boring.” Jay appears to suggest that its appeal derives from not being “life itself.” What can that mean?

    “Gypsy” is a moderately faithful musical adaption/portrayal of “life itself,” as measured by the true story of Rose and her two daughters. It was not “boring.” Is that because it was not literally “life itself”? Again, what does that mean?

    As for House of Cards, I agree that I watch it as an “escape,” though I recall no “humdrum” days recently. I liked “Breaking Bad” much, much more. The original House of Cards, btw, is much better than the Spacey version.

    Where I guess I disagree most is with Jay’s sweeping claim about the “main” appeal of “most” entertainment. That is so broad a generalization as to be near-meaningless. It seems odd coming from someone who so firmly and correctly insists on precision in language. It’s a statement that sounds much like the kind of assertion Jay usually would dismantle.

    • I appreciate your comment, George, and apologize if my language is unclear. Of course, good drama is about real life, but it is not the same as how we actually live. It is condensed, artificially infused with tension, and the plot is manipulated for effect.

      Watching Luna Gale would not be the same as watching an actual child protective services agent for 2 hours. And Gypsy is pretty removed from actual life — they break out into song every now and then.

      We want our drama to capture something real and important about life without being the same as real life. That is what I meany by “escaping.”

      • George Mitchell says:

        I think we are talking about two different kinds of “escape.”

        One involves escaping from the “real world,” with the current House of Cards being an example. I will make that escape about 8 p.m. tonight.

        The other is the “escape” from day-to-day ordinariness to a dramatic presentation which captures the essence of the “real world.” That’s how I would differentiate House of Cards from, say, Luna Gale. It’s why I think it’s overly broad to say the main appeal of most entertainment is to escape.

        I would love to know what your daughter thinks, fresh from her role in Glass Menagerie. I most recently saw that two years ago at American Players Theater in Spring Green WI. It was so strongly presented I ached for the characters. It seemed very real to me.

      • You are certainly correct in saying that The Glass Menagerie makes you feel real emotions, but it is explicitly not real. Tom tells us in the opening monologue: “I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” He continues: “The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.”

        Of course, you are right that quality drama tends not to be purely escapist while still departing from real life. But House of Cards is almost pure escapism. As I wrote in the post, “House of Cards is about as far from real life as one can imagine.” The same is not true of The Glass Menagerie.

        I’m also curious to hear what my daughter thinks of this, but I’ll let her speak for herself… if she wants.

      • George Mitchell says:

        I have empathy and relate to the characters in Glass Menagerie. So a play such as that is an escape to rather than from reality, for me at least. (Many real people “have tricks in their pocket,” BTW.)

        I have no empathy for characters in House of Cards, including Zoe and the dead Congressman. Because none of them are “real.”

        As for not breaking into song, speak for yourself. I sang and hummed “On Wisconsin” last night as I drove home from the game with IU. I often break out into songs from Pitch Perfect.


  3. matthewladner says:

    The original House of Cards was even more fun than this one, but I totally binged out the second season in about a week. Great fun. My favorite line from this season was when VP FU was at the Civil War reenactment, speaks to the audience Richard III style:

    “Personally I take no pride in the Confederacy. You should never start a war you cannot win, and I would never raise my flag for a cause asinine as slavery”


  4. Boring works as a political strategy. Committee meetings and policy conferences so tranquilize potential monitors that deliberate mis-allocation of hundreds of billions of tax dollars and millions of hours of students’ lives can pass unremarked. So-called “public education” (the State-monopoly school system) is the original “industrial policy”, as advocates for State direction of economic activity styled their substitute for direct nationalization of industry after socialists lost the theoretical argument.

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