I was slow to warm up to House of Cards. I’ve grown so tired of the anti-heroes presented in shows like Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Dexter, that I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for Frank Underwood. Even worse, House of Cards is about politics and I study and follow politics for work, do I really need more politics in my entertainment?
But then I realized that House of Cards is not about politics at all. It doesn’t portray how the political world really operates. Instead, it indulges a fantasy of how some people wish the world works. Despite the Machiavellian amorality of the main characters, House of Cards offers the fantasy that someone is actually pulling the levers of power and able to get things done. People don’t want reporters pushed in front of trains or alcoholic Congressmen asphyxiated in their cars, but they do want to imagine that someone understands what is going on, is able to devise effective plans, and can control events.
During the first season when Frank was championing an education reform bill, I overheard several DC-EduBubble-types express admiration for how Frank Underwood managed to roll over the teachers unions and abolish tenure. They don’t want to be Frank, but they want to imagine that’s it’s possible to accomplish what Frank can, perhaps without the icky stuff. Since their centralized, technocratic solutions require the conviction that smart individuals can fully-grasp and control events, House of Cards shows them the world they hope exists.
The reality is that politics looks a lot more like Veep than like House of Cards. The characters in Veep are smart, but their vanity, pettiness, and the inherent unpredictability of the world stymies their efforts to grasp or control events. They’re silly little monkeys in power suits pretending to be in charge of the zoo. And it’s hilarious.
Veep is far more entertaining than House of Cards, especially this 3rd season that was just released. The 3rd season didn’t even continue to deliver on the fantasy of competence and control. As Nick Gillespie wrote in a brilliant review in The Daily Beast:
House of Cards is going softer than President Frank Underwood’s gut…. Even more disappointing is the devolution of First Lady Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) from a ruthless operator who puts Agrippina the Younger to shame into a latter-day Lady Macbeth filled with doubts about her and her husband’s patently unredeemable actions. “We’re murderers, Francis,” she says at one point in the new season—as if that’s a bad thing.
But even at its peak, House of Cards is far less appealing than Veep. House of Cards is to politics as porn is to romance. There is a certain base appeal, but it is superficial and fleeting. Veep, on the other hand, is remarkably truthful in its ridiculousness. My belly hurts with laughter as I watch Veep — much like when I read the similarly ridiculous Twitter feeds of the EduPundits.