Kevin Spacey is an actor so impressive that he can murder a dying puppy with his bare hands and an audience will keep on rooting for him. He proves this to be true in the first minute of Netflix’s House of Cards, in which he plays modern television’s favorite crooked politician, Frank Underwood. Don’t worry. No more spoilers beyond this point.
Season two of the series was released last week to an audience eight times larger than that of season one. Forbes reports that 16% of Netflix’s over 40 million subscribers watched at least 1 episode of this binge-watching saga within the first 24 hours of its release.
Inspired by a BBC mini-series over two decades old (also available on Netflix) based on a novel by Michael Dobbs, House of Cards offers viewers the story of a crooked congressman’s ruthless and often seemingly amoral pursuit of ever more political power. Set in the context of modern day Capitol Hill, the show’s characters have a knack for both backhanded power plays and shameless exploitation of the people closest to them. It has proved nothing short of amazing that audiences would flock to a show centered around Washington D.C. at a time when disdain and distrust towards the federal government are at historic highs. Or maybe it’s not that amazing.
Along with excellent writing, a revolutionary new style of TV in which all the episodes are released at once, and a very talented cast, House of Cards has yet another element to its success. It gives audiences the version of Washington that they want to believe exists. The show’s characters are unheroic, cold, and calculating. Instead of becoming downtrodden by corruption, corporate influence, a sensationalist press, and violent partisanship, they embrace such problems as a means to get ahead. Morally detached pragmatism is their justification for all wrongdoings. Pure self-interest is their motivation to keep going.
A similar show on television that is also wildly successful operates on a similar premise. That would be Game of Thrones, a story that despite being about a fictional medieval kingdom, offers an equal degree of backstabbing, deceit, and unforgiving wickedness within the highest echelons of power. Whether your taste in tricksters takes the form of Frank Underwood or Tyrion Lannister, both stories expose the rotten core of leaders who lack traditional morals, and whose lacking is a source of great strength in a world wrought with inequality, instability, and disillusionment.
As we watch Kevin Spacey and his peers work to manipulate the public, the press, and each other in a direction towards ever more personal power, it becomes a very cathartic experience for the viewer. Seeing politicians spend more time trying to consolidate power rather than trying to improve their policies confirms the suspicions of those who distrust government, which would be most of us.
In real life, however, as anyone who has worked in politics knows, this consolidation of power more often than not revolves around cheesy fundraisers, boring phone calls, loads of research, and even more schmoozing. At least the House of Cards version of Washington always keeps us entertained with fresh blood and saucy scandals.
The other reality of the House of Cards universe is that, unlike our own, Congress is getting a lot done. Bills get passed, bipartisanship occurs, and Frank Underwood’s ruthlessness is an asset to all of those happenings. His Machiavellian approach to power is, although amoral, very effective. Even President Obama has weighed in on the show, saying, “I wish Washington worked that way. This guy [Kevin Spacey] is getting a lot of stuff done.” Last week Obama also tweeted @HouseofCards: “no spoilers please.”
Just as the Rambo movies gave Americans some Vietnam War closure never felt in real life, or David Frost’s famous interview with Richard Nixon gave Americans the feeling of an impeachment trial he never fully received for Watergate, House of Cards offers Americans the narrative that they wish was coming out of the federal government. Corrupt? Sure. Ruthless? Fine. Detached from fundamental values? No worries, just as long as you’re getting shit done.
In a world where House of Cards can be a Netflix hit, King’s Landing can serve as HBO’s surrogate Washington, and movies like the Wolf of Wall Street can make well over 100 million at the box office, it’s clear that people want stories that confirm the corruption of the world’s most powerful institutions. Far more chilling, however, is our willingness to root for the bad guy at the helm of it all.
Audiences may agree that Frank Underwood is fundamentally a bad person, but we are still more impressed with his accomplishments than we are disgusted by his evil deeds. Given the choice of immorality or inaction, it seems like we are more than happy to go with immorality. That truly is something amazing. It also says a lot more about our own beliefs than it does about Frank’s. On the optimistic side, acceptance of Frank may prove that Americans aren’t as hopeless about politics as they say they are. Accepting corruption as a by-product of democracy may be the first step in curbing cynicism about the government, and getting people involved. Getting cozy with the dark side of politics may actually help us better understand that even the worst leaders can sometimes do much for the greater good. As Mr. Underwood tells the camera in season one:
“The road to power is paved with hypocrisy…and casualties.”