Evil 'House of Cards' Characters Are Too Competent To Be Believable

The show is a Beltway power fantasy, an embodiment of Washington's id.

House of CardsThis Valentine's Day, thanks to Netflix, you can settle in for a double date with Washington's leading (fictional) power couple, Frank and Claire Underwood of “House of Cards.” Friday brings a whole new season of the streaming service's flagship drama, which depicts a murderous congressman's rise to power.

Warning: The Underwoods can be pretty rough company—and they're a tad dramatic. “There is but one rule,” Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood says in the trailer, “hunt or be hunted.”

“I am willing to let your child wither and die inside you,” Robin Wright’s Claire tells a pregnant employee who’s suing her: “Am I really the sort of enemy you want to make?” Whew!

It's hardly a flattering portrait of the political animal—so why are D.C.'s political animals so crazy about the show?

It can't be HoC's devotion to cinematic realism. The show gets so many things wrong about politics that at times it's like watching a police procedural written by somebody who didn't bother talking to any cops. At the start of Season One, Frank Underwood is a contender for secretary of state; by Season Two, he's maneuvered himself “a heartbeat away” from the presidency.

Who knew House majority whip was pole position for rocketing to the top of the executive branch? What's more, the idea of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., or Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., current and former majority whips, murdering an inconvenient former ally in a parking garage, like Underwood does in Season One—is adorably stupid.

Still, the show has some plausible elements, like Wright's character. It's entirely believable that a few decades in D.C. would turn the lovely Buttercup from "The Princess Bride" into a ruthless social X-ray running a phony environmental think tank.

Scrolling through negative viewer reviews of HoC, showrunner/screenwriter Beau Willimon noticed that many people “find the characters unsympathetic” and the show “overly cynical.”

It's not the cynicism that irks me, it's the competence. As Ezra Klein notes, the show's vision of D.C. power brokers “efficiently and ruthlessly carrying out complicated plans” is at odds with the “fractious and bumbling” reality. The people actually running the show can't set up a functional healthcare website or prevent a 29-year-old contractor from walking off with the NSA's “family jewels.” Schemes with a lot of moving parts are generally beyond their capability.

That may be why D.C. pols enjoy the show so much. It's a Beltway power fantasy, an embodiment of Washington's id. “I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient,” President Obama has said of the show: “It's like Kevin Spacey, man, this guy's getting a lot of stuff done.” I see what he means, though I'd feel more comfortable if he hadn't added that last bit.

Actually, the cynicism and the unsympathetic characters are the best thing about "House of Cards." Those qualities alone make it a major improvement over the last Beltway drama that official Washington fell in love with, Aaron Sorkin's execrable "West Wing." Hoping to inspire a new generation of idealists, Sorkin built that show around the concept of an incorruptible president devoted to good works: President Bartlet, a theologian-cum-Nobel laureate in economics, so unbearably decent that even his scandals were noble, no thong-snapping involved.

Fantastical though it is, I'll take Frank Underwood's telenovela version of D.C. over Sorkin's cartoon Camelot every time. At least HoC is willing to entertain the idea that political animals aren't angels and that “public service” often deserves the scare quotes. Let the binge-viewing begin.

This column originally appeared at the Washington Examiner.

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  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Scrolling through negative viewer reviews of HoC, showrunner/screenwriter Beau Willimon noticed that many people “find the characters unsympathetic” and the show “overly cynical"

    Overly cynical? Jesus, the British version would have these pussies crying in their milk!

  • Snark Plissken||

    I was going to do a countdown for someone bring up the British version, and allude to how superior it was, but you beat me to it on the first comment.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Well, I didn't state which I thought was superior...just which is more cynical. When it comes to cynicism, we have nothing on our friends across the pond. A shame, as what America needs right now is a healthy dose of unrelenting cynicism. American earnestness has its charms, but it's more cloying often than not.

  • MJGreen||

    Come look at the paranoid libertarian!!

  • Bill Dalasio||

    I guess I'm the one doing it. Are you going to tell me I'm wrong though?

  • Snark Plissken||

    THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN WAS BASED ON KUROSAWA WHICH IS A MILLION TIMES BETTER!!!

    If it's something like The Office I'd agree 0, but there's a pretty big difference in production values, setting, and Kevin Spacey is almost always fun to watch, so yes.

  • Snark Plissken||

    agree 0

    100 percent, damn squirrels, can't use percent signs now?

  • Certified Public Asskicker||

    Kevin Spacey is almost always fun to watch

    Needed the emphasis. I am still scarred watching him go down on Kate Mara.

  • Snark Plissken||

    I was thinking Superman, ugh.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    In terms of performance, Ian Richardson stacks up favorably to Spacey.

  • ArbutusJoe||

    I'll say it, and I'll double down: "Yes Minister" was superior to both in its cynicism, screenwriting and acting. Badaboom, badabing.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    Yup. And Francis Urquhart would have made short work of Underwood.

  • CatoTheElder||

    I couldn't possibly comment on whether that is true.

    However, Underwood's Stamper is a certainly mild-mannered compared Urquhart's Stamper.

    Elizabeth Urquhart would dispatch Stamper to decapitate Claire Underwood before she even knew she was in the way.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    Stamper or Corder?

  • Bill Dalasio||

    And by the way, great sneaking in of the tagline.

  • ||

    I still think that HBO's 'Veep' is the most accurate look at how politics actually work.

  • Agammamon||

    Well except for the part where

    The show's star character is actually likeable

    Or where she seems to actually care about her pet policies as more than simply political tools (though they do show that *that* part is pretty important to her) to gain more power.

  • ||

    Is Selina really that likable? She's not malevolent, but she's also very petty and insecure and often becomes unraveled by the smallest things.

    She treats Gary like shit even though he's the only genuinely decent person in that office and the one that cares about her the most.

    If she's likable it's only because she's consistently funny and we sort of feel pity for her given how the office of the Vice Presidency is like political purgatory.

    I think she'll get more unlikable this season when she runs for president again.

  • MJGreen||

    Which policies? The only one I recall is the green jobs initiative, and while she's not explicitly dismissive of it, it seemed clear to me that she cared about it as "her issue." It was her choice for a legislative achievement, not necessarily something she really believed in.

  • meister574||

    I think "Thank You For Smoking" was probably the most realistic look at Washington politics ever put on screen.

  • CatoTheElder||

    Casino Jack wasn't bad either. In my own experience, the K-Street gang really is that bad. However, it seems that most genuinely think they are doing well by doing good, which makes it even worse.

  • Tman||

    Meanwhile, the actual inhabitants of DC continually behave as if they are characters on a TV show.

    "I do what I want."

  • Bam!||

    Obama is an emotional child.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

  • Brett L||

    What the shit? "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" is probably the only 21st century "literary fiction" I've read and enjoyed. No, wait. "Motherless Brooklyn" is good, too. And while I see the conceit of the column, I wouldn't waste another day of my life reading James Joyce or Charles Dickens. Godforbid people actually enjoy themselves whilst they read.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Not even that, but to call Middlemarch the greatest of all (English-language) novels over Tristram Shandy earns Parini 10 to the 100th power punches to the face.

  • Brett L||

    I'm not qualified to judge. But I wouldn't pick George Eliot. She was excellent, but not the best. At least he didn't pick a Bronte.

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    Early Stephen King for me.

  • Brett L||

    Not a bad choice. His short fiction is going to be taught in literature classes some day.

  • ||

    Does Mark Helprin count as literary fiction? I've been enjoying his new one.

  • Brett L||

    Far too readable.

  • ||

    I wonder what the political scum think of a far more accurate show: Veep.

    I bet they don't care for it much, or just laugh it off. If you haven't seen it, it is a brutally funny send-up of the narcissism, incompetence, and self-involvement of the political class. It is not flattering.

  • John||

    I always tell people that government is Kafka not Orwell. Orwell was a "the right Top Men can run things" socialist. So his Distopian Vision involved a government of unimaginable cruelty and efficiency. Orwell understood the evil but grossly overestimated the competence and rationality of such systems.

    Kafka had it right. It is not a boot on someone's face. It is faceless bureaucracies that no one understands or controls. It is utterly nonsensical and often but not always monstrous results. It is crimes that remain unknown to both the accused and the jury.

  • ||

    Yeah, and we're lucky that Orwell's vision can't really be realized. With gross incompetence, you can slip through the cracks and play the system. With concentrated competent evil, you're completely fucked.

  • Vulgar Madman||

    You're mostly correct, I think we're going to get "Brazil" myself.

  • John||

    Sadly, that isn't an unreasonable guess.

  • ||

    Hello, is this Mr Vulgar Badman? We have a warrant for your arrest.

  • ||

    Have you got a 27B/6?

  • Vulgar Madman||

    Uh oh.

  • Snark Plissken||

    And as my friend used to say, Kafka wasn't an extraordinary fabulist, but documenting the bureaucracy of fin de siècle Holy Roman Empire, much of which carried on through and past communism here in Czechia at least.

  • Raven Nation||

    Like Brazil?

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    "Imagine a boot slipping on a banana peel and stomping on you by accident...over and over."

  • Roger the Shrubber||

    Did you just make that up? Well done.

  • ||

    You're not even a man Epi. You're like Frankenstein's Monster, made out of dead dicks.

  • ||

    I have an advanced degree in dicknology!

  • waffles||

    free-range dicks?

  • Sudden||

    grass-fed

  • gaoxiaen||

    Who looks like a porcupine.

  • Steve G||

    To watch House of Cards you must suspend disbelief... in hanlon's razor

  • Brett L||

    Obviously no woman with daddy issues that big is going to be someone you tell secrets to. Even ones you want told. Because eventually everyone she drinks with will know her source.

  • Paul.||

    If you desire a more accurate portrayal of DC, and the current administration in particular, I'd like to direct you to a show titled Veep.

  • Sam Grove||

    “I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient,” President Obama has said of the show: “It's like Kevin Spacey, man, this guy's getting a lot of stuff done.”

    A sociopathic reveal.

  • Vulgar Madman||

    This is one instance where reality is better than fiction, our tyrants are goobers.

  • Raven Nation||

    Well, he's on record as complaining that he has to go through Congress - although apparently the Dems are working on rectifying that.

    And one of his chief cheerleaders, Krugman, has repeatedly compared US politics unfavorably to China's more "efficient" model.

  • Pulseguy||

    He is so obviously a sociopath/psychopath. It amazes me so many people can't see it.

  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    oh hey gaiz does anyone watch Veep? Hadn't heard it mentioned yet in the thread.

  • Jordan||

    I hear Lou Reed used to watch it.

  • Snark Plissken||

    So...Ginger?

  • Bean Counter||

    The first time I watched HoC, my immediate reaction was -"Thank god nobody in Washington is either this smart or this efficient." Still, I've never not enjoyed watching Kevin Spacey. The show could do with more tits, though.

  • ||

    Go watch K-Pax and get back to me about that.

  • ||

    That movie had its moments. I got a little misty-eyed when he talked about killing the cows with a sledgehammer. No, wait, I mean I got a giant boner.

  • ||

    I got a giant boner.

    Huh, I always just imagined you with perma-wood like you're in one of the later scenes of Lysistrata.

  • ||

    It's true. My doctor gets annoyed that I consult him every four hours, but I always obey what Cialis ads tell me to do.

  • ||

    That's sensible, and a good example of why god invented speed dial and gave it to Adam in the Garden of Eden.

  • John||

    If they had just used it when they were thinking about eating that apple.

  • Certified Public Asskicker||

    That's not helping. What he wants is the second episode of True Detective.

  • Bean Counter||

    Well...you have a point. But K-Pax needed more tits, too.

  • Loki||

    It's hardly a flattering portrait of the political animal—so why are D.C.'s political animals so crazy about the show?

    My first thought is that it's probably because deep down they wish they were competent enough to get away with murdering people in parking garages. Frank Underwood is everything every scumbag politician wishes they could be deep down, they just don't come out and say it.

    “I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient,” President Obama has said of the show: “It's like Kevin Spacey, man, this guy's getting a lot of stuff done.”

    Scratch that last part. Some of them do just come right out and say it. Interesting that the president openly admires a character who's a complete shitheel.

  • Bean Counter||

    If Bush had said something like this, it would have been the shitstorm of the century. Assuming the quote is real, of course, I'm amazed that this hasn't been the lead story on CNN...(giggles) Sorry, I can't even see the keyboard for the laughter tears...

  • Pulseguy||

    Obama did something stupid the other day and Letterman brought it up in a glancing sort of way, then made a joke about George Bush.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I like Veep. It's a show on HBO.

  • ||

    It can't be HoC's devotion to cinematic realism. The show gets so many things wrong about politics that at times it's like watching a police procedural written by somebody who didn't bother talking to any cops.

    As someone who has no practice experience with DC and only experience with media pundits covering DC politics i have to say i am going to take your take on the show with a grain of salt.

    I don't know what DC is like but i do know media talking heads, like you, are bald face liers.

    Quoting Ezra Klein for support really does not help your cause.

  • NL_||

    This was my reaction, too. I like the show, but the main characters are unrealistically competent and exaggeratedly evil. Meanwhile, most of their opponents are pretty dull witted and reactive, while they hatch schemes and outsmart them.

  • Sam Grove||

    Politicians are competent at politicking (that's how the get elected and re-elected), not at running a country or managing the economy.

  • The Last American Hero||

    HOC is sort of a political fantasy for Washington pols the way a Bronson film or Serpico is for cops, or the way the Conan the Barbarian films are for me.

  • MuhROADS||

    I can't wait for the new season of HoC!

  • MuhROADS||

    I can't wait for the new season of HoC!

  • Brandybuck||

    ...at times it's like watching a police procedural written by somebody who didn't bother talking to any cops.


    You mean like EVERY police procedural ever filmed?

  • Tonio||

    So, where can I see the UK version of HoC?

    The Father's Day episode of US HoC is one of the nastiest things I've ever seen on television - and I mean that in the best possible way.

  • Michael Price||

    There's some on youtube if you don't lie awake at night with IP guilty.

  • Duelles||

    If HoCs was not over the top and out of cynic with reality, it would be like watching C-SPAN interviews. We know, especially after Obama's confession, " I'm President, I can do anything I want," that in their hearts many in DC have lower aspirations of their own humanity. It is what they like. It is why we dislike them.

  • Pulseguy||

    President Obama actually said he wished he could be as ruthlessly efficient!! Man, that says a lot about him. He likes Spacey's character.

    How about this, numbskull, try being merely efficient. We'd all be happy with that.

  • ~Knarf Yenrab~||

    Yes, have her delete the text messages off her phone before she takes her header. That way they're sure to be gone forever.

  • Michael Price||

    In the original series the political moves all made sense, because the system is different. I haven't seen the new series but anyone who can see the original. One word: Daddy.

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