Unless you’ve been hiding under a particularly obscure rock, it’s highly likely that you’ve heard of the Netflix original series “House of Cards,” the second season of which recently started streaming. More than “The West Wing” or “Scandal,” if there’s ever been a show to outright encourage binge watching, it’s this one.
If you need a refresher, “House of Cards” is a show about a powerful congressman with big ambitions and no conscience, his lovely, scheming wife and a young, hungry reporter willing to do anything for a story.
The characters are a mix-and-match set of the cliché and the novel, yet it’s oddly compelling. The audience sees events through the eyes of Frank Underwood, ever the corrupt politician. We see each and every one of his misdeeds in pursuit of more power, all while he manipulates members of his own party, the district he represents and the media into unknowingly doing his bidding. It’s exactly what any sane person fears is really going on in Washington, D.C.
There are and will be many more “think pieces” in the coming weeks, breaking down every scene and every line, only to arrive at the uninspired conclusion that Americans are attracted to the dysfunction of Washington. Why else would we want to watch a show about such an unpopular subject?
We’re not attracted to “House of Cards” because it’s about politics. The subject matter is irrelevant. There are two reasons we love “House of Cards:” We like watching amoral (or at least, morally conflicted) characters do the things we wouldn’t (that’s also why “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men” and “The Sopranos” were so wildly successful) and we are drawn to the tragedy.
When I use the word “tragedy,” I’m using it in the literary sense. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, a more precise definition of tragedy “refers to a work of art that probes with high seriousness questions concerning the role of man in the universe,” while illustrating “in a serious and dignified style the sorrowful or terrible events encountered or caused by a heroic individual.”
“House of Cards” has often been compared to a Shakespearean drama, in that the characters we want to root for often end up dead or disgraced, not to mention all of Frank Underwood’s dramatic asides to the shattered fourth wall.
“House of Cards” probes “with high seriousness” the underbelly of American politics. There are no heroes. There are no saviors. People are either climbing to the top of the ladder or eking out an existence, hoping to survive.
Every media outlet will publish, if they have not done so already, a similar opinion piece, in which the writers will ask themselves and their audiences, “What does ‘House of Cards’ say about America?”
Some will say it says that it’s “midnight in America” — an extraordinarily and unsurprisingly dumb interpretation of what “House of Cards” is trying to accomplish. All “House of Cards” seeks to do is entertain, while drawing in more Netflix customers.
“House of Cards” doesn’t say anything new about American politics. It’s just a Shakespearean-esque drama that just happens to be playing out on a fictionalized backdrop with which Americans are very familiar.
Audiences are free to interpret the story as they wish, but “House of Cards” is no reflection of reality, and Frank Underwood is no Jack Kennedy.
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @savannahkthomas