Here is your one and only warning: I am going to discuss some House of Cards plot points from season two. But don’t write and say I spoiled the show for you. The writers did that.
While the first season of House of Cards was hardly realistic, the plotting–especially the moves of its main character, Congressman Frank Underwood–was adroit and fascinating.
But in season two Frank Underwood has gone from being an amoral scheming man of unquenchable ambition to a monster with fewer human feelings than Tony Soprano—much fewer. Unlike Breaking Bad, where we saw a man’s gradual slide from compromising with evil to embracing it, House of Cards lurched into full-blown sociopathy with jarring fashion.
So if you tuned back in to House of Cards this season looking for moments of sheer brilliance like Frank Underwood’s eulogy at the funeral of the girl who drove off the road while texting about the giant-peach water tower—with its mix of pathos, compassion and, yes, self-interest–you will be severely disappointed.
Instead, we are treated to an impenetrable plot about Chinese trade negotiations and illegal campaign finance, and the way Frank is going to use it to undermine the president since he is next in line. But nearly everything about this plot is not how it would, or could, happen in real life—and is weirdly confusing and obvious at the same time.
Worst of all, the House of Cards’ ideological slip is showing, with a complete nonsensical portrait of a “Tea Party” senator who votes “no” on the biggest entitlement reform since entitlements were invented because… well, just because he’s an idiot.
This is in sharp contrast to the CBS legal/political drama The Good Wife. Most of the campaign events and media kerfuffles make sense—as does the public’s reaction to them. You can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys (or the smart guys from the stupid guys) by their ideology (although extreme leftists like a global warming obsessed federal judge are generally the kookiest characters).
But best of all, good people can do less than admirable things they shouldn’t in the heat of the moment, while antagonists are not always evil or stupid, they are just on the other side of the issue. Though sometimes they are evil or stupid.
Kind of like life outside the political bubble.
Oh yeah, and here’s how every Eliot Spitzer/Anthony Weiner/Mark Sanford press conference should end:
6. 50 Shades of Gray—Character vs. Caricature
House of Cards has been cynical since the beginning and, yes, the Underwoods have always been little more than ambition with legs; but it wasn’t until this season that the lead character crossed over into pure evil.
Pure evil is boring.
Even Tony Soprano had recognizable human traits. That’s why we watched and could sometimes identify with him. He was worried about his kids. He was caught up in trying to get his daughter into a good college and getting his shiftless son to shape up. He had work pressures coming from both those under and above him.
Walter White started cooking meth to care for his family financially, expecting that he was about to die from lung cancer. Yes, he embraced the evil that surrounded him and took pride in becoming a master criminal to compensate for having been under-appreciated thanks to a stupid decision as a young man; but his motivation and slide were recognizable and identifiable human frailties.
But Frank Underwood has lost his humanity. In season one we had some glimpses of it—even if it was a little icky, like his trip for the alumni reunion at the military prep school he attended. The funeral speech in season one was sheer majesty because he was not only serving himself, he was actually right.
In The Good Wife, even the heroine’s motivations can be murky and at times unattractive. The show is currently in a streak where both of the lead characters are behaving badly out of spite and a deep sense of hurt and betrayal. That’s actually pretty rare in a network drama. It’s also pretty real.
People rarely are all good or all bad in The Good Wife. Good people are sinners, supposed cynics have a vulnerable side. There is an effort to portray actual human beings.
I’m hard-pressed to say I can identify with the actions or motivations of one character in this season of House of Cards.
Next: Sex is fun… no, really!
5. Sex Is NOT the Joyless Exercise Portrayed in House of Cards.
If all I knew about sex was what I saw on House of Cards, I would wonder why anyone participates in such a joyless, degrading exercise. No one, and I mean NO one, in this series seems happier after they get laid. Even in season two, one male character who is having sex with a congresswoman (off camera) is glum because he wants to have an actual relationship, not just be a booty call. (So I guess he’s enjoying it, but it’s not bringing him what he really wants.)
And if Frank Underwood’s sex scenes with Zoe, the ambitious reporter he is using to turn Washington on its ear, turn you on in the slightest, see a mental health professional immediately.
In The Good Wife, sex is presented in all its forms: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The very premise begins with an Eliot Spitzer-inspired character who abuses his office in order to get women of every stripe; and the main character is the wife who stands by him for the degrading press conference, then slugs him afterward and moves on with her life… sort of.
So, The Good Wife is not a soap opera. Sex has consequences. But at least for some of the characters, it’s a very fulfilling prospect.
Next: Which show treats even conservative social issues with respect?
4. The Good Wife Plays Fair with Issues.
Both shows are about high-powered Democrats. One is set in a politically connected Chicago law firm with a main character whose estranged husband is a Democrat office holder. House of Cards is about a high-ranking congressman who is clawing his way to the top through unscrupulous manipulations.
In season one, House of Cards was pretty much issue-free and about the amoral manipulations of Frank Underwood, who, other than nominally being a Democrat, only believed in himself.
But in season two, stupid Tea Party senators (more about that on the next page) and angry, shouting abortion protesters reared their ugly, dominant culture-clichéd heads.
While issues are really still a side issue, House of Cards now resorts to lazy default assumptions about conservatives when the occasion arises.
In The Good Wife, however, these sophisticated urban liberals constantly have to confront their inherited political assumptions.
In one episode, Alicia defends a surrogate who is being ordered to abort the child she is carrying for another couple when a probable birth defect is detected. The biological mother actually tries to argue that forcing this abortion is her “choice.” The issue is beautifully handled.
In another episode, Alicia and Will Gardner (the firm’s partner and Alicia’s college boyfriend) argue the personhood of an unborn child in order to make an insurance company pay for in-utero surgery. The opposing counsel’s arguments artfully expose where one must go to not call a fetus human life.
Another time, a Nobel Prize winner (shades of Al Gore) is lecturing in Chicago, when a masseuse walks in and claims that he assaulted her and the police will do nothing. High-powered political pressure comes into play here, with one of the firm’s partners, Diane Lockhart (a superb Christine Baranski), actually getting a call from Tipper—oops, I mean the fictional unnamed Democrat’s wife—arguing, “Who cares about this particular woman, look at what he’s done for women.”
Then there is the macho, smart Tea Party gun expert who gets Diane all aflutter every time he walks in the door… more on that on the next page.
Unlike Law and Order, where you can spot the bad guy by his race, political beliefs, or how much money he makes, The Good Wife makes its reflexively liberal characters confront their positions in challenging ways that are almost always rewarding for the viewer and unique on broadcast TV. (Except maybe for Tom Selleck’s Blue Bloods on the same network, though in that case the conservative lead character always has his values re-affirmed, which is less interesting.)
Next: Even feminists can’t resist a real man
3. The Good Wife Plays Fair with Conservatives.
As mentioned, in House of Cards, a Republican senator who controls the Tea Party Caucus in the Republican-controlled Senate scuttles the biggest Social Security reform since… well, ever: the raising of the retirement age. This reform, which Republicans have coveted and Barack Obama has demagogued incessantly, fails due to liberal Democrats and Tea Party Republicans voting against it, after sailing through the Democrat-controlled House without a lot of public outcry.
There is no justification given as to why the Tea Party dude would do this, other than the fact that the man is an idiot.
The Tea Party is represented on The Good Wife by veteran actor Gary Cole, who is a forensic expert with a testosterone level that makes the Marlboro Man seem metro and who makes the firm’s top liberal woman go weak in the knees.
He is also shown to be a man of impeccable integrity, and generally the smartest guy in the room. When the Chicago P.D. is sued by a race-hustling lawyer based on a “mistake” he supposedly made, the case turns on the fact that, oops, he was right after all.
And the guy is not even shy about liking Sarah Palin.
2. The Good Wife Takes Place in the Right Century.
The Good Wife lives in the age of Spitzer and social media. House of Cards lives in some twisted version of the 1950s that is culturally sub-Advise and Consent, with no conservative media even in sight.
In the age of Weiner, we are expected to believe that a president’s marriage counseling would be controversial and a congressional investigator would feel comfortable trying to pierce confidentiality. And in the Age of Benghazi, we are supposed to believe that a Chinese fundraising scandal that’s hard to follow when watching it on video would unravel a presidency.
There is NO conservative media in the House of Cards world. Among those playing themselves have been Morley Safer, the New York Times’ Matt Bai, and even Rachel Maddow. Sean Hannity made a brief appearance in season one, but that was it. But in a time when the White House obsesses over Fox News, where the president even personally calls them out, no one in the House of Cards world worries out loud that something is going to be blown out on Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, or any conservative media outlet.
I know Frank Underwood is his own Master Manipulator, but the idea that high-level strategy meetings that are largely about electoral politics would happen without one single political consultant in the room is at least 50 years out of date. This doesn’t happen in a state legislature with a governor, much less at the presidential and national level. Ever.
Yes, there is no corresponding character in the British miniseries to Karl Rove or David Axelrod, but if you want to have a series set in present-day American politics, you need one. When the attack ad hits in House of Cards, the president, vice president, speaker of the House and majority whip all meet to discuss who is funding the ads and what their political impact might be, without having someone like that in the room. Seriously.
In The Good Wife, the character of political strategist/chief aide Eli Gold played by Alan Cummings is nearly pitch perfect (with just an occasional lapse into forced comedy). Eli’s responses to political maneuvering and publicity crises are logical and show a far better understanding of the media and how public opinion is shaped than anything that happens in House of Cards, including season one.
Eli also serves to show how the revolving door between campaign and government personnel works and the ways the lines have been blurred since the days of Lee Atwater. The White House in House of Cards doesn’t evens seem to have a press secretary. Paging President Garfield.
1. The Good Wife Is Not Unbearably and Constantly Stupid.
Sure, like any television drama, The Good Wife plays things to dramatic effect. The governor’s campaign is made of big moments and big revelations happen in court, but the show exists in enough of the real world that we are willing to suspend our disbelief. House of Cards doesn’t just ask us to fire our skepticism; the writers want us to take it out back and shoot it as well.
Season one had such narrative drive and a breathtakingly new take (for most American audiences who had never seen the superior British original) that we forgave the implausibilities. At least mostly.
But let’s look at where season two just took reality and chucked it over the side—and I don’t mean a planned murder in public by a major character that I didn’t believe for one second.
The wife of the vice president reveals on national TV that she was raped by a general the president has just appointed to a major command. What happens next? Does the president immediately fire or suspend the general? Nope. Is there a huge media firestorm? Not really.
In fact, the next day, when the vice president is confronted by the press, he is asked about… Chinese trade negotiations.
But later, the press corps is camped for weeks outside the home of a photographer the vice president’s wife is rumored to have had an affair with. Weeks!
And it immediately becomes a side issue while Mrs. Underwood searches for another witness to corroborate her story. Really?
On The Good Wife, issues like the balance between old and new media, what kinds of things go viral, how candidates should respond, and what the public will and won’t buy as an explanation are mostly handled deftly and in a way where you can at least say, “Yes, that is how it might happen.”
And then there’s the impeachment issue.
I would have a hard time explaining to you what the president is actually supposed to have done in House of Cards. It has something to do with the Chinese funding political action committees through the president’s best friend and biggest contributor.
But that trail started with ads against the president and his congressional majority. And given the fact that the president is actually innocent, what makes us think the public would buy the notion that he was the one funding these (not very well done) ads?
Having a majority whip convince the president’s party that bringing impeachment proceedings against the president would save their majority is just nuts. Especially in a “scandal” nobody could possibly understand, with no smoking gun, and the vice president did it all anyway…
Oh, and the way the Chinese fund the negative ads in this age of electronic transfers is to fly their own passenger jets to an obscure Indian casino in the middle of Missouri. Really? I guess they are trying to get out from under that “inscrutable” cliché.
The attack ad wasn’t that good anyway, and the people are supposed to believe that the president funneled money to an ad that attacked his party and really THIS is how you launder it?
But the biggest problem with House of Cards is not that it’s unbelievable. It’s that it’s impenetrable and ultimately boring. In the meantime, stolid old CBS has a show that deals with politics, the law and current issues, and keeps getting more and more entertaining.
Hey, Emmy Awards, the best original show on Netflix is Lilyhammer. Check it out.