I spent more time this weekend than I care to admit watching Kevin Spacey play Francis Underwood, the jilted House majority whip, in Netflix’s new television series, House of Cards (Netflix released all 13 episodes at once, resulting in a rather unproductive weekend for me). Underwood is the consummate career politician: he’s cynical, plotting, narcissistic, and opportunistic, embodying all the qualities that those who despise “Washington” ascribe to all political leaders.
Having played an integral role in electing the just inaugurated president, the South Carolina Democrat is nonetheless passed over for the Secretary of State appointment he so coveted. Underwood, ever cool under pressure, smiles wide and promises to work hard to push the new president’s agenda through Congress, all the while hatching a plan with his cold-as-ice wife, Claire, to exact revenge on the president and his allies. What follows are wickedly entertaining episodes of backstabbing, deception, sexual exploitation, conspiracy, and all the other misdeeds that one might envision occupying the days and nights of connected Washington insiders.
When I wasn’t watching TV, I was reading the horrific details from Los Angeles, where Cardinal Roger Mahony plotted in real life, with his own yes-men, to protect pedophile priests while sacrificing children’s well being. The sordid details are chronicled in over 12,000 pages of documents on the Archdiocese’s website, and as if this weren’t enough ecclesial drama, Mahony penned and released a shockingly defensive letter on Friday in which he called into question Archbishop Jose Gomez’s decision to punish him.
Is it any surprise that the cynical House of Cards captivates our imagination at a time when trust in all our institutions–Congress, religion, you name it–is so low?
The show is “The West Wing” for our time. Where President Josiah Barlett and friends were aspirational, Underwood and his gang are cynical. Where that show offered a vision of what government does when it works well, this show purports that greedy wheeling-and-dealing is the only lubricant for the gears of government. Everyone is out to get theirs, and if the rare good guy, like the chump majority leader, tries to resist, they will fail and be cast aside. “He could’ve been a wolf,” Underwood says, with his Southern lilt, as he plots to take him down.
House of Cards entertains even as it offends. It’s cartoonish in how it portrays Washington. The homes where these fictional Congressmen dwell are opulent palaces compared to the bunkhouses that many actual members rent. Reporters regularly seduce lawmakers for leads. Lobbyists skulk around constantly, offering sinister deals in swanky restaurants. Power couples live out a sort of arrangement, trading sexual favors for donations and information. Politicians exploit their pastors and look down on their constituents. It’s a true den of thieves.
Surely leaders are seduced by power and fall prey to corruption in real life; just look at the Catholic Church in LA. But the concentrated unscrupulousness in House of Cards is far-fetched. It’s not surprising, though, that we are drawn in. Our leaders continue to let us down and we want some idea as to why they act like this. House of Cards let’s us be voyeurs into the halls of power, allowing us a glimpse of what makes even likable, compelling people act so corruptly, so manically, so frailly. That is, so human.