By Kiran Moodley 15 February 13
Everyone on Capitol Hill is talking about it. Everyone on Netflix is watching it (the company recently announced that it is their most-watched program in every country the operate in). And everyone in the media is theorising on whether House of Cards, David Fincher’s political drama that premiered on 1 February, is set to become the future of how we consume television – and good television at that.
Charting the wheelings and dealings of Majority Whip Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the drama is the seedier and more scandalous 21st century cousin of NBC’s The West Wing. In part because of that, episodes shift and flicker between being politically accurate to downright absurd (there’s a white, silver-haired president in the oval office? How backwards!) Here, GQseparates the believable from the unfathomable in House of Cards…
Most believableFrank Underwood, the voice
Kevin Spacey is renowned for his impersonations (his Christopher Walken and Bill Clinton are unbeatable) but his South Carolinian accent as the House Majority Whip is mesmerizing. At times it carries gravitas; at others it resonates with emotion and political seduction. It may be jarring at first when Underwood talks directly to the camera but soon it becomes a detail you wait for in each episode.
Frank Underwood, the character
The debate around Washington’s water coolers is who exactly Spacey’s character is meant to mimic, with most suggesting the disgraced former speaker Tom Delay. In actual fact, Underwood is more like a modern-day Lyndon Johnson. In one episode, there is a lingering shot of a picture of an image of President Johnson looming over Abe Fortas – half joking, half pressuring, in typical LBJ-style. That’s exactly the way Spacey deals with his own political problems: when talking to a group of congressmen on how best to push through a new bill he says: “Try persuasion first…If favours don’t work, come to me directly…” Barack Obama could learn some Underwood-style arm-twisting to push through his liberal agenda in his second term.
Viewers may not have seen Robin Wright on screen since her turn as Jenny in Forrest Gump, but the wait is worth it. As Underwood’s politically astute charity boss wife, Wright more than holds her own and reflects a decade that has seen women make their mark on Washington life (Condoleezza Rice, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton).
“Politics is done so poorly so often and we were dead-set to get it right,” said Jay Carson, a former Capitol Hill press secretary who served as political consultant on the show. Such was the desire to that Donald Burt, the production designer, obsessively took photos when he walked the halls of the Capitol so that even the sprinkler units were the same make in the reconstructed set. The result is a level of authenticity rare not only for Internet-only programming but network television too.
The vice president
As popular and influential as Joe Biden is, vice president is not the most esteemed or enviable position in American politics. LBJ hated the role, having gone from being the all-powerful leader of the Senate to a forgotten figure under JFK’s shadow. The plight and powerless expressed by House Of Cards‘ vice president Jim Matthews is intensely believable and allows for his own storyline to develop with ease.
Democrats and Teachers’ Unions
A major early story line involves Underwood seeking to push through education reform against the wishes of the teachers’ unions. The divisions between Democrats and teachers is House of Cards reflects a change in American politics itself, most notably the strike by Chicago’s public school teachers in frustration with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
A congressman from Pennsylvania’s 1st congressional district, Russo is a semi-recovering alcoholic and drug abuser. That at first may seem ludicrous for a member of Congress, but House representatives have always been known to enjoy a drink and some even a bit more so. Bob Ney, a former Congressman from Ohio, was believed to have been a “functioning alcoholic” by his staffers and would start drinking at 7.30am.
For those unfamiliar with South Carolina, the ridiculous construction that shows up in episode three is real.
Peter Russo’s career arc
The extent to which his character rises, falls, rises again, falls again, does become slightly tenuous at times. Also, does anyone really go on a massive binge, half-trash a room and then sit down and watch Jeopardy?
Peter Russo’s children
When Underwood’s wife, Claire, drives Russo’s children to school, they complain the kids there bully them about their dad’s drug abuse past, calling them “crack babies.” Do primary school kids really know that much about hard-core drug abuse and then have the intelligence to utilise the term “crack baby” – a phenomenon from George H. W. Bush’s presidency? We thought America’s school system was meant to be failing
Vulture commented that President Garrett Walker is like Mitt Romney, a boring guy surrounding by millionaires. While that may be believable (though unelectable) it’s Walker’s chief of staff Linda Vasquez, who is the least convincing, displaying a remarkable lack of political savvy. As a position once held by the likes of James Baker and Rahm Emanuel, a real chief of staff wouldn’t be so easily manipulated.
The Washington Herald‘s editor-in-chief
Tom Hammerschmidt is an old-school journalist who is over-cautious and seemingly doesn’t understand the power and pungency of the Internet. While such an aged relic was familiar territory in journalism a decade ago, in the Politico-reading Washington of 2013, everyone gets that the web is king.
Barnes, the ambitious reporter played by the just-as-good-as-her-sister Kate Mara, goes from writing boring straight news stories to becoming the hottest scoop-conjurer in DC. Her immediate rise is believable yet too quick – something that had to be done for the sake of the story. Commentators in Washington are already debating whether political reporters there really do engage in sexual liaisons for stories. Ultimately, we may never know the truth…
Whispering to the President
In one of House Of Cards‘ later episodes, a major season-defining development is whispered to the president by an aide in the Oval Office. While that’s fine, we take issue with the fact he’s not reading My Pet Goat in a classroom at the time .
House Of Cards is out now on Netflix.