Why House of Cards Is Abandoning Politics

It was once the one of the best shows about Washington. But it achieved greatness by giving that up.

arrives at the special screening of Netflix's "House of Cards" Season 2 at the Directors Guild Of America on February 13, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.

Photographer: Kevin Winter

There are two kinds of political television shows.

The first is the kind that ennobles the profession, the ones in which good-hearted, cynical-but-not-caustic, generally liberal do-gooders earnestly attempt to make the world a better place through the vagaries and eccentricities of the political process. The West Wing, Parks and Recreation, Madam Secretary, these are shows that appeal to our better natures, ones built to encourage our faith in our leaders and make us believe that, doggone it, Washington really is trying. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are the shows that most often feature actual cameos from actual politicians.

Then you have the second kind. This is the kind in which Washington, D.C., is a venal, soulless place where no one cares about anything but their own power, wealth and influence. Voters are seen as pointless dupes, issues and ethics are red herrings best left ignored, and everything is for sale. And all told, the setting in the world of politics is mostly beside the point; these are really just soap operas with grander stakes. (It might as well be the Ewings in Dallas battling over oil.) In this one, no one cares about profound philosophical discussions of the nature of war and what obligations a government has to its citizens, because OMG the president is sleeping with the press secretary! This is your Scandal, State of Affairs, even your Homeland and Veep. Needless to say: This kind tends to be a lot more popular than the first.

There was a precise moment, assuredly planned by its creators, when House of Cards, which returns for its third season on Friday, Feb. 27, decided it was no longer going to be the first show, and, instead, plunged giddily into the second. You know it, I know it. (Spoilers ahead, if you don’t.) It’s when Frank Underwood, the vice president of the United States, met Zoe Barnes, the Washington Herald reporter with whom he’d had an affair, and shoved her off a train platform.

In the first season of House of Cards, it was important to the show’s creators—and, mostly, the show’s platform, Netflix—that this be seen as a show of prestige. Director David Fincher, fresh off the Oscar-nominated The Social Network, was executive producer and directed the first two episodes. The Oscar-winning Kevin Spacey was cast in the lead role, and Robin Wright, Jenny Gump and the Princess Bride herself, landed the even-more-mysterious-wife part. Beau Willimon, a former aide to Howard Dean, was named showrunner, and the show secured cameos from Chris Matthews, George Stephanopoulos, Morley Safer, Sean Hannity, all the usual suspects. It felt more Of Washington than Of Hollywood.

Much was made of how “realistic” House of Cards was; Think Progress called it “half-authentic” and even accused it of being “too nice” to Washington. The show certainly showed some bad behavior—Underwood  does murder poor doomed alcoholic could-have-been Peter Russo—but it was generally welcomed by the always-star-starved political establishment. It even received the ultimate endorsement when Spacey played Underwood at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner.

 How much did Washington love House of Cards? Look who sent this Tweet the day Season Two was released:

And then, presumably a few minutes after sending that tweet, the leader of the free world watched the fictional Vice President of the United States shove a beautiful woman in front of a train.

In its second season, House of Cards dropped any pretense of “respectability” or “realism” in favor of going completely batshit. Frank killed Zoe. Frank and Claire have a threesome with their head of security. The wife of the Vice President gives a nationally televised interview saying that she was raped and had an abortion. Later, she has a torrid affair with a photographer and smokes a joint at a house party featuring dozens of people, none of whom ever take out their phones and snap a picture of the Vice President’s wife dancing with another man. A Chinese diplomat dabbles in autoerotic asphyxiation with a couple he met on Craigslist. An energy baron retaliates against Frank by shutting off the power to Camden Yards when Frank’s about to throw the first pitch before an Orioles game; Frank responds by ultimately getting him thrown in prison. Frank’s loyal assistant Doug is beaten nearly to death with a brick. Frank uses the President’s marital difficulties against him and ultimately persuades him to resign, making Frank the President even though, like Gerald Ford, he has never won a national election. It is entirely possible there were space aliens.

This cost House of Cards many fans from the first season; you heard a lot that the show had “just gotten too crazy.” To which I respond: Thank God. The first season of House of Cards had its virtues—notably the two terrific actors at its center—but it was far too ponderous and respectful of the political system. You could tell that it was incredibly important to everyone involved that Washington see some of itself in the show and embrace it. The show looked fantastic, but it seemed to tiptoe around and not go full Soap Opera—that is to say, be an actual TV show. Remember: All serial fictional TV shows are Soap Operas, from Breaking Bad to The Sopranos to The Wire. They’re not documentaries: They’re heightened realities meant to be a cartoonish view of the real world, not a factual one. House of Cards got ridiculous in its third season, but, not unrelatedly, it got a lot better. It got juicier and edgier and a little bit more dangerous. 

I haven’t seen any of the third season yet—I will be binge-watching, all weekend, like the rest of you. Word is, though, it continues in the direction of the second season, more wild plots and improbable WTF moments. If you’re a political junkie who misses the grave, stolid philosophizing of The West Wing or the reverential nods of the first season, you’ll hate this. But regular people who just want to see shit go down will love it. As much as the average pol wonk might think a show of Frank Underwood whipping the Senate to overcome a President’s veto is riveting drama, the rest of us, thank you very much, would like to see somebody shoved into a goddamned train.