Through the Funhouse Mirror: House of Cards vs The West Wing


Holly Whitman

Holly Whitman is a writer and journalist based in Washington DC. She loves to share her thoughts on the intersection of politics and culture, and writes on everything from feminism and human rights to climate change and technology.

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57 Responses

  1. Avatar j r says:

    Great post. I like the idea of juxtaposing the 90s id against the ’10s superego. Two things are worth noting on this theme.

    The 2010s strike me as much more hopelessly Pollyannaish in that lots of people have become true believers in “the one true political way.” And House of Cards can be seen as a representation of our more prurient subconscious urges asserting itself against the very sanitized background of the 10s. And it’s worth noting that The West Wing no doubt helped to create this climate.

    The other thing is that the 90s id v 10s superego leaves an obvious space, both chronologically and psychoanalytically, to insert The Wire, which, of the three, is the most realistic representation of how political power works in this country.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to j r says:

      And Arrested Development. I’m not sure you should call that “a study in political power,” but I’m also not sure what else you’d say about such a blatant ripoff of the Bushes.Report

  2. Avatar Dan Scotto says:

    Great piece! I’d like to add in one additional political TV show from the 2010s to the conversation: Veep. If the West Wing is “practical idealism” and House of Cards is “ruthless nihilism,” Veep is probably “bleak fatalism.”Report

  3. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    This is great. I could get behind making this the launching pad for a series on politics in drama & culture.Report

  4. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    Did we ever really turn to the West Wing? IIRC the show was really popular among a certain subset of liberals. Mainly people who were college students at the time (I was one of them) but I don’t recall it being a bipartisan hit. The politics of the show were not very Republican friendly even when it attempted to reach across the aisle. The GOPers on the West Wing were usually fantasy throwbacks like the Adam Alda character or buffoons.Report

    • Avatar Roland Dodds in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      I was at university when the show was around, and I remember my left-wing compatriots hating the West Wing. They thought it was a Democratic Party wet dream.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      IIRC, Sorkin said in response to conservative criticism that West Wing wasn’t very conservative-friendly that they should go write their own show with a heroic conservative President.

      Then one of the College Republican kids said, “We had that, it was called the Reagan Administration,” and everyone started shouting again.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Burt Likko says:

        And then Sorkin wrote The Newsroom, which was fantastic until it really sucked.
        (I should review it).Report

        • Avatar Don Zeko in reply to Kim says:

          So it was fantastic for a solid 90 seconds or so? God I hated that show.Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Kim says:

          It’s all been downhill since Sports Night.Report

          • Avatar El Muneco in reply to Mike Schilling says:

            You beat me to it. If he’d stopped after Sports Night, or somewhere early in The West Wing, he’d have been remembered like Kurt Cobain. As it is, he’s in danger of becoming remembered like Dave Grohl.Report

          • I miss Sports Night so much. It’s still very watchable.Report

          • Avatar Snarky McSnarksnark in reply to Mike Schilling says:

            While I love Sports Night (and mildly prefer it to The West Wing), the first three seasons of TWW are wonderful, more as a workplace comedy than as a political treatise.

            As heroic as the Bartlett administration was in their intentions, it simply wasn’t very effective politically–in the whole of the Sorkin-written years of the show, the administration passed no major initiatives, didn’t work effectively across the isle, and was really more of a fantasy revision of the Clinton administration (centrist, wonky, but not at all sleazy).

            It’s important to remember that TWW was not really a 90s show–it debuted at the end of 1999, in the twilight of the Clinton administration. And just as Sports Night was not really about sports, TWW was not really about politics (and when it was was when it was most ham-fisted).

            The Newsroom was primarily about politics, and only secondarily about the workplace, and featured the worst of what Sorkin has to offer.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      The conservatives were busy running the country and just rolled their eyes at the silly liberals fantasizing that 2000 hadn’t happened.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      “IIRC the show was really popular among a certain subset of liberals.”

      The kind that liked well-written, tight, witty dialogue?Report

  5. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    A President that just does what he thinks is the right thing to do, regardless of public or party opinion, and uses whatever political machinations are necessary to Get Things Done despite a reflexively-opposing Congress?

    Why would a Democrat have a problem with that? It sounds like it’s exactly their picture of what the President ought to be–less of a chief administrator and more of a king.Report

  6. To be honest, I found both of these dull. I considered them both as binge-watching, and bailed on TWW after about six episodes and HoC after the first season (after FU’s master plot for the whole season was explained by a different set of characters in a particularly clumsy bit of exposition.)

    The British HoC, on the other hand, is brilliant, and wonderfully compact.Report

  7. Avatar Kolohe says:

    Agree with the above, good post. I wish I could say more but I had to abandon House of Cards after the 4th episode of the 1st season because I simply found it attrocious, and I’m the type of poltical junkie who should be the prime audience for that sort of thing. (And I really liked the West Wing, despite a few early and a few late episodes being rather silly)

    I think House of Cards is bad on its on merits (or demerits) but it also has the misfortune of airing in a time where really good, cynically realistic shows about characters and their relationship to poltics & systems of power exist – namely The Wire and Deadwood.Report

    • Avatar Don Zeko in reply to Kolohe says:

      I found it harder to watch because I was a political junkie. It made it harder to overlook the various absurdities of how Washington works in the show.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Don Zeko says:

        Doesn’t it suck when even the shows with competent advisors can’t get their damn stuff straight? (The Newsroom got a few things so wrong I didn’t want to watch anymore…)Report

  8. Avatar KatherineMW says:

    Thank you for writing this post!

    I have trouble seeing a show like The West Wing or Star Trek: The Next Generation or, for that matter, Babylon 5, being made and succeeding in 2016. The most popular and acclaimed shows of the present – Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, House of Cards – project a kind of nihilism, rather than an aspiration to be better than we are.Report

    • But there’s Parks & Rec!Report

    • Avatar j r in reply to KatherineMW says:

      From my perspective, the nihilism is a bit misleading and more a reflection of where we were than where we are. TV shows have always been full of bad guys doing terrible things. The big difference now is that we are intent on understanding their interior motivations.

      For me, the overwhelming ethos of our current pop culture situation is that everything is incredibly emo.Report

    • Avatar Don Zeko in reply to KatherineMW says:

      This doesn’t count for a whole lot, since the show needs to stand on its own, but I think (the show version of) Game of Thrones is only nihilistic because the showrunners have adopted a common misreading of the source material.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Don Zeko says:

        EDK read a critique of feudalism as the basis of GoT. The use of marriage and hostages and hereditary loyalties and hierarchies of power devoid of meaningful legislatures or judges. How this creates war as a default setting for society, how that warps morals and norms.

        I see a study in the effects of war on people: mostly exploding the myth that it brings out the best in heroes, because what really happens is mostly people do what they think they must to survive, where “doing what they must” generally equates to “cutting moral corners.” Sporadic acts of moral heroism, mostly, are heavy with unpleasant practical consequence.

        I guess neither of these are “nihilism,” in the sense that nihilism contends that no human deed ultimately matters; doom alone counts to the nihilist and that doom is the ultimately same for all of us. I don’t see that in GoT: the protagonists cling to life and love, even as they make moral shortcuts to preserve these things (with varying degrees of regret about them and verging degrees of success to their gambits).

        Calling it “nihilistic” seems off the mark to me: there aren’t any “good guys” (well, Ned Stark, but look what that got him) nor many truly “bad guys” (King Joffrey and Ramsey Bolton excepted) but this feels more realistic than nihilistic to me. “Realistic” despite the fantasy setting; the story is resonant precisely because at an emotional level it’s about people who think and feel and act like we could see ourselves doing.Report

        • Avatar j r in reply to Burt Likko says:

          Not to get too philosophical here, but what does nihilism mean in the contemporary world? A hundred years ago, my lack of belief in a personified god or of judgment in the afterlife or of a higher meaning to life beyond the phenomena of human existence would have marked me as a nihilist.

          Most people today, however, even those who profess some religious belief, tend to live lives in which moral and ethical principles are firmly grounded in political ideology or community norms or “mere” existence as opposed to Objective religious dogma (despite whatever their professed religious belief). Of course, maybe I just travel in more secular circles than most.Report

          • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to j r says:

            I take “nihilism” to mean the belief that there is nothing in the universe that fundamentally matters. Nothing any person does or can possibly do will ever really make a difference in anything. There is no such thing as objective good or evil.

            That’s a bit more than atheism. An atheist can pass moral judgment on things, can find things of interest and importance beyond the inevitability of death, and can find and derive meaning in life and activities, at least within herself.

            The nihilist, party-pooper that he is, will tell this happy atheist that she is simply fooling herself that what she thinks is important and good actually is, because she’ll die alone and her corpse will rot (or perhaps be incinerated), sooner or later and in a matter of a few short years she’ll be quite forgotten.Report

            • Avatar Kim in reply to Burt Likko says:

              And yet, the nihilist has room for heroes.
              For the person who fights till their dying breath, even as they’re overrun by hordes of warriors.

              if you want a nihilistic religion, look at the Norse.Report

        • Avatar Don Zeko in reply to Burt Likko says:

          The nihilism critique usually comes from people who can only see the deconstruction. GRRM spends a great deal of time and energy critiquing the hoary cliches of the fantasy genre: feudal society is violent and wildly unjust, the hero’s journey does more to traumatize than enlighten, the wicked can and do triumph over the just, and so on and so forth. If that were the end of it, it might be a merely nihilist work.

          But he also spends a great deal of time thinking about what justice or heroism or grace can be in a world as unjust and brutal as medieval Europe actually was. So you get Brienne of Tarth, the one true knight in all of Westeros, remaining loyal beyond death and hope. You get Syrio Forel choosing an honorable death to save an innocent girl from those that would kill, brutalize or enslave her. You have Theon Greyjoy finding some redemption after both unspeakable crimes and unspeakable suffering. It’s just not a fair reading to see how these characters think and struggle and act and call it nihilism.

          Included in this, I suppose, is a quibble with @Burt Likko. There absolutely are good guys and bad guys in GoT. It’s just that not everyone is simply a white hat or a black hat, and the color of one’s hat doesn’t determine how well things will go for you.Report

          • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Don Zeko says:

            To be sure, nearly every character wears neither a white nor a black hat; there are only varying shades of gray.

            Even the unambiguously awful characters can get twisted by the plot to challenge you: didn’t you cheer at the Purple Wedding? I did. Little bastard got what he deserved! But it was still a painful, humiliating death by poisoning of a teenager.

            Granted, a very cruel and not at all innocent teenager.Report

          • Avatar Kim in reply to Don Zeko says:

            There absolutely are good guys and bad guys in GoT.
            I don’t think there are ANY white hats or black hats.
            Your tabard has your house colors, and that Means Something.

            Which was a great concept, when the whole thing was “The Rise and Fall of House Lannister” (because everyone loves the Lions). I’m not sure it supports the rest of the tale, or even that GRRM will manage anything decent.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to KatherineMW says:

      nihilism, rather than an aspiration to be better than we are.

      I could not agree more, Katherine.

      I can’t sit here and tell you The West Wing is better than The Wire or House Of Cards (primarily because I haven’t seen more than a coupe episodes of the former, and absolutely none of the latter).

      But I can tell you this. In contrast to my experience of The Wire, or even Breaking Bad, where the bleakness was simply more than I could hang in for, The West Wing continues to this day to fill me with a sense of well-being when I watch it, because it shows a group of people who believe they have a duty to try to, basically, govern the country well, and they try to do it, all the while being human and often failing at the task. I realize I’m buoyed in this feeling by the fact that their political values are approximately mine, but I do feel like the same show, made just the same way, but with moderate-conservative values at the center, would give me the same feeling. (I’m that much of a squish in terms of being a liberal – to me it was so odd that people had a problem with the politics of TWW, whether from the left or right. Such a show would need to have a political setting, just as much as it needs to have a setting in place and time.) Meanwhile, they’re smart, dumb, funny, venal, sincere, and two-faced with each other, just like in my experience people really are.

      Whereas on some of these other more “realistic” political or semi-political shows, the characters, from what I’ve seen, are unrelentingly hard and inhuman to each other. I can only take so much of that – and it isn’t a lot. I think this may just come down to what you’re more uncomfortable with – depiction of more pleasant human relations because they are unrealistically positive about human nature, or ones that are more realistic (perhaps), because they are too grim.

      Is it bad that I may go through life with more optimism about government (and, for that matter a number of other institutions) and the intentions of people who work in it than may be warranted by reality, because I prefer more positive depictions of them in the drama I watch? Does that mean I’m simply being propagandized of government by the likes of Aaron Sorkin? It could be. But there’s no point at which I am going to prefer watching House Of Cards to The West Wing. It’s just not going to happen. It’s not me.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        (I know it’s a character flaw and indictment of my politics that The Wire was too grim and bleak for me to stay with, btw. I know. It’s not like I deny it’s the greatest television show ever & all that. It’s just not something I could make a regular part of my life. I would be all about a feature film version – I can deal with that kind of thing in longer, more fully-immersed ways better than in shorter, regular doses. You get in & get out, whereas with TV it’s kind of like this constant stream. I need things I’m getting regular doses of to be minimally positive in terms of watching people pursue positive goals of some kind, and advance toward them (or suffer setbacks).)Report

        • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Drew says:

          The Wire works well as five interrelated “movies”. Long movies (that’s tenish hours apiece), but still movies.

          I saw people pursuing positive goals of some kind, even if some of them were pretty selfish. (I will be the biggest drug dealer, etc. I will be the best damn police detective).Report

          • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Kim says:

            Agree in part, disagree in part. Agree about the 10 hour movie bit, disagree about the ‘best damn bit’.

            “The Job will not save you.”* The biggest TV trope The Wire subverts is the one that goes what you do is what you are. The West Wing has this trope in spades (and diamonds and clubs and hearts). (So did Star Trek, especially TNG**. DS9 a little less)

            Everyone in the West Wing was utterly consumed by their job, even more so than the usual TV fare where production realities and good TV dictate we narrow the focus onto only particular aspects of the character’s lives.

            To the extent that the Wire *was* bleak, it showed a whole lot of people trapped into the system they were born into, playing the roles everyone (including they themselves) expected them to play. A whole lot of people, but not everyone.

            The Wire was one of the few TV programs ever that had fully realized characters in a very short length of time. Sure, any character can have fathoms depth if you put them on TV for enough years, like Fraiser, but the Wire was able to explain quickly and succinctly why, for example, Rawls did what he did, and why he really wasn’t the biggest a-hole in the world.

            *a saying that was deeply undercut by what the character who said it did in the last season, but never mind that.

            **thinking about it, the formula and thematic ties for early West Wing and early TNG are rather similar.Report

      • The West Wing continues to this day to fill me with a sense of well-being when I watch it, because it shows a group of people who believe they have a duty to try to, basically, govern the country well, and they try to do it, all the while being human and often failing at the task.

        I find Star Trek: The Next Generation – and often Babylon 5 uplifting for the same reasons. They’re about people who genuinely want and strive to do the right thing, and to be good people. That’s what creates sympathetic characters, and it’s what creates moral examples. Whereas I feel like a bit of the appeal in the darker and more negative shows of the current day is that anybody can watch then and feel good about themselves for being a better person than the characters on screen, simply because that bar is set so low that it’s buried under the ground.

        I can’t deal with unremittingly bleak stories about characters who are all jerks, not only because they’re depressing, but because they’re completely inconsistent with my experience of actual people.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to KatherineMW says:

      *shrugs* The DS9 crew is still writing, the Simpsons crew is still writing ( a ton of shows)…

      Have you played Fate/Stay Night? (or watch the animes…)Report

  9. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    For me, I see the West Wing as aspirational: Bartlet is intelligent, which helps, but he triumphs episode after episode because he is moral. His moral rectitude is why he commands the loyalty of his staff, who mostly (not always) try to follow suit. We viewers wish we had political leaders like that; the show offers us a vision of what a generally moral leader could do.

    The Underwoods in the US House of Cards are Nietzsche’s Übermensch. We marvel at their capability, cleverness, and cunning, and simultaneously are repelled by their lack of moral mooring and terrified by their ability to escape the consequences of their choices. They are sexually decadent as a symbol more than anything else: cultural norms like monogamy do not bind them. The thing of it is, we see that maintaining this existence, transcendent of general notions of right and wrong, is a precarious and fragile existence indeed. The show’s title is apt: everything could collapse in a moment and there are threats everywhere.

    It’s a transition from hope to horror. Josiah Bartlet is what we wish were real; Francis Underwood is what we fear is real. In both cases, though, the critical need is made clear: the exercise of power demands the use of a functional moral compass. Bartlet has one and uses it and so is a hero, eventually leaving office in triumph and with confidence that his successor will continue; Underwood disregards his moral compass and becomes an anti-hero perpetually on the razor’s edge of utter ruin.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Well said.

      I would only add that The West Wing doesn’t make the mistake of making Bartlet a moral Mary Sue. He’s very deeply compromised at a few major points in the series. And I’m not sure it’s right to say he ever resolves those particular moral compromises. But he balances them out – as you say, he is generally moral. But he’s a human who displays the consequential imperfections that humans display once they get into power (and on their way to it). And the imperfections look deeper on subsequent viewings as one becomes more detached from the characters’ perspective as a viewer, and sees the larger social-political picture presented in the work in wider perspective.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Burt Likko says:

      “sexually decadent as a symbol”
      … somehow thankful that is the case. Having to deal with what politicians are generally into (on the “forbidden” side of sex) would be a biiit much.Report

    • Avatar Aaron David in reply to Burt Likko says:

      The eternal is/ought question. Well put.Report

    • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I agree. The thing is, I feel like the current shows that represent the world as being what we fear it is, tend to provoke our worse impulses, and disengage us from the idea of trying to make the world a better place, by having a general tone that trying to do so is futile, or conversely by making us more content with things as they are because at least they aren’t as bad as the world of, say, “The Walking Dead”. Shows that portray people as seeking and endeavouring to be better can inspire us to be better.

      That’s not to say that shiny-happy shows are the only good ones – Babylon 5, for example, has some very bleak moments, but the characters have kindness, and compassion, and principles, and try to do what’s right – and that makes a difference to the spirit of the show, even when they fail.Report