Through the Funhouse Mirror: House of Cards vs The West Wing
Certain television shows have the power to define an entire generation. They sometimes do this by thoughtfully and progressively exploring the common prejudices of their time, and challenging their viewers to rise above them.
Other shows use a slightly different tactic and instead lean on gritty realism to portray society’s various ills. They hold up a mirror to our strife and our mistakes and in their unapologetic rendering of them, attempt to shock viewers out of complacency.
This is just one of the many differences between “The West Wing” and “House of Cards.” They both use their showrunners’ powers of observation to elicit a strong response from viewers, and both use the creative tropes available to them at the time.
However, while they both feel like artifacts of different decades, they both managed to be timeless at the same time. They’re like America’s id and superego at war, and for that reason, one can’t help but believe they’ll be watched and re-watched and tirelessly discussed for a very long time to come.
The Darkest Timeline
If you’re a fan of “Star Trek,” you know that each installment of this venerable and long-running series has taken a turn presenting the characters with alternate timelines: Funhouse-mirror images portraying how characters and events would have unraveled if a single decision had played out differently. Dan Harmon’s show “Community” played with this concept by presenting the darkest timeline, in which the less-admirable qualities of each of the characters are followed to their logical conclusions.
In this tradition of exploring what-ifs and might-have-beens, “House of Cards” and “The West Wing” function surprisingly well as funhouse-mirror images of each other.
With “House of Cards,” Netflix and showrunner Beau Willimon have done for political dramas what Christopher Nolan did for superhero films with his “Dark Knight” trilogy: Namely, cloak everything in darkness and gritty realism to portray a realistic world, rather than the world we wish to have. It’s art as what is instead of what should be.
We’ll get to the actual content in a moment, but for now, focusing solely on the presentation will make the contrast fairly obvious, and maybe even startling. From the opening notes of its theme song, “The West Wing” portrays itself as an upbeat story, with a hopeful tune and flattering, smiling character portraits flashing by.
“House of Cards” likewise tells you precisely what to expect: The theme song is rather less hopeful – even ominous. Plus, the images rolling by are almost inhuman. They depict busy streets and skylines at dusk, with no people in sight.
In other words, “The West Wing” feels a great deal more like a human drama. “House of Cards,” meanwhile, is like a morality play, with megalomaniacs and power dealers fussing with the pieces on a larger-than-life chessboard.
Practical Idealism vs. Ruthless Nihilism
If the creative tones of each of these series don’t stand in stark enough contrast, their underlying philosophies surely do.
Early on in “The West Wing,” Martin Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlet appears at a speaking engagement underneath a banner that reads: “Practical Idealism.” Bartlet appears throughout the series as a rallying figure for liberals everywhere, but he goes one step further by firmly grounding his unshakeable ideals in both practicality and fairness.
Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood is an almost startlingly different political animal. Whereas one gets the distinct sense that Bartlet’s convictions are not just genuine but deeply held, Underwood proves again and again that he cares for little beyond his own ambition. In fact, he breaks the fourth wall on a regular basis to directly remind the audience of this fact.
Consider, for instance, the ways in which these two presidents reach their goals. When Bartlet has a great idea, he gets together in a room with members of the opposition and hashes out the issues, occasionally engaging in some good-natured arm-twisting. He’s a practiced negotiator and a diplomat – and his accomplishments are, without doubt, attributable directly to his interest in civil discourse.
Then there’s Francis Underwood. When Francis has a great idea, like season two’s America Works program, and finds himself fighting an uphill battle, he does not compromise. He does not work with the opposition to reach a solution. Instead, he puts on his emperor’s robe, raids FEMA’s disaster relief fund and takes unilateral action without Congress’s consent.
What we see here is the difference between a man of the people and a man of himself.
In some ways, “The West Wing” and “House of Cards” do have major themes in common, even if they go about portraying them in different ways. Having been written decades apart, both shows reveal the many ways that sexual politics have changed over the years – as well as the many disheartening ways they have stubbornly stayed the same.
In one of the earlier seasons of “The West Wing,” Deputy White House Communications Director Sam Seaborn experiences something of a scandal when the public learns of his friendship with a – shall we say – woman of the night. He survives with his job intact, but only after public embarrassment and a public apology, despite his having done nothing wrong. It should be noted that he never actually exchanged money for sex – a distinction that few in America appeared ready to cotton to.
Sexual politics plays a significant role in “House of Cards” as well – particularly where Claire Underwood is concerned. She doesn’t have as many skeletons in her closet as her husband, but there’s one in particular that threatens to undo her on a regular basis: her abortion.
We like to think that modern America is sexually liberated, but this doesn’t appear to extend to women quite yet – particularly where the right to choose is concerned. Claire Underwood, as the first lady, almost inevitably becomes a lightning rod for chastisement and condemnation from the political right. She becomes a bellwether for progressive women everywhere by maintaining her right to prioritize her career over starting a family, but she’s still roundly condemned by much of the electorate – mostly those on the right who receive their marching orders from the book that instructs them to “Be fruitful and multiply.”
Meanwhile, “House of Cards” chooses not to remain silent on the subject of male sexuality either, and in doing so reveals modern society’s very real double standards. Revelations abound in season one about the fluid sexual identity of the main character, and in doing so almost dares the conservative members of its viewership to get offended about a man in power kissing another man. “House of Cards” is to be commended for portraying the wide spectrum of human sexuality so fairly and matter-of-factly.
In this respect, both of these shows reveal, in their own ways, just how much growing up America still has to do on the subject of sexual politics.
By the way, this is to say nothing of the cinematographic portrayal of these trysts. Once again, “House of Cards” is a product of its time – including its unapologetic and unflinching visual portrayal of human sexuality, whereas “The West Wing” is, by comparison, almost delightfully chaste.
Cynicism vs. Hope
If there’s one battle that lies at the heart of American politics today, it’s the immortal struggle between cynicism and hope. The American people have rightly become disenchanted – even disgusted – with the political establishment on both sides of the aisle, but too many of them hold these feelings as proof that their voice doesn’t matter. They disengage entirely from the process, stop voting, and eventually surrender even the fleeting hope that things can improve.
“House of Cards” appears to be the show best suited to appeal to this type of American citizen. The characters portrayed in the show are so completely beyond redemption that it runs the risk of alienating the voting public even further than they already are. The sad thing, of course, is how accurate it all is – it’s no accident that the Underwood family’s corruption and opportunism closely resemble the sort of politics practiced by the Clintons.
In this way, more than any other, “House of Cards” proves itself to be a product of its time. “The West Wing” portrayed an American politics deeply divided between political ideologies, it’s true, but amid the drama was the constant and unshakeable optimism – not to mention a spirit of compromise.
The Big Question
In discussing both of these creative masterworks, one of the most overlooked questions is also a simple one: Which show represents the past, and which represents our possible future?
Forget for a moment that “The West Wing” was written during the ‘90s and “House of Cards” is a product of the 2010s. Forget the differences in picture resolution and any anachronisms that might abound if you transplant either of these shows backwards or forwards in time. Would you still be able to tell which one came first?
It’s hard to say. It’s true that cynicism has always existed in television and cinema – have you ever seen “Network“ or “The Day the Earth Stood Still”? – and for this reason, “House of Cards” could just as easily be a product of the ‘90s as a product of today.
Could “The West Wing” have been made today? Would its optimism stick out like a sore thumb? Our answer to this question says more about modern society than it ever will about this television show.
Here’s hoping optimism never feels as quaint as ‘90’s-era television.
Image by Vitor D’Agnoluzzo