When it comes to anti-heroes, Rep. Frank Underwood, D-S.C., is about as anti as you can get.
Underwood is the lead character in “House of Cards,” a new political drama produced by Netflix, the online and mail-order movie rental website. It’s also probably the best political drama series to hit a screen since President Josiah Bartlet flew back to New Hampshire aboard Air Force One at the end of “The West Wing.”
In fact, that NBC hit is a fitting counterpoint to “House of Cards,” if only for contrast. Characters in “The West Wing” were generally morally upright; they might give in to the temptation to do wrong in order to win, but always in time to reconsider and do the right thing in the end.
Underwood — played by a delightfully evil Kevin Spacey — would consider doing the right thing only in the circumstance that it served his interest, which lies a heartbeat away from the presidency. He’d lie, manipulate and even let a drunken congressman die in an apparent suicide if it served his mission.
While President Bartlet and his staff came to Washington to do something, Underwood is one of the people who came to Washington for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks: because that’s where the money (or the power) was.
Of course, no matter your motivations, you have to know how to play the game or you’ll never be in it. Underwood is a schemer, and as House majority whip, he’s in a key position to twist arms and manipulate votes with promises of advancement. He easily replaces a policy-oriented, wonky pol on an education bill not because he believes in education, but because he believes the bill will help him climb the political ladder, skipping a few rungs in the process.
There are some things about the show that aren’t so realistic, including a reporter for the fictional Washington Herald who shows up on Underwood’s doorstep to promise to be his mouthpiece in the media, if only he’d feed her scoops. They become lovers until she reconsiders after a colleague tells her it’s not worth losing her reputation in order to “sleep her way to the middle.”
Ah, but Underwood would never be satisfied with the middle. Along with his equally political wife (an inscrutable Robin Wright), he’s destined for bigger things, and the couple learn to accept the compromises necessary in order to achieve those goals. What shall a man profit, though he gain the whole world and yet lose his own soul? The narrator of “Bonfire of the Vanities” replied that there are compensations, and a home at the Naval Observatory is apparently one.
So, which is the more realistic portrayal of political life? If “The West Wing” appealed to our better angels, shows like “House of Cards” appeal to our sense that Washington is a nest of vipers, a cesspool of self-dealing that conquers even the most noble of intentions. Although the movies “The Contender” and “The American President” both end with the chief executive doing the right thing in a final climatic speech, the reality of political life is much more like “The Contender” — a flurry of behind-the-scenes meetings and manipulations that lead to a public outcome designed for public consumption. We all suspect there’s more to the story, and there is, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
But for those who can stand it — and dismiss the occasional fictional flourish, such as the huge amount of face time the third-ranking member of the House gets with the president — it’s compelling drama. I, for one, hope Netflix commissions another season, just to find out if the “House of Cards” collapses or not.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.