Alyssa over at ThinkProgress offers a lengthy critique of House of Cards with some of the best insights yet. Bookmark it and read the whole thing once you’re done watching. The following parts stood out to me:
House of Cards is full of acid portraits of people whose conviction has made them weak or duplicitous without being excellent at it. Even if the show has some sympathy for their dedication to and principal on the issues, it never gives them triumphs over Frank, and frequently suggests that passion makes them obvious, slow, or otherwise unfit to play the game that Frank has mastered so well, his competence overriding our moral calculus…
This is true, and obviously not representative of reality. Lincoln and LBJ offer ample empirical evidence that politicians can be as brutal as Underwood yet in the name of a good cause. But it surely is the case that well-intentioned people are more likely to impose principled limits on their own pursuits. In that sense, Underwood’s total lack of rules liberates him, and does make his kind more able to succeed.
Either way, this strikes me as far from a fatal objection. Art can legitimately work by occasionally exaggerating phenomena, especially if, as Fincher puts it, the product is ‘delicious’. Why fear indulging in this bad fantasy even if it’s false? I guess I’m suspicious of any attempts to link the series up too strongly with modern social and political trends. The fact it barely matters whether Underwood is a Republican or Democrat suggests that Willimon agrees with me.
In a stronger anti-hero show, we’d see the costs of Frank’s actions, or have credible alternatives to his behavior that challenge our romance with the sheer force of his ability… Accidents at nuclear power plants really do destroy people’s lives. But House of Cards is fundamentally less interested in those consequences than in the manipulations that lead them to come to pass. And in the world of the show, none of those negotiations are ever based on substance. Maybe it’s trying to say that this is a deplorable state of affairs. But the way House of Cards allocates its attention means the show ends up largely buying into Frank’s worldview: substance doesn’t matter, because it’s not the basis on which decisions are made, or on which people rise to significant power.
Did people make similar objections to Fight Club? Selling evil as sexy is a common theme in Fincher. It’s a common theme in art more broadly. Of course there is a place for authenticity. I love The Sopranos precisely because it de-romanticises the mob-life and exposes its psychological costs on all parties. But I also think there’s room for us to find value in GoodFellas, which makes Henry Hill implausibly look for a long time like the happiest man alive. We don’t believe someone as evil and effective as Underwood could so easily succeed either, but look, it’s called art for a reason. There’s a twisted pleasure in watching the hypothesis pan out.