House of Cardboard

My wife and I binge-watched the second season of House of Cards over the weekend (no major spoilers ahead, but if you want to remain entirely innocent of the show until you’ve watched it, you might want to skip this and all other accounts), having enjoyed the first season after deciding not to hold it too accountable for realism. I’ll just say suspension of disbelief is more essential in Season Two.

My biggest Aw, c’mon moments in the first season involved central character Frank Underwood, played by one of my favorite actors, Kevin Spacey. Underwood is supposed to be a Democrat representing an upland South Carolina district, which hasn’t really been plausible for decades now. Worse yet, Spacey deploys the same slightly over-the-top coastal aristocratic accent he used in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which would be as out of place in a native of Gaffney as a Boston brogue. More generally, the Underwood character is plainly anachronistic, a throwback to the days when non-ideological southerners in Congress wheeled and dealed their way to great power and occasional accomplishments, and a Democrat anywhere could survive breaking a teacher’s strike and maintain solid partisan bona fides.

Season Two features a less anachronistic but still embarrassingly counter-factual take on the politics of “entitlement reform,” and a major subplot involving campaign finance issues that’s also many years (and hundreds of millions of dollars) out of date. Since the locus of much of the second season is the executive branch, it’s worth noting that the White House seems a strangely underpopulated place with a presidential staff composed of two or three people guarded by Secret Service details the size of infantry companies. Similarly, one lobbyist seems to be doing the work of hundreds. I don’t know if this miniaturizing is a function of budget, audience attention-span, demagoguery, or simple indifference, but it’s grating nonetheless.

Having said all that, the show’s been fun to watch for its wild plot twists and occasionally excellent acting turns (much as I like Spacey, Robin Wright steals a lot of their joint scenes). I just hope no one watches it hoping to learn how Washington actually works. Anyone as absorbed with meditating on and luxuriating in raw political power as Frank Underwood would probably not have the time to exercise it.

UPDATE: As commenter Jon Fox points out, Democrat John Spratt did indeed represent a district that included Gaffney unti 2010 (when he was beaten very badly by Republican Mick Mulvaney). I had thought of Spratt’s district as more Pee Dee than Uplands, but I stand partially corrected (I believe the quick image we were given of Underwood’s district was entirely in northwest SC, but I’m not sure). In any event, with the wipeout of white southern Democrats in 2010 and 2012, there’s nobody remotely like Underwood in the House today.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.