Why I hate “House of Cards”

August 29, 2013

Whenever people heard that I hadn't yet watched the Netflix original series "House of Cards", they reacted with something between shock and amazement. "You HAVE to watch it," they said. "You will LOVE it," they told me.

So, I watched. And I didn't love it. Or even like it. And after three episodes, I stopped watching.


Rep. Frank Underwood. AP photo

How, you say? How can an avowed political junkie who lives and breathes this stuff not get into a series that is expressly dedicated to the machinations of our capitol city? There are lots of reasons but here are a few.

* Politicians are either rubes or Machiavellian geniuses.  The ways in which Kevin Spacey -- as Rep. Frank Underwood -- manipulates his colleagues suggests that he is a man among boys, that they are the sheep and he the shepherd.  If Spacey was so very good about bending his colleagues to his will, why isn't he the president? Or at least the Speaker of the House? (Frank is the House Majority Whip, the third ranking position in leadership.) There's no question that in the actual Congress there are certain members who have savvier policy and political minds than others. But the black and white distinctions created by the show badly oversimplifies how most legislators interact.

* Zoe Barnes. This character, played by Kate Mara, is what ultimately led me to walk away from the show.  Let's start with the fact that the way Zoe, a young reporter, begins her source building with Underwood is by going to his house late one night to show him a picture of him looking at her butt on the way into an event. That seems both far-fetched and, frankly, offensive to female reporters everywhere. But, wait, it gets worse.  When Underwood is off in South Carolina taking care of a local matter and dries up as a source, Zoe tries to lure him back into giving her information by flirting with him via text. Because, of course, that's how a female reporter would get information from a male politician. That's a remarkably insulting idea.

* D.C.= evil. From Underwood to Zoe to the White House to the lobbying community, all of the major characters who populate the "House of Cards" world are motivated almost exclusively by self interest, money, power or some combination of all three. I'm no Pollyanna; I get that all three of those traits are in no short supply in this town. But, having spent the last 15 years of my life covering Congress, the White House and campaigns, I also know that there are lots and lots of people who live and work here do so for beneficent reasons. Painting the D.C. scene with such a broad everyone-here-is-as-bad-as-you-think brush makes it that much harder for people to assume the best (or, at least, not the worst) about the people they send to the nation's capitol to represent them.

I also can't stand Frank's asides to the camera -- I know they are part of the original British series but they come across as hokey, did-you-see-what-I-just-did-there moments in the American version. I don't like the Underwoods marriage much either; they seem like business partners, not a married couple. (Want to see a real on-screen marriage? Try Coach and Tami Taylor.) And then there is the coke-snorting Pennsylvania Congressman who bribes an old buddy of the Secretary of State nominee to lie about the authorship of an op-ed in their college newspaper to sink the nomination. Also, he is in a relationship with a staffer.

Before the criticism rains down, let me say that I KNOW that "House of Cards" is a work of fiction, not a documentary. And I get that, as such, artistic license is taken to make things more dramatic and/or outlandish than they might be in real life. I am not one of those people who scream "that would never happen!" at the screen during shows about politics and political journalism. Hell, I love "Veep" -- the best political show on television at the moment -- which isn't exactly a realistic portrayal of Washington and its inhabitants.

Maybe I was the victim of too much hype when it came to "House of Cards". I was a late adopter and by then it has already been established as The Best Political Show There Is Or Ever Was. (The show has been nominated for nine Emmys.) Maybe I simply don't get the satirical piece of the show. Maybe I just have bad taste in television. (I spend a fair amount of my time watching "Bubble Guppies" and "The Fresh Beat Band" with my kids.)

Whatever the reason, I wanted to love "House of Cards" but wound up not liking it -- not even a little bit.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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