The Math of “House of Cards”

house-of-cardsSo, in case you haven’t heard, the TV world is all abuzz over the new Netflix political drama House of Cards.

What’s telling, I think, is that so much of the buzz has nothing at all to do with quality of the show. Rather, the buzz is mostly about the fact that it’s the first show produced by Netflix, with all 13 episodes of the first season having been made immediately available for streaming.

In an interesting read in The Guardian, one British TV producer went so far as to bluntly say:

“I stayed up and watched three episodes in a row and I realised that I was watching the end of an era,” he said…

“This was something that was nothing to do with traditional broadcasting,” he added, comparing the service to being delivered an instant box set. “If I was a traditional broadcaster watching that I would have been shitting it if I saw that show.”

Ok, fine, but is it, the show, like, um, any good?

I’ve watched three episodes, really wanting to like it, since I have an interest in politics and LOVED the 1999–2006 series The West Wing, but, truth be told, I’m already done with House of Cards/

In order to describe why that is, I’ve worked out this simple mathematical equation:


Listen, all I have to do is read the news and a handful of political blogs to see all the ugly of Washington, D.C. And yet, I’m not saying that a show about politics should be sugar-coated beyond any sense of reality.

No, somewhere in the middle lies a creative mixture of the two, and to me, the most important element is sympathetic characters.

In my eyes, the best drama has at least one sympathetic central figure, someone the reader or viewer cares about, so that when something happens to that character, good or bad, or when that character does things, good or bad, we feel it more intensely because we care.

Watching House of Cards, there’s not one major character who pulls at my heartstrings, and the same goes for most of the secondary characters. I think to myself, “Self, why the HELL would you voluntarily choose to spend any time at all with these people?!”

Fortunately, The West Wing was recently added to Netflix for streaming, and so, when I feel a need for a dose of political drama, I can always revisit my old friends there, characters like Josh, Toby, C.J., Sam, Leo, Charlie and President Bartlett, characters who don’t always do the right thing, but characters whom I care about.

Otherwise, what’s the point?

9 thoughts on “The Math of “House of Cards”

  1. Hi Mr Fish. How are you? – Did you watch the original BBC version of House of Cards? There’s certainly no-one to like here either, but it remains one of the best things ever written for television and I could see why Spacey would relish recreating the central character. Although I enjoyed West WIng and loved the character development (ie I thought the ‘people’ doing the job of running the government were real) it still felt a bit too reassured, sanitised and earnest at times.
    I worked in UK government for about 12 years and the CIvil service is truly full of good people trying to work things out and do a meaningful job, but it’s not always an easy environment.
    Spacey’s longtime spell in the British theatre + the Shakespearean base for the original House of Cards by Michael Dobbs (think Richard III) are unlikely to allow sugar anywhere near this show.


    Imagine for a moment that television isn’t there to give comfort or entertain or anaesthetise us from the real world but to give it to us between the eyes!
    I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the Pommy series ‘The Thick of It’ which was a black comedic take on the Blair years? There was also the film version about the War on Iraq – ‘In the Loop’. This was about the spin doctor era and is so fantastic it made me want to hide under my seat. The screenplay uncomfortably displays modern politics for the farce it is – with the media now also complicit in manipulating and misinforming the public. Similarly no-one in this show has any redeeming features that would make you warm to them or encourage you to sleep happily at night. Make sure the kids are in bed before you watch!
    (By the by – We’ve just had the State Premiere resign mid-term here and you can see that politics itself is an extremely grimy game. The press have yet to properly call for a full explanation of the basis for his downfall aka ‘stepping aside for personal reasons’ ….)

    1. Hi Chas,

      Thanks for your very thoughtful and thought-provoking comment.

      I think this is a super subjective issue, and I don’t think we’re going to see eye-to-eye, which is ok. We don’t have to agree and there’s nothing wrong with that!

      Now, I don’t see The West Wing as too sanitized just because it didn’t relentlessly focus on all the disgusting shit that goes on. In just the first season, it showed governmental officials who were involved with prostitutes, drugs and alcohol, a rookie president with no military background coming very close to a massively out of proportion retaliatory strike, all kinds of spinning and obfuscation and lying with the press, greed and corruption, racism, homophobia, etc.

      As for “too reassured,” I’m not sure what you mean by that, nor why that would be a bad thing. I think I know what you mean by “too earnest”, and I suppose I could see occasional flashes of that, but then it worked for me, because I’m an unapologetic idealist.

      And, I’d guess that’s really the difference between me and you, Chas, and I don’t mean that critically. Perhaps there is ample cause for me to be more cynical than I am, but I believe that folks who like House of Cards and other shows like it are generally not idealists, more cynical, they want shows that are unflinchingly “realistic”.

      But, as I said in my post today on The West Wing, it’s not that I want to escape and anesthetize myself with pablum. Rather, I feel that ultra “realistic” fiction errs on the far other side of the spectrum, and the casualty is that there’s no sign of humanity, flawed humanity, which allows for people we can like and care about who sometimes do bad things.

      1. Hi Mr Fish – we’re probably pretty similar – I recoil from too much real grit but it is interesting culturally that the Brits tend to be able to tackle some issues (or hidden truths) more head on and I think as Aussies we tend to be OK with that. (Mass generalisation here!)
        When I first saw the BBC’s House of Cards I really didn’t go for it – but it resonated in some way and when I watched it again a couple of years later it had a real bell of truth. Maybe because we’d been living in the UK for so long we had got to be quite cynical..I blame the weather.
        Artistically I think it’s interesting to set up a character as an anti-hero and play that through (Michael Douglas in Wall St might be another?) Not sure how Spacey’s version makes the cut though so I might agree when I get to see it!
        Agree West Wing was a real breath of fresh air when it came on. I suppose when I say ‘reassured’ I mean that most of the main characters seemed to be played as on the ball, highly capable and well groomed in my memory (albeit flawed at times). What some of the Brits manage to portray is a level of ruthlessness against incompetence and bafflement which I think also adds a bit of humanity and insight to the human condition. Tom Hollander’s poor local MP made scape goat by Peter Capaldi’s nasty scheming spin doctor in ‘In the Loop’ is a portrayal of utter hopelessness in the face of determined political gain. In the original House of Cards, people are generally chewed up and spat out by the truly awful Urquhart as he makes his way to the top.
        Anyway we should have a good conversation about this again sometime and I will definitely buy drinks.
        I’ll watch West Wing again as well! (My husband was a big West Wing fan too so he’ll be happy with this plan – he is also a fellow muso & teacher (trumpet) – what type of music / instrument/s are you into?)

        1. “Maybe because we’d been living in the UK for so long we had got to be quite cynical.. I blame the weather.”

          LOL! I laugh particularly hard because I live in a very grey and rainy place, and I have seen many around me succumb.

          As for “reassured”, thanks for the clarification, but i think you are remembering incorrectly. The characters on West Wing often do act reassured, but they constantly make mistakes and end up self-deprecatingly admitting that they screwed up. It’s just one of the ways you feel endeared to them. I much prefer this to a cast of scumbags who do terrible things all the time, and I’d argue the former is just as realistic, since not everyone in government is a scumbag.

          I know we’d have a blast expanding this conversation over drinks. If only I could get away and travel to Australia.

          As for music, I like all kinds, but I play mostly many flavors of rock and roll and American roots music. I play both acoustic and electric guitars, with my latest acquisition a beautiful new Fender Jaguar.


          1. I worried about my rants yesterday – managed to cover politics and religion. The whole purpose of blogging for me was to stick to art and not to bang on about extraneous things!
            I bet the music life around you is great – I had to look up Bellingham – you’re so nearly in Canada & it looks to be the most beautiful part of the world surrounded by national parks and islands. Enjoy the new guitar!
            After my rants I posted something about cycling in Melbourne just to return to my usual a-political self!
            You, Mr Fish, would be right at home as there is a naked bike-ride in Melbourne from the beach to the city. So you could leap straight out of the water, pedal to the CIty & get some photos in your shimmery clothes-less-ness on the steps of the town hall and be back in the water by sundown!

          2. Bellingham IS a wonderful place, and Melbourne sounds awesome as well! I’ll be sure to read your post on cycling, given cycling is one of my favorite topics!

            I share your desire to avoid politics and religion, though there are times that I just have to vent. I’d be limiting my self-expression if I was strict about avoiding those topics, and the primary reason for my blog is to express myself on the various topics that I am interested in.

            I used to write a blog solely on politics, for five years, and it nearly drove me mad!

          3. A blog just on politics would be hard graft indeed. I have to not read the opinion pages in the newspaper or watch those late night panel debate shows completely or I start talking in the mirror.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s