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Eli Lehrer

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House of Cards: Good Television, Questionable Research

Posted: 02/20/2013 9:08 am

Although its producers at Netflix won't release the viewership numbers for their District-set Baltimore-filmed TV series House of Cards, a visit to any water cooler in the D.C. area will reveal that the series is getting a lot of buzz locally. There's little doubt that House of Cards is watchable and, as Howard Fineman says "grimly acute portrayal of the least appealing and even anomic aspects of life here." The series also has some very good production designers: the layout of the furniture in the Majority Whip's office, the stickers on the outside of District taxicabs, and even the design of the visitors' badges used in the U.S. Capitol are all spot on. But, while I'd consider the show well worth watching, I also yell at the TV when I'm streaming it: the producers' extensive research on the look of their interiors didn't extend to the shape of the show's plots. House of Cards is pretty good television, but it's a perfectly awful textbook on nearly every aspect of public policy it touches. Almost all of the show's major plot points involve things that wouldn't -- or couldn't -- happen.

My own background is relevant here: I've worked as a reporter at a D.C. based-daily, a speechwriter for the Senate Majority Leader (with office space in the U.S. Capitol) and a consultant/project manager for local police departments including the District's. As such, I have hands-on experience in the worlds -- journalism, politics, and law enforcement -- in which the characters' move. And the problems I see aren't just nitpicks but go to the heart of the show's major plot points (spoilers follow).

The more trivial sins of House of Cards involve things that simply wouldn't happen but, in theory, could. For example, it's almost inconceivable that any a major newspaper would put any reporters' un-sourced story about a new Secretary of State appointment on the front page when the reporter in question Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) has no experience covering the State Department and won't even reveal her source. It crashes every convention to believe that South Carolina native House Majority Whip Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) would become a major player in a Pennsylvania governor's race. It's quite rare, indeed, for members of Congress to get seriously involved with state-level elections in their own states. Although it may have happened at some point, likewise, a House of Representatives roll call vote on a freestanding bill involving a single river watershed would be very, very unusual. Still, things like this could happen. As such, they're arguably justified examples of dramatic license.

But other things aren't and show simple sloppiness. For example, Capitol Police security details for congressional leadership always consist of at least two individuals making it impossible that distracting a single member of a security detail could provide an opening for a brick-tossing incident. Legislative drafts, likewise, are leaked all the time for all sorts of reasons and, since they are public documents, the first amendment and longstanding precedents means they can and are the topic of news stories. The idea that an editor would even suggest that legal departments somehow get involved is absurd. But that's what happens on House of Cards. More importantly perhaps -- it's a key plot point in several episodes -- unions in the United States have, since 1947, been banned from engaging in political strikeslike the "national teachers' strike" that takes place on House of Cards. (Moreover, most teachers aren't covered by collective bargaining and even those that are unionized can't necessarily strike.)

The list could go on but the bottom line is simple: House of Cards is good television based on bad (or at least indifferent) research about Washington politics. Many of the events in the show simply couldn't happen.

 

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