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Howard Fineman

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Your Nation's Capital: House of Cads

Posted: 02/15/2013 4:57 pm

WASHINGTON -- Before I started writing this article about the new Netflix series "House of Cards," I checked the Gallup Poll.

Here are some numbers that relate to the series, which focuses on a wheeler-dealer Southern Democratic congressman named Frank Underwood, played by the chillingly charming Kevin Spacey:

  • Job-approval rating of Congress: 14 percent.
  • Percentage of Americans who say members of Congress possess a "very high" level of honesty and ethics: 11 percent.
  • Percentage of Americans who think that the way Washington operates does "serious harm" to the country: 77 percent.

To say that "House of Cards" presents a bleak picture of political (and journalistic) Washington is an understatement. It's like saying that "Macbeth" presents a bleak picture of marriage in Scotland.

But if those Gallup numbers are right -- and there is no reason to think they're not -- the producers of the show are serving viewers precisely what they expect to see in a show about Washington. Whether lack of surprise translates into hit or dud is unclear.

In the meantime, we are a very long way from Frank Capra and "Mr. Smith" -- and just as far away from Woodward and Bernstein.

The grim tone of "House of Cards" is set in the opening scene of what is to be at least a 13-part series, innovatively presented direct-to-Netflix by Director David Fincher, star Kevin Spacey, producer George Clooney and other Hollywood and Broadway worthies.

The first sound you hear -- even while the screen is still dark -- is a car crash. Rep. Underwood emerges from his Capitol Hill townhouse to find that a neighbor's dog has been run over on the street, mortally wounded. Underwood, in tender pity, bends over the dog and strangles it to death.

The congressman explains that he wanted to put the poor animal out of his misery. He also, one senses, relished the license to kill.

Most of what Underwood throttles aren't animals but the careers and lives of people who are dumb enough to get in his way. He is part Iago/part Soprano, alternately scheming invisibly or threatening frontally.

His ice-queen wife, played by Robin Wright, is Lady Macbeth in Under Armour, egging her husband on and ruthlessly firing half of the staff of the environmental do-gooding shop she runs.

These are two people of enormous charm, brains and political skill who seem on the verge of losing any sense whatsoever of what good they had hoped to accomplish when they began their careers.

A pretty young reporter, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), joins the appropriately named Underwoods on their Streetcar to Moral Oblivion. She gets her career-making first scoop by stalking the congressman after he is photographed glancing admiringly at her derriere at a party.

Barnes lusts for TV, for her own website. She is headed for a fall, we can only hope. But so is everyone else, we can only hope. Or perhaps resurrection, though that is more likely on a different channel.

The people behind this series are expert at depicting the anti-social behavior of people in intensely social situations. The feel, not surprisingly, is that of "The Social Network," Fincher's haunting portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who turned friendship into an algorithm, as a soulless, friendless, manipulative geek.

And so it is with politics. The question is whether this often heavy-handed, and yet often darkly amusing, TV show is accurate or fair or somehow useful.

I have been living and working in this city a long time. I can testify that "House of Cards" is a grimly acute portrayal of the least appealing and even anomic aspects of life here: the rootless careerism; the competition for power for its own sake; the reign of money and corporate clout; the casual ways in which people use and abuse each other as they climb whatever ladder they're on.

It's accurate, but it's not fair. There are other strands of life here, strands of optimism, earnestness and good values. Worthy work gets done in the name of the people. But I have to agree, proportionately speaking, not that much, given all the rest that goes on.

Is it useful for viewers to be reminded of that? Maybe. But they also can get all of the reminders they need by watching the news.

 

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