This piece was co-authored by Patricia Phalen
It's a new era in video entertainment -- the birth of a network-free first run television drama streamed directly into homes on Netflix. By now most TV fans have either heard about or watched House of Cards , the 13-part series in which Kevin Spacey plays House Majority Whip Frank Underwood, a manipulative, malicious, and vengeful lawmaker guilty of every moral transgression from adultery to serial deceit to murder. His single-minded journey of revenge leaves ruined careers, reputations, and lives in its wake. Viewers follow him, episode after episode, as he spirals downward toward his ultimate "victory." The story is intriguing, which keeps the audience hooked -- and with all 13 episodes available at the same time the series is eminently binge-able.
But House of Cards is built on a faulty premise: in U.S. politics, the ends justify the means. Savvy politicians can outsmart their opponents (or eliminate them entirely) in pursuit of their own agenda. The "last person standing" is the one who will stop at nothing to achieve his or her goals. Personal motivation, not concern for the common good, drives political decision-making. In Underwood's Washington, cheaters win, liars triumph, and honest politicians finish last. What a poor -- and entirely misleading -- representation of the American political process! Skullduggery is not a prerequisite for legislative success. Hard, and occasionally boring work is what carries the day at the Capitol.
Journalists fare no better than politicians in this series -- the ambitious reporter offers sex in return for information. Granted, this is entertainment, not documentary, but shouldn't writers and directors have a social responsibility to represent real institutions truthfully? Artistic license is one thing, but to invent a legislative narrative out of whole cloth and attempt to sell it as "hardball, backroom politics" does a disservice to a public that is already skeptical of everything that comes out of Washington.
There are other weak story elements in the series as well. For one, Spacey's character has no opponent who is equal to the challenge. Sherlock Holmes needed his intellectual rival Dr. Moriarty. Darth Vader's darkness amplified the light in Luke Skywalker. Even Tom had a worthy rival in Jerry. A strong foe is a sine qua non of good drama. Additionally, reliance on graphic sex scenes that border on pornography is a cheap way to tell a story. These scenes are not only gratuitous; they are an insult to the intelligence of viewers. This is Netflix...not Skinflix.
In some ways the series is entertaining. Kevin Spacey's performance is masterful and the production values of the program are excellent. The cast is extremely talented, and would be more than able to execute a program that tackles how difficult it actually is to get something done in Washington. Perhaps these 13 episodes are just the first suit in the House of Cards ' deck. If so, we hope the show will deal out some more responsible representations and a higher caliber of storytelling soon.
Hon. Mark R. Kennedy leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).
Dr. Patricia F. Phalen is Associate Professor of Media & Public Affairs at the George Washington University, where she teaches "Hollywood & Politics" and "Media in a Free Society." Her research has appeared in several academic publications including The Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, The Journal of Media Economics and the Journal of Media Business Studies.