Bartlet vs. Underwood

Bartlet vs. Underwood March 4, 2015

Who’d you vote for for President: Jed Bartlet of The West Wing, or Frank Underwood of House of Cards?

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I’ve been watching House of Cards, catching up on Season 2 before binging on the newly-released Season 3. It’s taut, tense drama with some incredible performances. There are delicious moments of skulduggery and intrigue. Each time Kevin Spacey looks evilly at the camera I feel a special tingle. Probably too much of one – he is kinda sexy. But mostly House of Cards just makes me miss The West Wing. The tone of House of Cards is so unremittingly bleak, so utterly desolate, that I yearn for a return to the idealism and hopefulness of Sorkin’s series.

The setting of both series is very similar: both are set primarily in the White House and rely on the machinations of politicians to create the central drama. Both provide a peek inside the corridors of power. But in their soul the shows are totally different. The West Wing tries to imagine what politics would be like were everyone principled, and passionate, and full of hope in the potential of government to make a positive difference. The cast is a true ensemble, and governance is portrayed as a team sport. The main obstacles are unexpected events and political realities and, while personal conflict is present, the show isn’t about personal conflict: it’s more about the conflict between people and their ideals. It’s almost as if each character is a voice of conscience within the liberal psyche. House of Cards, by contrast, is more of a solo work: Spacey is the star, and it is his rise to power which commands attention. In House of Cardseverything is personal, and there is no sense that any of the characters are being guided by any principle other than that of self-aggrandizement. All climb the greasy pole. The show slyly whispers that everybody is power-hungry and venal, and politics is nothing more than a Hobbesian struggle for dominance.

On the surface, it might seem that House of Cards should easily make for a more riveting hour of television. Its episodes are stuffed with deceit, sex, espionage, violence, even murder, while The West Wing has whole episodes about obscure governmental procedures and revels in political minutiae. Yet, for me, some of the finer West Wing episodes provoke more excitement – even when viewed for the tenth time – than did the whole second season of House of Cards. Why? Because The West Wing offers hope and the promise of a better future, while House of Cards just descends into despair.

You can say The West Wing is unrealistic, a pie in the sky utopia. But people need hope, especially during a time when politics is so dysfunctional and the world seems so dark. What The West Wing does, which House of Cards absolutely does not do, is give us a model of how government should and could be run – a model which, though far from the current reality, is by no means impossible to achieve.

This is difficult: creating believable and dramatic stories of moral courage and principle is much more difficult than reveling in the chaos of society gone wrong. Evidence of dysfunction, greed, and venality is all around and widely-reported, while examples of excellent statesmanship and courageous pursuit of ideals are rarely noticed. In our culture, high ideals are more likely to be mocked and satirized than given honest consideration. But that just makes The West Wing more important.

Ultimately, House of Cards has little to teach us. It is a fun diversion, an enjoyable way to spend a few hours. It’s good entertainment. But it is so bombastic that it doesn’t even serve as a moral fable: what message are we supposed to draw from the endless parade of self-serving politicos Frank Underwood scythes down in his pursuit of power? The West Wing was trying to do something. It asked us to rethink our relationship with government, to respect the political process, and consider joining it ourselves. It showed us that committed people could make a difference, if they worked hard enough. It wanted us to dream bigger and expect more – of our politicians, of our countries, and of ourselves. Right now, with political disaffection at an all-time high, that’s the message we need to hear more often. Yes it’s fun to wallow in the muck, but I’d rather reach for the stars.

I choose Jed.


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