There is Washington, D.C., and then there is “Washington, D.C.” The former is a real city, a culturally rich metroplex in which a diverse assortment of human beings live, work, raise families, and eat half-smokes. There are museums and gas stations, ballparks and bus depots, gentrifying hipster enclaves and rebounding urban communities. Political operatives and public school teachers ride the same bizarrely carpeted subway, stroll beneath the same cherry blossom trees. The sun rises and sets for employees of the GAO and the Gap alike.1
If you care to read about this Washington, D.C., there is no better chronicler of it than the author George Pelecanos. I recommend starting with The Sweet Forever, a crime novel about the 1980s, punk rock, cocaine, and Len Bias.
“Washington, D.C.,” is another sort of place entirely. It’s less a city and more a fevered Colosseum of appetite and ambition where scheming, besuited gladiators wind stems and stab backs. Despite being the seat of the federal government, no actual governing takes place. Instead, politics is played out in bars and backrooms like blood sport. Victories are tallied with the scalps of rivals and the domination of news cycles, not by bills passed or lives changed. Power isn’t a tool to be used but a knife to be brandished. Regular citizens are at best useful patsies, at worst human chum. This D.C. is a horror movie in which the calls are coming from inside the White House.
It’s understandable why the latter version of D.C. should dominate the popular imagination. Conflict is more dependably entertaining than process,2 and global struggles more instantly compelling than ordinary ones. For those who actually toil within the staid margins of the Beltway, this amped-up alternate reality also functions as a self-sustaining sort of escapism. After all, what’s a more compelling destination for your morning commute: a blood-spattered arena of conspiracy and Machiavellian supervillains? Or a sputtering bureaucracy prone to shutdowns and furloughs? Allison Janney in a pantsuit aside, Westeros is a lot sexier than the West Wing.
We pause here, yet again, to pour out some Jameson for The Wire, the rare show able to make hay with both.
What’s disconcerting is that this skewed and melodramatic vision of our nation’s capital has spread to nearly every channel — even to those that claim not to traffic in fiction. From the preposterous kicks of Scandal to the high-dudgeon hysteria of Fox News, television is increasingly devoted to showcasing D.C. as either a facile horse race or a savage glue factory. Never mind the unglamorous work of governing or the necessary checks and balances of government. All that matters is a simple binary: not Democrats and Republicans or liberals and conservatives, but winners and losers. It’s an empty, endless spinning that leads, in the words of scabrous media critic Alex Pareene, to “a pervasive cynicism about the entire process of politics that ends up rewarding the worst actors on the national political scene for their shamelessness and skill at being horrible.”
Pareene was writing about Politico, the obsessed-over daily that covers a $3.7 trillion government with all the nuance of a box score. But he could very well have been writing about House of Cards, the Netflix series that debuted its sour second season last month.3 In its first year, the show was compulsively watchable even if it offered little in the way of nutrition. I compared it to Doritos and meant it as a compliment: Its pleasures were real, though fleeting, and were worth the resulting stomachache. Beau Willimon, the man charged with adapting the ’90s British series of the same name, smartly counterbalanced Congressman Frank Underwood’s rapacious ascent with the Icarus-like downfall of Peter Russo, the fragile Pennsylvania representative played to perfection by Corey Stoll. Both men turned to politics to paper over the holes in their hearts, but while Russo still suffered from occasional delusions of virtue — he actually thought elected office might be used to help people, the sappy bastard — Frank’s internal chasm had no bottom. It was a moral weightlessness that allowed him to rise all the way to the vice-presidency without ever having to bother himself with anything so demeaning as a national election.
If Francis Underwood hadn’t been created in the U.K. more than 24 years ago, I’d like to think he would have emerged, fully formed, from the head of Politico White House correspondent Mike Allen, like Athena breaking free of the skull of Zeus.
House of Cards didn’t offer a particularly insightful lesson in that first season. Even the most dewy-eyed high school civics teacher would admit that politics can be a dirty game and that only the ignorant and the doomed play entirely within the rules. But Willimon seemed to understand that what makes games, even simple ones, interesting is the players, not the pawns. Rather than gorge himself on Frank’s desires, Willimon’s scripts teased out the ways Frank’s appetite found succor in the hunger of others, not just Russo but Kate Mara’s zealous Zoe Barnes and Jayne Atkinson’s feral Catherine Durant.
This year, by contrast, was a suffocating round of solitaire. [Note: Some Season 2 spoilers follow.] In the season premiere, Frank, weary of throwing colleagues under the proverbial bus, tossed Zoe under an actual train. All other remaining earthlings were soon similarly dispatched: Lucas was sentenced to prison, Janine banished to upstate New York. House of Cards morphed from a breathtaking display of backroom skills to a dunk contest. Though he refused to move to the Naval Observatory, it was clear that Vice-President Underwood had in fact relocated: to the part of the map where only monsters roam.4
Am I underrating the charismatic performances of Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright here? Perhaps. They’re certainly effective, in the sense that I walked away from my final Cards binge feeling used, bruised, and utterly bullied.
This wouldn’t be fatal if Frank’s insatiable craving were tethered to anything remotely recognizable. But it isn’t. He’s as divorced from humanity as the show’s politics are from public service. It’s hard to remember now, through the fog of Chinese back-channeling, anthrax scares, and Secret Service nookie, but the root of Frank’s scheming was a fit of pique: In the pilot, he was passed over for secretary of state. As a result of that slight, the erstwhile whip spent the next two years doing to American democracy and the global economy what he once did to Zoe. This wasn’t revolutionary, it wasn’t even treason. It was a temper tantrum that demanded every bit of attention and sucked up all available oxygen.
Because Frank is both the hero and the villain of his own story, Willimon was unable to gin up any worthy adversaries. Instead, he seeded the second season with bird-snapping mustache twirlers like Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney) and bipedal doormats like President Garrett Walker5 (Michel Gill). With 13 hours to fill, long swaths of time were devoted to head-scratching filler like Doug Stamper’s Dickensian longing for Rachel, an ex-hooker turned born-again lesbian; the minutiae of barbecue franchising; and the tender love that can only shared by a hacktivist and his guinea pig.6 Outside of the smoldering co-legislation of Mahershala Ali’s Remy and Molly Parker’s Jackie, House of Cards managed to make absolute power appear absolutely boring. The higher Frank climbed, the more tightly the show focused on the ladder; the only time it showed interest in the rungs is when Frank was stepping on them.
Seriously, in conception, performance, and execution, this guy was one of the most inexcusable zeroes I can remember in more than three decades of watching television. I’ve seen revolving doors with more backbone, paperweights with more charisma. Daniel Lanagin’s dog, the one that jumped into the swimming pool after Frank’s steak, demonstrated more savvy in 30 seconds of screen time than the elected president of the United States did in two seasons.
Nothing highlighted the yawning pleasure gap between enjoyable suds like Scandal and House of Cards like Cashew the guinea pig. Cashew would make perfect sense on Scandal, which treats its crazy like a Slip ’N Slide: The wetter the better. House of Cards merely dabbles: The guinea pig was the equivalent of an undertaker wearing navy blue socks instead of black. If you’re gonna be weird, House of Cards, you’re gonna have to be weirder than that.
Still, what truly rankled about House of Cards this year was the way its cynical water was carried throughout by a truly impressive stream of real-life journalists. Was there a single prominent political reporter able to resist the siren song of his or her own ego and refuse an invitation to cameo? From industry exemplars like CBS’s Morley Safer and CNN’s Candy Crowley to ideological opposites Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow, dozens of would-be truth seekers raced enthusiastically for the chance to revel in fiction. That the show cast them all as eager matadors, waving in futility as the facts bullied past them, is an irony that was apparently beyond their collective investigative acumen.
Or perhaps it wasn’t an irony at all. Unlike the show’s crusading inventions Zoe Barnes, Janine Skorsky, and this season’s Ayla Sayyad,7 the goof troop of actual reporters, by their very presence, offered an effective endorsement of the type of D.C. journalism that dominates our discourse today: One that is obsequious in the presence of power and deferential to celebrity, one that privileges faux-sober “even-handedness” at the expense of truth. It’s a journalism that is loath to rattle institutional cages lest it cost someone a seat at the table. By inviting the likes of John King and Soledad O’Brien inside the joke, House of Cards allows would-be gadflies to reaffirm their preferred role as gatekeepers. They’re not important, but they play important on TV.
It’s worth noting that House of Cards takes journalists seriously only when they prove themselves willing to trample rules and rights with the same catty élan as Frank. Otherwise they’re merely bugs, waiting their turn to be squashed.
Which is why, apart from a few murders, Frank Underwood appears to be the modern D.C. press corps’ ideal candidate: a swaggering smooth talker who uses journalists like carrier pigeons and prefers optics to details. It doesn’t really matter what he does as long as he gives the impression of getting things done. It’s the sort of leadership that keeps everyone inside the Beltway fat, happy, and employed — and ignores completely those who exist outside of it. House of Cards doesn’t reveal anything about Washington, D.C. It merely revels in its worst tendencies.
Veep, which will begin its third season on HBO on Sunday, April 6, is the only effective antidote to House of Cards’ smug bile. It’s also a show about an upwardly mobile vice-president trapped in a D.C. bubble that may as well be a bathysphere. Here, too, is the small army of yes-men and -women who fuel the VP’s rise, the bumbling president whose limitations suggest future possibilities, and the general celebration of executive power as its own reward. And yet Veep views these things not with undisguised admiration but with the mockery and gleeful contempt they deserve.
Created by Armando Iannucci, the satirical genius responsible for the long-running British political farce The Thick of It and its loosely related cinematic cousin, In the Loop, Veep is very often the funniest show on television. In its way, it’s also often the most damning. We Americans flatter ourselves when we imagine our elected leaders capable of the dazzling acts perpetrated by Frank Underwood and his cronies — we’re a nation that respects results even when the results skew a little evil. It’s easier to envision our politicians as gods and monsters than it is to see them as the ridiculous, flawed men and women they often are. Veep, thankfully, has no patience for mythologizing. (“You know, democracy is fantastic,” Anna Chlumsky’s chief of staff sneered in Season 1, “but it is also fucking dull.”) Filled with pleated khakis, dangling lanyards, day-old pizza, and flop sweat left over from a previous administration, Vice-President Selina Meyer’s D.C. has more in common with an Office Depot than Frank Underwood’s Mount Olympus. It doesn’t inspire hope or terror. It doesn’t inspire at all.
In its uneven first season, Veep made the common foreigner’s mistake: It giggled and judged from a distance. Though plenty hilarious, the show’s targets tended to be softer than figgy pudding. (It doesn’t take much to make fun of vice-presidents. Even vice-presidents do it.) Then, last year, Iannucci and his merry band of Brits8 went native. Suddenly, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Selina wasn’t a punch line; she was punching back, a foul-mouthed striver determined to do whatever was necessary to prolong her time in the national spotlight. In many ways, the fixes were reminiscent of Parks and Recreation, another political sitcom that improved itself exponentially on the fly once it steered into the formidable strengths of its star. And let’s be clear: Louis-Dreyfus is a supernova. Zipped into pencil skirts and shipped off to empty meet-and-greets from Omaha to Oslo, she’s a modern marvel of exasperation and timing. Now that Selina’s frustrations are pointed toward something specific — namely, the White House; the unseen president isn’t running for re-election and Selina’s shadow campaign to replace him begins in the season premiere — Veep has never been sharper or better.
One key non-Brit on the staff is Frank Rich, a longtime political writer who currently calls New York magazine home. Unlike his colleagues peacocking on House of Cards, Rich seems to understand that his skills are better served by sticking with the pen, not posing for selfies with borrowed swords.
Around Louis-Dreyfus, Iannucci has drafted a murderer’s row of comic understatement, including Matt Walsh as her sad-sack communications director and Arrested Development’s Tony Hale as Gary, a fidgety body man whose relationship with his shoulder bag — packed with Handi Wipes, snacks, and other Veep treats — is reminiscent of Buster Bluth’s devotion to his mother. (There’s also the titanic Timothy Simons as Jonah, a gangly, much-loathed presidential aide who gets many of the best lines and receives all the best insults.) The third season amps up the presence of veteran scene larcenists Kevin Dunn (as the president’s highly caffeinated chief of staff), Gary Cole (as a robotic pollster), and Isiah Whitlock Jr. (as the secretary of defense — not, unfortunately, as a conniving state senator). Crammed together in front of a whiteboard or in the back of a Coast Guard cruiser, the ensemble treats Iannucci’s dense scripts like shuttlecocks, the tangle of words — even the tremendously foul ones — zipping gracefully through the air.
Frank Underwood’s purple prose is played straight (“I have always loathed the necessity of sleep”), but Selina Meyer’s language is stretched and twisted like bubblegum, all in the service of separating sound bites from their potentially controversial meanings. While a newly minted web journalist scours the streets of Southeast D.C. for “real stories about real people,” the VP’s office struggles with the political necessity of saying something publicly without saying anything at all. “The Choice,” this season’s riotous second episode, is built around a late-night strategy session on how to respond to some presidential comments on abortion. “I can’t get POTUS to wave his transvaginal wand and make it all go away,” sighs Dunn’s Ben Cafferty before urging Selina to come out strong: “The data’s right: As a woman, you can really kick ass on this issue.” After a pause so rich you could spread it on toast, Louis-Dreyfus pounces: “As a woman, I am not going to put in a fucking sentence ‘as a woman.’ I’m not putting my eggs in that basket!”
But of course Selina’s eventual statement does indeed begin with “As a woman,” because Veep is a show about politics as it actually is, not how we’d like it to be. Rife with pettiness and dysfunction, it’s a PowerPoint presentation, not a kumite. What matters isn’t that the game is rigged or the deck is stacked, but that it really is just a game: a dispiriting contest between exhausted sycophants and posturing egoists that’s played out not with high-tech hackers and Chinese slush funds but with dented BlackBerries and cans of flat diet soda. The relentless, aspirational phoniness of House of Cards can make it plenty diverting. But Veep is funny because it’s true.