Art Imitates Strife
The 2016 presidential race is almost as ridiculous as this show.
By Jenna Ramsey, Seattle University
When the Netflix series House of Cards began in 2013, the real-life U.S. political realm wasn’t nearly as chaotic as it is right now.
President Obama was a year into his second term. The show’s fictional politician, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), was a horrifying character, but totally unbelievable as a real presence in the White House.
Now, in 2016, things are a little different. With Donald Trump in the lead as the Republican presidential nominee, parts of Cards seem closer to reality. And it has totally ruined the show for me.
In its first seasons, the show posed an interesting question: What if a totally morally corrupt politician actually made it to the White House? And this was a fun question to ruminate on in the context of a show, because the answer would only affect a fictitious version of the U.S.
Cards was a cool way for political junkies like myself—and even people who aren’t interested in politics, but who like tense entertainment—to watch all the drama of an election season unfold without having to fear the politicians themselves because, well, they were fake.
Netflix made the fourth season available on Friday, and though my immediate inclination was to binge-watch, it was difficult to get past the first hour. What I saw was a little too reminiscent of what’s going on in the election we’re actually in the middle of.
This season, in contrast to the three previous ones, we see Frank in the midst of a presidential campaign. (He didn’t have to run the first time he became president—as VP, he got the job when his predecessor stepped down.)
Frank has been shifty as long as the show has been on, but now he’s directly deceiving the fictional American public, and the grossness of that hits very close to home.
It becomes clear early on in this season how eerily similar Frank is to Trump, and I’m not talking about an overlap of policy or campaign platforms. Trump is running as a Republican, Frank is a Democrat and the topics Frank is asked to address on the show don’t often align with the hot button issues of the real world.
The biggest similarity I see has nothing to do with the messages they’re voicing, but with the hunger for power that encouraged them both to run in the first place.
Cards has never been about the issues, and it would be a very boring show if that weren’t the case. It’s about the how Frank and his wife Claire maneuver around the issues and say whatever the public wants to hear in order to become as powerful as they can. A few scandals and murders are sprinkled in to keep each season lively, but for the most part, that power struggle is what makes the show.
Now that [spoiler!] Claire has left the marriage and Frank is running a campaign alone, it’s even easier to compare him to Trump as a solo act.
Frank encapsulates all of the egotistical, power-driven motives that we have come to fear in real politicians. It’s hard to watch him calculate his every move with such selfish intentions and not imagine that the real people running for president right now could be doing exactly the same thing. (Not murdering anyone, of course, but taking drastic and possibly immoral steps to get the title.)
But watching Frank get away with certain things has always been oddly satisfying.
When he looks into the camera to talk directly to the audience—one of the show’s signatures—it feels like we’re a part of his schemes, and puts us on his side whether we like it or not.
A similar thing happens when Trump gets to the debate stage and says whatever politically incorrect thing comes to his mind. It’s shocking, and most of us don’t agree with it, but a small part of us wants to see how far it will go.
Because we viewers of Cards associate such a villainous politician, Frank, with entertainment, it’s fairly unsurprising that a candidate like Trump has made it this far in the current presidential race. Both Frank and Trump are exciting to watch—they make bold moves, and as ill-intentioned as they are, the public associates each of them with success and power.
Most of the similarities are purely coincidental. A few recaps of the show’s fourth season have made the comparison between Trump and Frank’s connections with the Klu Klux Klan. Trump hesitated to disavow an endorsement from David Duke last week, and in the third episode of Cards, Frank’s success in the primaries comes to a halt when a photo is found of his father shaking hands with a hooded Klansman.
When little overlaps like this occur, the intrigue of Cards is lost on me. Why get stressed out over a political drama on Netflix when the political drama happening in real life is stressful enough?
Much of the show remains unbelievable, even as it has begun to parallel the 2016 presidential election. The show has jumped the shark more times than I can remember, but I stopped caring about that a while ago. The greatness of it has always been its ridiculousness, and to really enjoy it you have to just accept that it’s not always going to make sense.
But as hokey as parts of it are, other aspects of the show are converging with reality. That freaks me out more than it impresses me. The more Cards reminds me of what’s happening in real U.S. politics, the less excited I am to watch it.
So thanks, Donald, for ruining one of my favorite things.