I'm going to start glancing at an imaginary audience from time to time and see if anybody notices.
When I was a kid I remember noticing the striking differences between the types of movies I watched and the movies my parents watched. Pretty much every movie I ever brought home from the video store was either an extended series of action sequences or an extended series of fart jokes. You can’t even imagine what a boon the Austin Powers movies were back then.
Mom and Dad would always rent their own movies, to be watched after I went to bed. These movies were very different from mine, and they often had cryptic titles like The English Patient or Eyes Wide Shut, which did very little to explain what the movie was actually about, unlike the titles of the movies I was renting. Cliffhanger was about people fighting on a mountain, frequently hanging off of cliffs; Delta Force 2: The Columbian Connection was about the second time Chuck Norris went on a mission with the Delta Force, this time in Columbia.
I could usually hear my parents watching their vaguely-titled movies from my bedroom, and from an early age I realized I wasn’t missing much – the movies my parents watched were extremely boring. Most of them just seemed to be about people sitting around talking (and occasionally having sex) in a variety of rather dull, non-exploding locations. No car chases, no guns, no crashing helicopters or nameless thugs having their heads smashed into urinals for the sake of a good catchphrase – like most members of Congress, my parents’ movies were all talk, no action.
I remember lying in bed listening to the seemingly endless muffled dialogue seeping through my walls and being dumbfounded that people found that interesting. “Who the hell wants to watch a bunch of people talking?” I wondered. “I see people talking every day. Am I actually supposed to start liking this crap someday?”
Looking back, I can only imagine that a show like House of Cards would have been my kryptonite.
It is, after all, a show that consists almost entirely of people sitting in rooms talking to each other, walking down hallways and talking, talking to each other on phones, talking to each other about when they can set up meetings to talk with other people, talking in motorcades on the way to go talk to people, and sometimes, for variety’s sake, texting or having threesomes.
And the things that they talk about! Trade sanctions, committee appointments, parliamentary procedures, lobbying scandals, campaign finance… It’s like they made a list of all the driest, most complicated, least sexy issues currently facing our government and said, “Let’s make a tense political thriller out of that stuff.”
I’m not complaining – if I was, I wouldn’t have smashed through the second season in about five days. If anything, I think it’s a testament to how great House of Cards is that it can turn everyday C-SPAN fodder like entitlement reform into some seriously riveting television.
Admittedly, that doesn’t work all the time. For example, I couldn’t really get invested in the Chinese trade war from the middle of the season because the only negative consequence seemed to be an energy crisis that made it prohibitively expensive for people to turn on their air conditioners. Since virtually everybody on the show is pretty wealthy, this “energy crisis” felt less like a crisis and more like a mild inconvenience for the one character who didn’t have a six to seven figure salary.
But that’s the beauty of House of Cards – even when the plots start to sound like the sort of things political science and economics majors talk about when they’re stoned, the show holds your interest because it’s always fun watching Frank Underwood do stuff, even if that stuff isn’t really all that interesting on its own merits. Secretive trade negotiations with a Chinese billionaire normally aren’t my idea of riveting television, but Frank, with his scheming and his manipulation and his constant stream of barbecue-oriented analogies, makes it fun.
The main criticism of the show that I see online is that it isn’t realistic. Frank’s ascendance is implausible, Washington doesn’t run completely on back channel favors, nobody that high profile could get away with that much for that long... Those are all valid points – and so long as we’re pointing out things on TV that aren’t realistic, any high school teacher cooking meth would be arrested or killed in a matter of weeks, an unknown standup comedian with no real job couldn't afford a huge Manhattan apartment, and dragons aren’t real.
House of Cards isn’t about exposing the true inner workings of our political process; it’s about watching Frank Underwood awesomely attain as much power as possible while winning as few elections as he can. If you honestly think a show like that is going to be a true-to-life snapshot of Washington DC then you’re probably also wondering why nobody seems to notice Frank talking to the camera all the time.
My seven-year-old self would be absolutely disgusted that I find this show gripping, exciting, and supremely enjoyable. Maybe this is the sign that I’ve finally reached adulthood, and it’s time for me to get a subscription to the Wall Street Journal and start using phrases like “I need to go run some errands,” or “Time to balance my checkbook!” If nothing else, I should at least watch The English Patient and see how I feel.
Truman Capps likes to pretend that Ferris Bueller grew up to become Frank Underwood. He presumably turned evil somewhere in college.