the success of house of cards in today’s political climate
Competition, greed, and murder are among the most prominent themes of Netflix’s successful original series venture House of Cards. With over half a million fans binge-watching the 13-episode second season during the first weekend of its release, it looks likes this venture is here to stay. As one of the first online television series produced by Netflix, and the first web-only series to receive a major Golden Globe win, HoC is leading the reimagination of television production.
Experimentation hasn’t intimidated the show’s creator, Beau Willimon. The dark DC drama has consistently garnered exceptional confidence from the show’s distributor, with the third season green lighted for production even before the February premiere of Season Two. This confidence is in large part a result of Netflix’s use of big data analytics to ensure the popularity of the series. The online platform provides user viewing data that other platforms can’t—such as when a user stops, rewinds or rewatches an episode As a result, long before production, Willimon already knew two things that Netflix viewers liked: productions from David Fincher (director of The Social Network) and serialized political dramas. With HoC, Willimon has delivered these two entertainment pleasures combined, adapting a British-miniseries for a new generation of American audiences.
Yet for all the confidence that big data provides, it can hardly tell us why viewers are interested in such a show. Actually, given the current political climate in America, it is pretty counterintuitive that a series about a conniving congressman’s rise to power would be so popular. Approval of real-life Congress is at its lowest in years, and with inequality and gridlock dominating news coverage, it seems ironic that HoC has had any success at all.
Frank Underwood, the show’s antihero played by Kevin Spacey, is not your average corrupt politician. There’s no denying this Southern Democrat looks down on many cherished American political institutions; for example, when taking his oath of office for the Vice Presidency, Frank mutters in an aside to the camera, “One heartbeat away from the Presidency and not a single vote cast in my name. Democracy is so overrated.”
While Frank might lack allegiance to political principles, he is loyal to one goal: getting the job done. This is clear from the very beginning. In the first scene of the series, Frank kills a suffering dog and then describes the situation as “useless suffering.” He says, “I have no patience for useless things.” His is a violent vision of social mobility, which reaches a level of sociopathy when Frank demonstrates he is not above murder. Yet for those craving signs that social mobility is still a realistic aspiration, and political efficacy still a possibility, Frank’s ascent can be satisfying vicarious experience. Despite the absence of morality, meritocracy, or even democracy in the Washington of HoC, things get done.
For frustrated audiences, it is a welcome change to watch political goals achieved—and in a manner swifter and more efficient than anything we see in Congress. Even President Obama has praised Frank Underwood for being “ruthlessly efficient” in comparison to real-life Washington (though we can assume Obama doesn’t appreciate Frank’s tactics). While Frank’s efficiency is ultimately motivated by the pursuit of power, that doesn’t mean Frank won’t write bills, whip votes, and organize gubernatorial campaigns as part of the process. It’s safe to say he’s a highly productive sociopath. For an audience accustomed to a lack of productivity, this alternate universe of rapid change and accomplishment is highly cathartic—so much so that we can forgive Frank’s amorality.
In an era where the wealth gap in America is rapidly growing, Frank Underwood’s appeal goes beyond what he gets done—it is also symbolically powerful that his particular character is the one doing it. As his calm Southern drawl constantly reminds us, Frank is from South Carolina. The son of a peach farmer, he is a far cry from the aloof New England liberal often associated with such an elite office. The image of Frank as different from the typical Washington elite is important for the success of the show’s narrative, making it possible to garner audience empathy for this narcissist’s singular goal of higher office.
The idea of Frank as a down-to-earth “every man” is most prolifically reinforced by his regular visits to Freddy’s BBQ joint, a rib shack located in the Washington DC projects. Here Frank not only shows appreciation for greasy meat and corn bread, but also a genuine connection with the humble business owner, Freddy, who calls the Vice President by his first name. Their friendship is more than polite banter over good food—Frank consciously appreciates Freddy, especially for how little he resembles the dishonesty of Washington. “In a town where everyone’s so carefully reinventing themselves,” Franks says, “what I like about Freddy is that he doesn’t even pretend to change.” In the political universe of HoC, Freddy is a Joe the Plumber-type everyman. He stands out against a sea of the navy-suited, powerful and corrupt. Frank is among these navy-suited—but audiences put our trust in him because we suspect that, like Freddy, he’s not really one of them.
This trust comes undone when Freddy becomes publicly mired in controversy, and Frank chooses to quickly back away. This is doubly painful to watch because Frank’s visits to the BBQ joint were the reason Freddy entered the public eye at all; however, when the press exposes Freddy’s drug dealing past and delinquent son—a campaign covertly sponsored by Frank’s enemies—the once loyal Vice President severs all ties with Freddy. Following this, Frank is filled with remorse unlike anything we’ve seen before on the show (and yes, he has already committed two murders by this point). As he tells the camera soberly, “The road to power is paved with hypocrisy—and casualties.”
In Frank’s defense, he has remained consistent, pursuing his one guiding objective: ascending the ladder of power. Ultimately, we stay on Team Frank because of (not in spite of) his commitment to reaching the top, no matter what sacrifices that entails. And when we root for his ascension, it is almost as if we are rooting for ourselves; Frank’s frequent intimate asides with the camera, where he murmurs his inner thoughts as if we’re sitting in the room right next to him, make viewers feel that we are climbing the ladder right along with him. The vicarious social mobility that Frank provides is enough to forgive his violence and amorality, because in a time when it appears less accessible than ever, Frank Underwood is a back-door entrance to the American dream—though via a rather dark alley route.
Though producers might have predicted the appeal of HoC with confidence, it is in today’s particular context of American frustration with immobility and inefficiency that allows a character like Frank Underwood to thrive. HoC provides a fictional relief from real-life Washington. While we might not hope for a real life version of the morbid tactics used by Frank on his climb to the top, the success of HoC is indicative of some of the deeper, unrealized desires of the frustrated—though still aspirational—citizen.