In this year of totally distressing, not to say horrifying, political campaigns click, Joe and I turned to West Wing. He brought home DVDS from the law school library, and we binge-watched, together and separately. (I fall asleep when I watch anything after 8pm.)
After five seasons, the show lost steam and we lost interest. But now I had the TV habit, and, fearing I wouldn’t get enough exposure to politics, I turned to House of Cards. I had watched one episode a few years ago, but I found the characters so loathsome I didn’t want them occupying my living room or my mind.
In West Wing, the liberal’s wet dream, various domestic or international crises force the characters to reconcile their ideals with the need for political compromise. The President is just one of many major characters in the show, which focuses on senior White House staff. Each episode has multiple story lines, which may reflect each other, and there is often a humorous side story.
The scripts are stuffed with policy discussion presented in rapid-fire arguments, but at the core of the show are the almost-family relationships among a group of people working long hours towards usually common and often elusive high-stakes goals. They argue and get really angry, cover their caring with teasing and jokes, and support each other through tough times.
I enjoy these struggles. Not everyone does. In Wikipedia I found critic Heather Havrilesky: "What rock did these morally pure creatures crawl out from under and, more important, how do you go from innocent millipede to White House staffer without becoming soiled or disillusioned by the dirty realities of politics along the way?"
an innocent creature image(leopard gecko): dreamstime.com
In House of Cards, the paranoid cynic’s delight, everybody does heinous deeds and then they blackmail each other. The show is about two ruthless people with one ambition: to reach the top. They remind me of a law student I once interviewed for a public service internship whose ambition was to “be a leader.” I kept trying to find out what issues he cared about, what he wanted to achieve; he just kept saying he wanted to be a leader. Finally I asked, “But where do you want to lead people?” He had no answer.
Whither the wethers? image:gapemogotsi.com
The show is also about visual style. No matter where it takes us - homes, offices, cars, stores, motels - the entire world is decorated in shades of brown and gray and ivory. Everyone is thin. Everyone’s clothes match the decor. Two exceptions to the neutral pallette: outside we may see a touch of green, and the blood is always red.
Robin Wright, as Claire Underwood, wears very high needle-thin heels and tailored suits (sometimes tailored dresses) regardless of what she’s doing, unless she’s running or rowing. Then it’s a skin tight black workout suit.
Obviously these costumes reflect and enhance her characterization, and my friends might say I’m in no position to criticize someone’s attire click, but as with the set design, they distract me. When a viewer is more intrigued by the show’s design than by the characters, there’s something wrong.
And that brings me to Kevin Spacey, an actor I usually admire. In House of Cards he seems to have two notes, sneering contempt and instrumental charm. The former is the major note - he can’t say he wants a cup of tea without scorn dripping from the line. In the later episodes, he rounds out the character a bit, but that over-the-top contempt still dominates. Robin Wright’s character seems more layered than Spacey’s. Doubt and second thoughts sometimes shimmer in her face. She is also considerably less talkative than her husband, and therefore less transparent.
It should be obvious that I preferred West Wing to House of Cards. West Wing is made for me, a left-of-liberal with a fairly positive view of people (in sum: few of us are evil, most do the best we can, but we are led astray by self-interest, ignorance, blind spots, and incompetence).
But I don’t think my preference is only because of my politics and world view. I think it comes down to the difference between character-driven and plot-driven fiction.
The West Wing crew, both major and minor characters, are complex. They grow in each episode. Though I binge-watched the show three months ago, I remember the names of many of the West Wing staff. I finished watching House of Cards just a few weeks ago, but while I can picture the faces, I can only name the two major villains.
House of Cards is all about plot, the more outlandish, the better. Old plots (both stories and dastardly schemes) return from time to time, giving the series continuity and depth. I continued watching to the bitter end because I was curious about what melodrama the writers would devise next. But I sometimes had trouble remembering who did what to whom, and why it mattered.
I think that’s because, while heavy on plot, House of Cards is light on character. Everyone is cynical and ruthless, or a hapless victim, and not much beyond that. Villains are supposed to be more interesting than saints; good guys can be insipid. But villains with no redeeming features are as flat as heroes with no flaws. You can show their vulnerabilities, and throw in some back story to explain how they got that way, but it's not enough.
I am neither cynical nor paranoid (though I sometimes wonder whether Donald Trump was hired by the DNC to destroy the Republicans). I understand that loathsome heroes are currently a popular trend in television series. At the risk of being called a goody two-shoes, I think that consuming large doses of evil as entertainment promotes cynicism and despair.
I don’t have to be inspired, but I do prefer characters with more than one note, and characters I can like, or at least care about. If I’m going to let them into my living room, they should be people I’m willing to hang out with for a while.