During its run, the political drama The West Wing was a full throated, idealistic defense of liberal government and a hero-worship of our national leaders, despite the actual wheeling and dealing over partisan politics playing out on Capitol Hill. While much hasn't changed in D.C. since The West Wing last aired, recent political dramas have caught up to the ways in which Washington really works. This is on display in Netflix's new series, produced by Media Rights Capital, House of Cards, where the ideology has been left on the back burner, and the gap is narrowed between what we see in real life and what viewers will see on their screens.
House of Cards introduces us to Majority Whip Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), who has been snubbed by the president he helped elect, and passed over for the office of Secretary of State, a role he was promised but has been awarded to (in his mind) a lesser political animal. The betrayal launches Francis into a multi-player operation of deceit and manipulation; he insists it's not revenge, but a "bigger plan" of capturing the power that is owed to him. Joining him is partner-in-crime Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a young and hungry journalist happy to play media puppet for Francis's message in return for the fame and glory of major scoops and front page bylines. Together, they meticulously undermine the president's administration, while funneling political and media influence to their advantage.
For avid fans of The West Wing, House of Cards can come off as a little cynical, even in this extreme era of petty and partisan politics. But writer and creator Beau Willimon doesn't see it this way. "I think [House of Cards is] realistic," says Willimon, who also wrote the play Farragut North, and co-wrote its big screen adaptation, The Ides of March. "I think we have unrealistic expectations for our politicians. We expect them to be bastions of moral integrity on the one hand, and on the other hand we want them to be effective leaders. And to be effective leaders, you often have to do things that are morally abhorrent to the rest of us."
Willimon has worked on a number of campaigns, starting with New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer's 1998 campaign, but never considered a long-term career in politics, choosing rather to pursue writing. He kept in touch with the many strategists he met along the way, who now help him recreate the Washington insider feel of the show (it's filmed in Maryland). Jay Carson, who brought Willimon onto the Schumer campaign when they were seniors in college, serves as a political consultant for the show.
House of Cards's supporting cast is anchored by some B-list stars of its own. Robin Wright, in a severe blond bob and with a figure cut like a knife, is Francis's icy wife, Claire, who equals—maybe exceeds—him in ambition and cunning. Janine Skorsy (Constance Zimmer, maybe best known as Dana Gordon from Entourage) is a veteran reporter incredulous of Zoe's sudden success. Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) is a younger congressman, too busy juggling his staffer girlfriend, drug and prostitute addiction, and narrow-sighted naiveté to realize he is being exploited by Francis.
"The way I see politics is, I don't think it's cynical to accept the fact are politicians are human beings, that they're flawed, and they represent the best and the worst of us," says Willimon, and in all their flaws, House of Cards's characters are fascinating to watch.
Francis often speaks directly to the camera, a la early Carrie Bradshaw, lecturing his audience on the wisdom of Washington. His asides are heavy on cliché political platitudes, like this trite line, "Power is a lot like real estate, it's all about location, location, location." But Spacey is irresistible on the role. Conniving and cold, viewers are left to wonder how a man so slippery ever got elected in the first place. Yet when the moment calls, he turns on the charm, entrancing political allies and enemies alike.
"If you speak of a hero purely in moralistic terms, then I guess Francis is an antihero," says Willimon. "Yet at the same time, what he offers you is something a lot of the goody two-shoes don't, which is absolute honesty. And I think that's as refreshing as it is delicious."
To watch Francis's wiles is addictive, so luckily for viewers, the show's entire first season will be available for instant streaming for Netflix subscribers.
"We'd always talked about it as though it were a 13-hour movie," say Willimon, even though Netflix did not decide on the "binge-watch" model until much of the work on the show had been done. In the press preview, each episode picks up exactly where the last left off, with only the opening credits—a stunning sequence of Washington time-lapses—breaking up the momentum.
"I think audiences are growing more and more to expect that they have complete control of their viewing experiences, that's the direction things are headed, so why not give it to them?"
Netflix also guaranteed two seasons, giving the filmmakers plenty of room to untangle House of Cards's intricate narrative. Though completed months ago, early episodes take a Chuck Hagel-ian twist: a plot line emerges about a Cabinet nominee whose confirmation is thrown in to disarray after accusations of anti-Semitism. "It's eerie, I wish I could claim that we were prophetic. We got lucky," says Willimon, quickly clarifying, "Well, it's not lucky for Obama or the country per se."
"We're looking at history, were looking at what's happening now, and we try the best we can to perceive where things might be going. But our goal is never to rip things from the headlines or try to comment in any way specifically something happening in the here and now," he says. "Sometimes things just align."
House of Cards will be available for Netflix members to stream instantly beginning February 1.
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Updated on 1/29/2013: This story have been updated to reflect that House of Cards was produced by Media Rights Capital.