Tonawanda News

March 5, 2014

The lesson behind 'House of Cards'

By Eric DuVall
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Why is it people love politics in every instance but actual politics?

Office gossip? That’s politics and we love swapping tidbits with coworkers about the manager or coworker we don’t like.

Sunday night was the Oscars. How do you think those awards are chosen? There’s months of intense lobbying by studios, executives, agents — all for a little golden statue. And 43.7 million of us watched the outcome with rapt attention.

Pro sports is every bit as political. Which player, coach, executive signs where, gets hired, fired, traded, elbowed to the sidelines — that’s entirely political. 

Take the Buffalo Sabres: The firing of Darcy Regier, hiring of Ted Nolan, hiring and resignation of Pat LaFontaine, trading Ryan Miller? It’s sports politics of the highest order — and while the Sabres look like a tire fire right now, fans haven’t talked this much about the team in years. I haven’t heard a single person in any of it say “I’m fed up.” We’re all far too busy debating all the cloak-and-dagger palace intrigue.

Anytime a group of people come together to decide who deserves something and how to go about doing it, it’s inherently political. People with more influence exert their authority in ways appropriate and not, to influence the outcome in their preferred way.

I was off last week. I spent much of it bundled up on the couch binge watching the Netflix original series “House of Cards.”

Regular readers of this column probably know by now my favorite TV show of all time is “The West Wing.” “House of Cards” is the anti-West Wing. Martin Sheen starred in “The West Wing” as the uber-virtuous, President Josiah Bartlet, the Nobel laureate economist, arch liberal whose unwavering leadership and commitment to do the right thing makes for inspirational viewing.

Toss all that squishy idealism out the window in “House of Cards.” It stars Kevin Spacey as evil political mastermind Frank Underwood and Robin Wright as his equally devious and cold wife, Claire. 

In the opening episode of season two, Claire is confronted by a former employee at her environmental advocacy firm who’s suing after being fired. Claire has cut off the pregnant woman’s health insurance as retribution, delivering to her the most vindictive line of dialogue I’ve heard in quite some time with a bone-chilling calm: “I’m willing to let the baby inside you wither and die.”

Absurd? Of course. And absurdly entertaining. 

Part of the show’s appeal to the online streaming public is reveling in our general dislike of politicians by pretending they’re over-the-top villains bent on world domination and the destruction of anyone or anything that gets in their way.

It strikes me as incredibly hypocritical that people are enraptured by the fictional antics of two political villains on “House of Cards” but find the by-comparison tame sport of actual politicking tasteless, crass, evil.

Of course, one is fiction and one is very much reality. But the comparison exists. We delight in fictional deviousness while turning our noses up at the real politicians working the system to run our country.

Politics has turned into a dirty word in our society. 

I guess my point is a simple one: It doesn’t always have to be. The body politic is only as dirty as the people doing the politicking — whether it be at the office water cooler or in the halls of Congress. Depending on the context it can illicit a wide range of reactions — frustration, disgust, curiosity, borderline obsession, a siren song to jump in the fray.

If the Underwoods have taught me anything it’s that politics, real or fiction, is what we make of it.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.