Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Beautiful Room in a Beautiful House

Simultaneously watching the third season of House of Cards and the second season of The West Wing is a jarring study in contrast. The magnificence that is Netflix has brought forth this comparison. In years past, one would have had to have a cable subscription and change channels on an old timey remote control in order to create this kind of dichotomy. Not so anymore. And while on the surface these shows have a similar premise, each follows a president and White House staff as they navigate the travails of presidential politics, they are strikingly dissimilar. The shows do share one argument: being president requires that you must strike a classic pose: fists on the desk in the Oval Office, contemplating the important decision of the hour.
An open fisted variation on the pose

House of Cards presents a bleak view of the United States government. President Underwood is a proudly despicable individual whose top priority is gaining and keeping power. And he surrounds himself with staff that is as unsympathetically robotic and unfeeling as the next. In this world, the only way to get what you want (and don’t mistake that for what the country needs) is to literally lie, cheat, steal and kill. I must say, I do wonder if the reason the worldview on House of Cards is so bleak is because it is literally dark and grey at the White House. Can we get some lights or some brighter colors in the White House? I have to turn on the spotlights when I watch just to make out which grey silhouette is on the screen at any given time.

The West Wing, on the other hand, is illustrative of a government where those in it at least have the goal of affecting positive change for someone other than themselves. The characters, though they are often hardheaded, still have a human bone in their body that an audience can identify with. The West Wing’s offices are more brightly lit so that probably explains the different direction of this show. In the interest of full disclosure, I am only on the second season, so perhaps President Bartlet is soon to push a reporter into the path of an oncoming subway, but so far The West Wing is generally a less terrifying version of the White House. 

Of course, these shows were born in different times. When The West Wing premiered in 1999, the United States was in a pre-September 11th, pre-recession state of relative calm. The world has spun a few times on its’ axis since then. For that reason, these shows were bound to have differences. But I still find it fascinating that two shows that have the same basic premise can be so completely different. 

And yet, I am obsessed with both. Not sure what that says about me.