Disclaimer: If House of Cards has an official fan club, make me its president.
Saw the season 1 trailer, sold. Saw the viral promo with Kevin Spacey in a Lincoln Memorial pose, sold. I am the cat who unwittingly binged on the groundbreaking Netflix series in one caffeine-hazed weekend night. I kept telling myself I’d hit the sack after one more episode but just kept clicking over to the next one. Twelve hours later, I was as hooked on the seedy Washington, D.C., melodrama as I was on Starz’s Boss, which was, to me, the last great political thriller series that pulled me in and, sadly, saw an early demise.
Real talk? If Netflix released a line of House of Cards action figures, I’d probably collect every one—I’m just short of the kids in this classic 1999 "Jesse Ventura for Governor" campaign ad. And more than likely, I’ll watch the entire Season 2 the same day it’s available for live-streaming, this Friday, Feb. 14.
When Starz let Boss go, I not only mourned the sudden loss of Sanaa Lathan on my TV screen but also cursed those who chose mind-numbing reality shows over well-scripted political dramas. The attempt Boss made at capturing the cesspool antics of municipal political corruption was unmatched. No other show could fill that void, other than old-school Roman politics in classics like Spartacus. Scandal doesn’t do it for me. The Good Wife actually manages to offer clever plot jumps, as does Suits, but they can only take their plotlines—and dialogue—so far on network air.
House of Cards fits my checklist of criteria for authenticity, much like films such as Ides of March, Primary Colors and the wicked masterpiece of South Korean political gangster cinema called New World. It’s a land of intrigue and a spoon of fantasy, where you see white guys having all the fun of running things. There’s a level of keep-it-realism in House of Cards, even in the bizarre flashes of Spacey’s character, Rep. Frank Underwood talking to himself.
Ultimately, the average viewer who doesn’t know the machinations of politics or religiously follow the RealClearPolitics polling average will walk away with a quick primer on political process. Showrunner Beau Willimon and crew somehow merge legislative detail with pop culture—a feat that should get props from any self-respecting flack who complains voters don’t know what really happens in Washington.
Maybe that’s why a lot of white-guy political junkies I either know or writers I read weren’t down with House of Cards. The Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza, for instance, panned the show with three reasons he hated it. But what he and others won’t say is that in House of Cards, we get to see the way white dudes view their political cosmos. Of course, that’s something they’ll never tell you on an episode of Hardball.
It’s a world in which people of color are nicely tucked in as props, sidekicks and staffers. Or the wise but nonthreatening black Yoda character with a mouthful of aphorisms who regularly serves Rep. Underwood a platter of ribs at his tucked-away Northeast D.C. shack amid hipster gentrification. Cards does place characters of color in key political roles: from the Latina chief of staff serving the fictional president of the United States, to self-serving black members of Congress cutting deals with Underwood to, even, the black mayor in Underwood’s home district. But we still have yet to see those characters actually driving the plot or mood in Cards, while its dominant white cast has all the Machiavellian fun.
Don’t get me wrong: Cards is, very admirably, light years ahead of its diverse casting compared to the brilliant original 1990 British BBC House of Cards on which it’s based. While I did another all-nighter watching the Brit series, I was appalled at how the onlly black cast member, Alphonsia Emmanuel, played the political sex toy of white British power brokers.
There’s quiet comedy, certainly, in Willimon’s attempt to balance a story on political process against the need to create actual entertainment.
But the reality of House of Cards—the main reason you should watch it—is in its delicious portrayals of racial politics and how that plays out in political process. Although it lacks stronger casting of color, Mahershala Ali does a nice turn playing nefarious lobbyist and former Underwood staffer Remy Denton, bringing to light the dirty little secret of marginalism suffered by politicos of color who muddle through a competitive campaign, media and advocacy industry landscape.
Hundreds of black and Latino elected officials, operatives, staffers, associates and managers scrape after political glory and influence in city halls, state capitols and on Capitol Hill. Yet few truly make it to the pinnacles of real power like their white peers. Even longtime Congressional Black Caucus dean, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), had to settle for “assistant to the leader” in the House Democratic hierarchy, despite his years of party loyalty. Former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele still got canned even after he engineered the 2010 GOP blitzkrieg that took over Congress and dozens of state legislatures.
House of Cards offers viewers a heavy glimpse into that world. It’s the great racial paradox of our politics: Even in the age of a black president, is what it is.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and frequent contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. You can reach him via Twitter.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.