The Ninjabot

The West Wing and House of Cards Make Politics Depressing

Posted on August 15, 2013 at 12:41 pm by Amanda Andonian


I’m obsessed with The West Wing right now.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve spent every free moment at home watching this show, and I can’t get enough of it. What strikes me the most about The West Wing, though, isn’t just its cast of earnest political elite, but what it says about a period of our history that I think might be over.

About a month before starting on The West Wing, I watched House of Cards on Netflix. The West Wing shows us a White House that’s full of fault and foibles, but at the end of the day, everyone is just trying to do the right thing. House of Cards, on the other hand, gives us back-biting politicians who are only concerned with their own advancement. Any benefit to the public is just a happy coincidence on their rise to power.

martin sheen west wing

Look at those eyes! Just makes you wanna trust him.

While first watching The West Wing, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Would Josh find out that Leo got a DUI during the campaign? Would Toby throw Sam under the bus in order to curry favor with the President???

Nope. None of that happened. Everyone loves each other, sticks their necks out for each other, and they’re trying to make America a better place. Of course, this happy-go-lucky attitude goes by the way side not long after the fourth or fifth season (when creator Aaron Sorkin left the show), but it’s still an idealistic story of politics in Washington nevertheless.

Contrast that with Keven Spacey’s, Francis Underwood, the conniving House Majority Whip with eyes on the Oval Office. His every effort is bent towards attaining that highest position in the nation, and he doesn’t give a crap who he hurts. Comparing the two shows makes me a little sad about the state of our government. I would love to believe that the White House is filled with Josh Lymans and Sam Seaborns, but I fear that it’s actually peopled with the Francis Underwoods of the world.

House of Cards remake

There is some serious blood on those hands.

With 14 years separating the two (which doesn’t seem like an inordinate amount of time to me), I wonder what’s changed so much in society that our political dramas are filled with sleezy politicians instead of hopeful public servants. It seems as though this shift in our entertainment also marks a shift in our attitudes towards government, moving more towards a realpolitik view of things. The point of separation could ostensibly be the Bush Administration— The West Wing is pre-W for the most part, and House of Cards is afterwards. Bush is often viewed as an inept president at best or a warmonger at worst, especially in the entertainment industry, but I don’t believe we can pin the cynicism of a nation on one man.

On the other hand, it may have nothing to do with politics at all. Sorkin tends to elevate his subject matter to god-like proportions. Just take a look at Studio 60 and Newsroom. Both shows approach sketch comedy and news reporting respectively with the same gravitas thatThe West Wing (somewhat justifiably) affords the White House.

ides of march

Another depressing story about politics.

Beau Willimon, who adapted House of Cards from the original BBC drama, had a career in politics before he became a writer. The George Clooney/Ryan Gosling film, The Ides of March, is based on Willimon’s first play, originally billed as, “a classic tale of hubris set against a contemporary landscape – about the lust for power and the costs one will endure to achieve it.” Yup, that sounds exactly like something written by someone who would go on to develop House of Cards.

Comparing the two shows, it makes me feel incredibly sad about the state of the world and the way in which we view it. While it’s true that television following anti-heroes is generally in-vogue right now, why are we so opposed to seeing characters who are generally good and admirable? Is society cynical? Are we just tired of seeing an ideal that we know doesn’t exist? Perhaps what makes me the most depressed about these shows is that I’m fully aware that The West Wing is a fantasy. Yes, so is all television, but I’m more apt to believe that House of Cards is more representative of the way real politics operates than I can believe of The West Wing.

I wonder what it is that makes us feel like we can’t trust government and politics anymore. Whether it’s due to a creator’s influence, the times we live in, or if the age of information has made us less willing to believe. Certainly they don’t give us much to trust in much of the time—with their sex scandals and campaign promises that never quite seem to be fulfilled—but there must have been a time when the people truly believed in the power of government. Right?

So is politics inherently corrupt, or can The West Wing actually exist in real life anymore?

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