Film and drama

Screen Themes: House of Cards vs The West Wing

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This week, entertainment editor John Turnbull looks at two of the great political TV dramas of our time — the fast talking West Wing and the morally ambiguous House of Cards.

IT IS A POPULARLY ACCEPTED FACT that television drama has never been better. Since HBO re-invented the genre with The Sopranos and Deadwood, a combination of talented writers, a-list actors and decent budgets have produced programs as diverse and entertaining as Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Mad Men.

The West Wing

Created by Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing tells the story of the White House under President Jed Bartlett, a decent and honourable man. Martin Sheen brings a weary gravitas to the role, supported by an ensemble cast of quality actors playing good, decent people.

Running for a total of seven years before falling ratings and departing stars made continuing production untenable, the West Wing was a drama for adults that didn’t have to resort to Dynasty-style shock tactics to be compelling.

Former brat packer Rob Lowe was a major drawcard in early seasons, playing deputy director of communications Sam Seaborn. When an ill-considered move back to movies beckoned, Lowe was replaced by virtual unknown Joshua Malina, the role slightly diminished to make room for more Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford and Richard Schiff, a trio of accomplished actors adept at delivering director Sorkin's signature rapid-fire dialogue.

It was this dialogue that became the hallmark of The West Wing, as it has in Sorkin’s follow up series The Newsroom. The clipped delivery and overlapping lines scream that this is important stuff, people — you need to pay full attention to follow what’s going on.

As with any series that runs for seven seasons, quality became variable over the last couple of years.

Creator Sorkin left after series four and the passing of series stalwart John Spencer (who played chief of staff, Leo McGarry) in 2005 was a sad note on the inevitable run towards the end;  like any presidential term, The West Wing couldn’t last forever.

House of Cards

(Produced by Beau Willimon.)

Based on the UK drama of the same name, which in turn was based on the 1989 novel by Michael Dobbs, House of Cards tells the story of one man’s rise to power driven by pragmatism and ruthless ambition.

If the West Wing is an idealised, optimistic version of White House politics, House of Cards is its dark, nihilistic mirror. After only two seasons, HoC has garnered multiple award nominations and won Kevin Spacey a well-deserved Emmy for his portrayal as political climber Frank Underwood. Spacey’s Frank is a master tactician, a ruthless pragmatist and an absolute bastard when the situation calls for it. He strides the political stage like a panther, ready to pounce at the first sign of weakness.

Frank’s main confidante and sometime antagonist is his wife Claire, played by Robin Wright in a career-defining performance. Claire is a creature every bit as ruthless as her husband, willing to abandon alliances and betray long-term friends in service of her grand ambition. It is testament to the writers and the talent of Wright that Claire is often the most sympathetic character in the show, even after she has committed morally repugnant acts with only the smallest flicker of remorse.

Frank’s chief threat is the discovery of his heinous acts by the ever-present media pack, assisted by masters of spin and loyal staffers willing to give up their lives in service of their duplicitous master. The media landscape in the show reflects the real world, with long-established newspapers struggling to maintain relevance and readership in the face of more nimble online competition.

There is a bubbling undercurrent of sexuality that runs through House of Cards, typified by Frank and Claire’s open relationship and the intoxicating lure of power that Frank exercises over Kate Mara’s reporter Zoe Barnes through the first season. Sex is used as a weapon and a gambling chip, a constant reminder that everyone has a weakness.

Inspired by Spacey’s towering stage performance as Richard IV (or possibly by Ferris Bueller), Frank often breaks the fourth wall, addressing the viewer directly. This is a conceit that works well because it is used sparingly, and is particularly effective when Frank is at his darkest ebb, looking frantically for someone to step on to keep his head above the muck.

With only two seasons so far HoC hasn’t had the chance to fade in quality (which generally happens around the fourth or fifth season) and is likely to be remembered as one of the greatest political TV shows of all time.

The Verdict

If you think politicians are basically good people, working long hours with a dedicated team for the benefit of their constituents, then The West Wing is probably for you.

If you’re more of a realist, and think that politicians are mostly out for their own interests and will say whatever they think people want to hear, House of Cards will be more up your alley.

Both series benefit from the binge watching afforded by DVD, but The West Wing strikes me as something you might buy your dad to watch when he retires. The politics in the series is almost ten years out of date, while House of Cards is painstakingly current — the date in the show aligns closely to when it is broadcast on TV.

House of Cards is one of those shows that your friends will watch and want to talk about immediately — get on board now to avoid painful spoilers!

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