As a reporter covering Congress, I would tell someone where I lived and what I did for a living, and they would immediately respond with, "Oh, I love House of Cards!"
Too polite (usually) to roll my eyes, I instead tried to steer the conversation as quickly as possible to Veep, the one fictional show on TV that truly gets the maddening high-speed gridlock that is the nation's capital.
On the surface, the shows that received a combined total of 18 Emmy nominations are two sides of a coin: House of Cards probes the Beltway's ruthless politics through operatic drama, while Veep sends it up in madcap satire. Both shows present D.C. in an unflattering light, a place where cynicism trumps idealism and earnestness in almost every way.
But the comparison is far more lopsided than it appears.
In Veep, characters like Jonah, the sharp-elbowed Bro, Dan, the brown-nosing Alpha male, or Amy, the whip-smart-but-humorless chief of staff, are refreshingly familiar to anyone who has spent time on Capitol Hill. Sure, they are caricatures, but their subtle and not-so-subtle jousting for influence captures a big part of the staffer style in Washington.
The characters in House of Cards, on the other hand, go beyond caricature. They are merely steely-eyed archetypes stripped of distinguishing personalities. Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood is The Politician, Robin Wright is The Political Wife, Michael Kelly as Doug Stamper is The Fixer, Mahershala Ali's Remy Danton is The Lobbyist, and so on.
As the ambitious reporter Zoe Barnes, Kate Mara is the closest thing to a well-rounded character, but like Underwood she is so unlikeable as to be nearly unwatchable.
I have to admit: I initially gave up on House of Cards after just a few episodes. More than the overwrought dialogue and Underwood's distracting and condescending asides to the camera, the plot presented a version of D.C. that was virtually unrecognizable. Even the most aggressively competitive reporter – just to give one notable example – wouldn't show up at a party leader's house in the middle of the night, as Barnes did in the first episode, unless the politician was about to be hauled out in handcuffs. (Nor has anyone in Washington ordered a Long Island Iced Tea in the last 10 years, but I digress...)
When I returned to the show recently, I found that as the first season wore on, it settled into a compelling but entirely conventional soap opera. Just as Showtime's Weeds ditched the tightly-conceived premise of its first season for a series of zany drug wars in far-flung locales, House of Cards scrapped any pretense of dramatically licensed realism in favor of laughably far-fetched plot twists. By the early episodes of the second season, a two-time murderer had ascended to the vice presidency, and a local newspaper editor had turned to criminal hacking to try to expose Underwood's deadly deeds.
All of that is not to say that Veep is realistic. But its biting satire results in a far more recognizable Washington. It starts with its title character, the hilarious, bumbling and yet somehow endearing Selina Meyer. Perhaps even seven or eight years ago, Julia Louis Dreyfus's portrayal would have seemed too much of a stretch. But it is impossible not to see the inspiration of Sarah Palin in Meyer, along with maybe a dash or two of gaffe-prone Joe Biden.
It has been said that House of Cards is the corrupt dystopian vision of D.C. that counters the idealistic utopia presented in The West Wing. But even as its most preachy, The West Wing was a far more vibrant show, its plots sprinkled with scenes of genuine humor and populated with engaging characters that had both strengths and flaws. The one-note House of Cards, by comparison, feels like the famous opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony played on a loop.
House of Cards does get some things right. Its set design is impressive, down to the decor of the congressional offices and the style of the nameplates on the doors. And it correctly captures a new media landscape influenced by Politico and Buzzfeed (er, Slugline) while only somewhat exaggerating the corrosive impact of money on modern politics.
But Veep gets much more of the total picture, and it does so more enjoyably by presenting the capital as folly, not awash in soul-crushing darkness.
It may not make Congress's approval ratings rebound from the gutter, but the truth that Veep captures is that the worst of the worst in Washington are more likely to be buffoons than monsters: Politicians and their aides are probably not killing people in D.C., but they often are shooting themselves in the foot.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.